With World AIDS Day still on the minds of many, it’s important to take a moment to reflect back on the many people from our culture who paved the way for HIV/AIDS awareness to become what it is today, from undetectable status to fully cured in some cases.
Some are still with us, and sadly we’ve lost many along the way to the virus, but never will we forget the example they set — caution, hope, survival and strength are just some of what is felt when considering the Black pioneers in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
When the virus first became a public epidemic in the early ’80s, many were quick to classify it as a “gay disease” believed to only be circulating amongst gay men in metropolitan areas. The new season of American Horror Story: NYC ironically is a flawed-yet-very-timely fictional glimpse into the real-life mayhem during that era. In just a few years, that myth was quickly debunked though when the virus impacted the entire Black community with devastating results. To put that in perspective, 50% of all pediatric AIDS cases in 1984 alone were among African Americans according to the CDC.
Current stats have shown that we still have much work to do, with African Americans having the highest rates of HIV infection in the nation compared to any other race. Still, we are in a far greater place than where things were in the past, and it’s because of the work of those bravely fighting the disease in public in addition to the ones fighting on their behalf as advocates.
With so much respect in our hearts, we salute these 7 pioneers in Black HIV/AIDS awareness as we help continue the fight to end the disease in 2022 and beyond:
1. Alvin Ailey
The 1989 death of Alvin Ailey was one of the first AIDS-related losses to the disease on a public scale, but even back then the stigma was so thick that doctors initially classified it as “terminal blood dyscrasia.” Losing the beloved Ailey was a first glimpse at the harsh reality that no one was exempt when the spread of HIV/AIDS was at its peak.
2. Earvin “Magic” Johnson
Magic Johnson, a pillar of heteronormative masculinity amongst Black men in specific, shocked the world in 1991 with his early NBA retirement after surprisingly announcing that he’d contracted HIV. His initial diagnosis, and miracle journey over the years to maintain undetectable status, is truly one of the most inspiring stories for those living with HIV/AIDS.
3. Arthur Ashe
The tennis icon was another example of a sports hero contracting HIV/AIDS, but sadly he succumbed to the virus in 1993 after five years of knowingly living with it. He used those last few years however to advocate heavily through his Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.
4. Rae Lewis Thornton
Giving a face to Black women living with HIV/AIDS, the personal testimony of Rae Lewis Thornton for the December 1994 cover story of Essence Magazine set forth a path that even led to her winning an Emmy Award. Thornton’s bravery in facing what she initially saw as a death sentence has brought her a new hope today as she continues to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS.
5. The 1998 Congressional Black Caucus
Led in part by the incomparable Rep. Maxine Waters — she was stylish even back then! — the 1998 Congressional Black Caucus led an impactful hour-long discussion at the House to discuss the growing AIDS crisis within the African-American community. Where better to bring the conversation than to the nation’s doorstep?
You can still watch it by clicking here.
6. Reggie Williams
The late Reggie Williams will always be remembered for possessing an eccentric spirit in the Black gay community while also fighting tooth and nail for his people to have relevant AIDS education. Through his primary work as executive director of the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention, Williams has established a legacy of change that still continues on in his memory.
7. Dr. Dorothy Height
In April 2009, iconic civil rights activist Dr. Dorothy Height stood before The White House during the unveiling of its Act Against AIDS campaign and stressed that we as a community, “talk about HIV, as we talk about jobs, as we talk about housing, as we talk about civil rights.” She would pass on just a year later at the age of 98, but her words still ring true even today.
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