Before a crowd of more than 24,000 activists, health workers and researchers from more than 132 countries at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto Aug. 13-18, Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, announced to the crowd what African-American HIV activists have been saying for decades: 'It is time for the African-American community to face the fact that AIDS has become a Black disease.'
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC ) , African Americans account for half of all new HIV cases. With African Americans comprising no more than 13 percent of the U.S. population, 61 percent of us under the age of 25 have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS between 2001 and 2004.
Equally alarming is that HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American women between the ages of 25 and 44, according to the CDC, with the primary mode of transmission being heterosexual contact followed by IV drug use.
At the 'Women and Response to AIDS' panel at the conference, Sheila Johnson, founder of the Crump-Johnson Foundation in Washington D.C., pointed out that another at-risk population in the African-American community is teenage girls.
Seventeen percent of the U.S. teen population is African-American, with 70 percent of Black teens testing HIV-positive. One in 10 African-American teenage girls test HIV-positive in the nation's capital, the highest percentage in the country among this age group.
When asked why such a high percentage test positive, Johnson said, 'As long as girls see themselves as glorified sex objects in hip-hop videos, HIV/AIDS will increase within this population.'
With African Americans at younger and younger ages being infected with the AIDS virus, the life expectancy rate of African Americans will decline. Soon we will no longer expect today's young African Americans to become the elders of the community.
The third cause of death among African-American men is AIDS, and the primary mode of HIV transmission among them is having sexual contact with other men, followed by heterosexual contact and IV drug use. And HIV/AIDS among Black male inmates is five times the rate of the general population and transmitted primarily through male-to-male sex or tattooing.
Are these statistics overwhelming?
So too is the anemic leadership African Americans have faced since the epidemic began 25 years ago.
'The story of AIDS in America is mostly one of a failure to lead, and nowhere is this truer than in our Black communities' said Bond.
But where would the leadership on HIV/AIDS come from? Our African-American lawmakers?
While a few of our local African-American elected officials and the Congressional Black Caucus have spoken up about the AIDS epidemic in the Black community, the non-involvement by the majority of them has been scandalous.
Some Black officials say that their inattention to HIV/AIDS is because they are overwhelmed by the bigger and more important problems affecting inner-city urban life such as crime, gang warfare, homelessness, drugs and poverty.
For example, today the Rev. Jesse Jackson, chairman of the Rainbow Push Coalition, is in support of addressing the AIDS epidemic in the Black community: 'We have also been a compliant victim, submitting through inaction. It is now time for us to fight AIDS like the major civil rights issue it is.'
But in 1992, the HIV/AIDS issue was not perceived as a priority by Jackson, albeit an epidemic even then in the Black community.
'AIDS has had to compete with other crises,' Mr. Jackson said in an interview back then. 'AIDS is in the competition for the champion crisis in a community that has been abandoned. AIDS is working its way up to be a priority.'
Also while some Black elected officials have voted for money for AIDS programs, they have generally resisted providing the leadership needed to mobilize Black and Hispanic groups to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS.
But let's confront the elephant in the Black community, by telling the truth and shaming the devil.
The biggest problem that Black lawmakers have had to confront concerning the HIV/AIDS crisis in their communities is the political gag order imposed on them by their voting constituency's homophobia and animus toward any discussion of the disease.
Would the leadership to HIV/AIDS come from the Black Church?
'I grew up in the Black Church,' Dr. David Satcher, former Surgeon General and Assistant Secretary for Health, told The New York Times in 1998. 'I think the church has problems with the lifestyle of homosexuality. A real problem has been getting ministers that are even willing to talk about it in their pulpits.'
However, when it comes to the Black Church and HIV/AIDS, I am always reminded of what my mayor in Cambridge, Mass., Ken Reeves, who is both African-American and gay, told The Washington Blade in March 1998 during a two-day Harvard University HIV/AIDS conference: 'African-American male ministers over 40 are a tough nut to crack. If we wait for the Black Church on this, we'll all be dead.'
To date, the epidemic has claimed over 200,000 lives.
The Black Church now understands there is a problem. However, because of its discomfort in addressing issues related to sexuality, the Black Church's 'outstretched hand,' when extended, is offered passively toward people who contracted the virus through IV-drug use and not those who contracted HIV/AIDS sexually.
African Americans are bearing the brunt of this epidemic.
'Because of poverty, ignorance, and prejudice, AIDS has been allowed to stalk and kill Black America like a serial killer,' Jackson said.
As African Americans, we need a new vision .We need to exorcise our unrelenting hysteria, ignorance, and homophobia surrounding AIDS.
If we don't heed to the admonition in Proverbs 29:18 — 'Where there is no vision, the people perish' — then we will have participated in our own genocide.