Facing up to HIV/AIDS: authors lift the veil on complex issues surrounding pandemic in Africa and black America.
December 1, 2004, is World AIDS Day, an international appeal for accurate and timely information about the issues surrounding this devastating epidemic. New books are helping to fill that void, including several that address HIV/AIDS in African American communities and on the African continent. We asked novelist Pearl Cleage, who has written on this subject, to assess a handful of the books.
When Ava Johnson, the main character of my first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (William Morrow and Company, December 1997), is diagnosed with HIV, her surprise mirrored that of a generation caught off guard by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
That, of course, was intentional. I wanted to believe that by getting to know Ava, my outspoken, independent, achingly romantic narrator, from the safe distance that fiction allows, some of my readers might be moved to a higher level of sensitivity to the presence of people all around us, meeting the challenge of HIV/AIDS. My book is dedicated to my friend Bill Bagwell because he's the one who made AIDS personal for me. He died of AIDS on June 21, of the year 2000, almost 20 years after news of the virus began showing up in the mainstream media.
HIV/AIDS has become an unavoidable part of our lives, as citizens of a world that now includes more than 40 million people infected with HIV. It is almost impossible to grasp the magnitude of the situation, but Susan Hunter's introduction to her book Black Death: AIDS in Africa gives us an idea:
"HIV/AIDS is fast becoming the worst human disease disaster the world has ever seen. Although still in its infancy, it is clear now that in the next ten to fifteen years, AIDS will claim more lives than any other human epidemic ever recorded. Even if a cure is found tomorrow, AIDS is triggering a disaster worse than any the human race has ever known. By 2010, its death toll will be higher than that of the two world wars combined, and it will soon be worse than the total claimed by all wars put together ... There is simply nothing left to compare it to, no scale of human suffering and devastation against which this terrible plague can possibly be measured.... AIDS is not a future threat, it is destabilizing our entire planet right now and will have far worse consequences than any event a terrorist could ever invent."
Education is the biggest part of prevention, so staying informed is no longer a choice. It is a responsibility. AIDS activists often remind us of two things that are worth repeating here. First, that we must fight AIDS, not people with AIDS. And second, that silence equals death. They're right on both counts. Think about AIDS. Talk about AIDS. Read about AIDS. This list gives you a place to start.
The aWake Project: Uniting Against the African AIDS Crisis Edited by Jenny Eaton and Kate Etue W Publishing Group, October 2002 $14.99, ISBN 0-849-94409-0
The editors have compiled a moving anthology of articles, essays, letters mad speeches from people ranging from Nelson Mandela to rock star Bono and back to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Black Death: AIDS in Africa by Susan Hunter Palgrave/Macmillan, November 2003 $29.95, ISBN 1-403-96244-8
A medical anthropologist-demographer who has worked on the AIDS epidemic in 24 countries for the past 15 years, Hunter offers a brilliant examination of the AIDS pandemic--past, present and frightening future. Hunter weaves the history of African colonialism, evidence of the drug companies' reluctance to provide medication in poor countries and stories from her own work in the field into an engrossing book.
The Children of Africa Confront AIDS Edited by Arvind Singhal and W. Stephen Howard, Ohio University Press October 2003, $20., ISBN 0-896-80232-9
In Zimbabwe, 45 percent of children under the age of five are HIV positive. A 15-year-old in South Africa has a one in two chance of dying of AIDS. In Botswana and Baltimore, from Beijing to New Delhi, to New York City, children of the world are suffering a calamity for which they are not responsible. From the pages of this book, their voices cry out clearly. The question we must ask ourselves is, who will answer?
Global AIDS: Myths and Facts Tools for Fighting the AIDS Pandemic by Alexander Irwin, Joyce Miller and Dorothy Fallows, South End Press November 2002, $19., ISBN 0-896-08674-7
An invaluable resource, Global AIDS offers information and analysis to incite readers to action. Informative, passionate, global in scope, often political in tone, the book balances the text with personal stories that bring the crisis home. The book contains a wealth of notes and further readings, as well as a list of "Resources for Activism."
Living With HIV/AIDS: The Black Person's Guide to Survival by Eric Goosby, M.D., Hilton Publishing Company, Inc., September 2002 $16.95, ISBN 0-971-60670-6
This straightforward, beautifully non-judgmental book gives accessible advice on prevention, medical care, treatment options, stress relief, sexual activity, pregnancy and personal responsibility.
Notorious H.I.V.: The Media Spectacle of Nushawn Williams by Thomas Shevory, University of Minnesota Press, March 2004 $18.96, ISBN 0-816-64339-3
A professor of politics at Ithaca College, Shevory tackles an explosive topic, but remains decidedly academic ha tone. His subject is a young black HW-positive man who knowingly infected residents in Chautauqua County, New York. The national media called him an "AIDS predator" and aired interviews with his victims, many of them young, white women. A public health disaster, the case became part of what Shevory identifies as the increasing criminalization of people who are HIV infected.
The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America by Jacob Levenson Pantheon Books, February 2004 $25., ISBN 0-375-42175-0
Levenson skillfully weaves personal stories into a narrative filled with information about the day-to-day challenges of health and social workers, as well as families. Passionate and provocative, the author says he believes the nation's "unbridgeable racial chasm ... lies at the bottom of the black and white failure to stop the spread of this epidemic." This book is an important part of crossing that divide.
OTHER NOTEWORTHY TITLES
The Invisible People: How the U.S. Has Slept Through the Global AIDS Pandemic, the Greatest Humanitarian Catastrophe of Our Time by Greg Behrman, Free Press May 2004, $25., ISBN 0-743-25755-3
Behrman, coordinator for the Council on Foreign Relations Roundtable on Improving U.S. Global AIDS Policy, draws from more than 200 interviews, especially with key political insiders, policymakers and thinkers, to give an account of the red tape that has allowed America to hobble along in its steps to addressing the AIDS crisis.
On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep With Men by J.L. King, Broadway Books, April 2004 $21.95, ISBN 0-767-91398-1
According to King, this lifestyle is widespread in the African American community and includes behaviors that put these men, and the women, at very high risk for HIV/AIDS.
Surrender to Heal: 7 Ways to Rise Above the Battlefield of Life by Reggie Smith, Sameboat Publishing March 2004, $14.99, ISBN 1-565-92197-6
In the self-published book, Smith, who was diagnosed with AIDS more than 16 years ago, shares his story of taking charge to live life to the fullest. The book can be ordered online at www.sameboat.tv.
Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta-based writer whose new novel, Babylon Sisters will be published by One World/ Ballantine in the spring of 2005.