By Phill Wilson
Last week I attended the Essence Music festival, where I saw Jennifer Hudson perform her new song “I Remember Me”. Before she sang she reminded the audience that none of us were there 10 years ago. We didn’t know the Jennifer Hudson before the fame. Nobody in her life was around to remember her from that period. She has to do that for herself. Loosely paraphrasing, Jennifer Hudson was saying: “If I remember me, if the success and celebrity all go away, I can still survive. And, if I remember that little Black girl sitting on the stoop on the south side of Chicago, some little Black girl somewhere will hear me and know that no matter how bad her reality might be today, it doesn’t have to be that way forever—trouble don’t last always.”
I think it is an important lesson. While I have lots of people—parents, siblings, extended family, and family friends—who remember me from my childhood, should I forget for a second where I came from, I find it helpful to remember that skinny little Black boy sitting on the stoop in Altgeld Gardens on the far South side of Chicago, or that still skinny and scared kid at Club Baths in 1981, who did who did not have a clue about how to protect himself or that there was anything out there that he needed protection from—least of all HIV. I remember that young gay man sitting in his car in the parking lot of the Ed Edelman clinic in 1985, crying after finding out he was HIV-positive and thinking that he would be dead in six months.
I remember me. Do you remember you?
Every day I struggle to understand why Black people aren’t more concerned about HIV/AIDS than we are. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report, nearly 60 percent of Black Americans know someone living with HIV/AIDS or has died from the disease. A similar percentage of Black folk are afraid that one of our children will get infected with the virus.
I get why AIDS is not a high priority for other ethnic racial groups: They think with the exception of Africa the AIDS epidemic is over. But it should be a top priority for us. Could it be that we think AIDS only impacts poor people, young people, gay and bisexual people—that is to say, the “least” of us?
In addition to seeing Jennifer Hudson at Essence, I also saw Charlie Wilson perform. After his heyday as lead singer with the Gap band, he got addicted to drugs and alcohol and became homeless. Today, he’s been sober for almost 20 years and has become a big star again. New Edition is also making a comeback, and El Debarge is getting a Second Chance at success, as the title of his new album notes.
No matter what type of difficulty or tragedy we’ve experienced in our life, all of us can begin again. And no matter how successful we become, there is value in remembering where we came from and those still trapped there, including people living with HIV and AIDS.
Don’t get me wrong, we are making progress. In partnership with our Greater Than AIDS campaign, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and the Black AIDS Institute tested nearly 1000 people for HIV at this year’s Essence Music festival. But it has never been more important for us to get involved in fighting HIV/AIDS. We have the tools to end the AIDS epidemic as we know it. We know how to diagnose those who are infected, identify the communities most heavily affected, prevent transmission, and prevent acquisition of the virus if we take action. Dramatically expanding HIV testing and linkages to care are critical steps toward that end.
We don’t have to worry that our children will become infected. We have the power and the ability to dramatically change the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic in our communities. But it will require each of us taking action. Yes, it will require for me to remember me and for you to remember you. But most importantly, it will require for us to remember each other.
Phill Wilson is the President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, the only National HIV/AIDS think tank in the United States focused exclusively on Black people. He can be reached at PhillWilson@BlackAIDS.org.