The NAACP, National Urban League and other civil rights groups have launched a major new effort to fight AIDS and homophobia within the African-American community. We speak with the executive director of the Black AIDS Institute that is spearheading the initiative. [includes rush transcript]
The NAACP, National Urban League and other civil rights groups have launched a major new effort to fight AIDS and homophobia within the African-American community.
AIDS is now the top national cause of death for African-American women between the ages 25 to 34 and it is a leading cause of death for black men.
On Monday, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said AIDS must be seen as a "black disease." Bond joined actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, filmmaker Bill Duke, and Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee to back a "National Call to Action and Declaration of Commitment to End the AIDS Epidemic in Black America." Spearheading the initiative is the Black AIDS Institute.
- Phill Wilson, founder and executive director of the Black AIDS Institute.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, NAACP Chair Julian Bond, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, filmmaker Bill Duke, and Congressmember Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee gathered in Toronto to back a "National Call to Action and Declaration of Commitment to End the AIDS Epidemic in Black America." Spearheading the initiative is the Black AIDS Institute. The group’s founder and executive director is Phill Wilson. He is from Los Angeles, joins us now in the studio in Toronto. Welcome to Democracy Now!
PHILL WILSON: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First, Phill, before we talk about this initiative that you’ve spearheaded, can you describe the scene in Toronto, where you are now, how this conference is actually happening, what it looks like and feels like?
PHILL WILSON: Well, we’re at the Toronto Convention Center. Right now, we’re actually in the Global Village area. It’s an area that has extended the reach of the conference to include the entire community of Toronto, in fact all of Canada. It’s the part of the conference where, whether you’re registered or not, you can participate. There’s workshops and symposiums. There’s all sorts of ways to interact with the delegates.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the initiative that you’re spearheading?
PHILL WILSON: Well, you know, we’re 25 years into this epidemic, and in the intervening years since Dr. Michael Gottlieb identified this strange disease among five of his white gay male patients, AIDS is no longer white, no longer gay, no longer predominantly male. And in America today, AIDS is a Black disease. No matter how you look at it, through the lens of gender or sexual orientation or age or socioeconomic class or AIDS education or region of the country where you live, Black folks bear the brunt of the epidemic, as you said in the lead. And 650,000 Black Americans are now living with AIDS, more than ever before, nearly 50% of all Americans living with AIDS. We represent 54% of the new HIV/AIDS cases in the country. Among young people, that number is 63%. Among women, it’s a shocking nearly 70%. The CDC released data last year implying that quite possibly nearly 50% of Black gay and bisexual men in some of our urban cities may already be HIV-positive.
To put that into context in this global forum, there is no place else on the planet where we see HIV rates approaching 50%. And so, what we’re saying is enough is enough already. Now we’re 25 years into this. Do we need to go another 25 years, where the only place you’ll find Black people are in places called the "colored museum"? And so now, Black leaders all over America are making a declaration of commitment and asking for a call to action. We’re committing to reversing the AIDS epidemic in Black America in the next five years.
AMY GOODMAN: Phill Wilson, how did you get involved with this issue?
PHILL WILSON: Actually, the issue got involved in me. I’ve been living with HIV for 25 years, full-blown AIDS for 15 years. In 1981, I went to my doctor, and he saw I had swollen lymph nodes. And he had read this MMWR that had talked about swollen lymph nodes. At that time, he took a biopsy. There wasn’t really any information. Two weeks later, one of my friends who played on a baseball team with me was dead now, and we were off to the races.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you say 1981?
PHILL WILSON: 1981, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: A quarter of a century ago?
PHILL WILSON: Basically half of my life. I don’t remember not living with HIV at this point. And over the last 25 years, I’ve lost count of how many of my friends and loved ones have died from the disease, including my first partner of ten years, Chris Brownlie; countless friends, like Reggie Williams. You know, at one point every photograph in my house, where there was more than one person, if I was in the photograph, I was the only person left alive. I don’t want to see that continue. I have two children, who are now young adults, and I think that we have a responsibility to make sure that our children and our children’s children don’t have to deal with this.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Phill Wilson, you, yourself living with HIV, how do you maintain your health?
PHILL WILSON: Well, I maintain my health, because I have the love and support of family and friends. I have unconditional love of my parents and my siblings. I have access to the best health care the planet has to offer. But I am the exception to the rule. Most people who look like me, whether or not they live in Soweto or South Central Los Angeles or they live in Johannesburg, you know, don’t have access to the best health care. They often don’t have access to the love and support of family and friends.
We still get calls from young people who just found out that they’re HIV-positive, you know, who don’t know what to do, who are more afraid of the stigma than they are of disease. We still get calls from Black mothers who are dealing with the grief and the guilt of having lost a child to HIV and AIDS, who they could not reconcile the fact that they discarded that child. They rejected that child. And they never had a chance to mend those relationships.
AMY GOODMAN: Phill Wilson, AIDS is now the top national cause of death for African American women between the ages of 25 and 34. I think most people would be surprised in this country to learn this. Julian Bond, Chair of the NAACP, pledges to make AIDS the next chapter in the NAACP’s decades of advocacy for access to quality health care among African Americans. When you come back from Toronto, exactly how is this going to happen?
PHILL WILSON: Well, a number of ways. First of all, we’ve set specific measurable goals and objectives. Our goal, number one, is to dramatically reduce the HIV/AIDS rates in Black America; to increase the percentage of African Americans living with HIV who know their HIV status — it’s estimated between 25% and 50% of Americans living with HIV don’t even know it; that number is probably higher in Black America — to increase the number of people who are in early, appropriate HIV treatment and care.
National civil rights organizations, national fraternities and sororities, national organizations all over America are called to do a number of things, including hire and appoint a national AIDS coordinator in their organization to set out a five-year strategic action plan that they evaluate every year; to set out national HIV testing goals and objectives every year; to incorporate HIV messages in their national gatherings, in their communication mechanisms, like their websites and their newspapers; to incorporate HIV and AIDS in their policy agenda, so they’re talking about it in their advocacy efforts.
You know, basically what we’re saying is, is there a role for the government to play? Absolutely. Is our government playing the role that they should be playing? Absolutely not. Is there a role for corporations to be playing? Absolutely. Are corporations doing their part? Absolutely not.
But at the end of the day, we still have to survive. I refuse to believe that we survived the Middle Passage, three hundred years of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Bull Connor, the LAPD, only to let HIV take us out. It won’t happen that way. And Black people are committed to saving ourselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Phill Wilson, I want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute. Your website, for people who want to get more information?
PHILL WILSON: www.blackaids.org. And our telephone number is (213) 353-3610.
AMY GOODMAN: And we will post all that on our website at democracynow.org.