Young African-Americans Discuss Fighting HIV/AIDS

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The Black AIDS Institute and LIFE AIDS recently held their fourth annual Community Town Hall on HIV/AIDS. Hear from a panel of young people who spoke about living and working with HIV and AIDS. They share their thoughts on combating the disease.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, the chess king of Dupont Circle talks strategy and life on the boards. We saw it on the street.

But first, we want to talk about HIV/AIDS. It seems that we don't talk about the disease that much anymore. But the epidemic continues to take the lives of many Americans, especially young African-Americans.

Last week, as part of a Congressional Black Caucus' legislative weekend, the Black AIDS Institute and LIFE AIDS held their fourth annual Community Town Hall on HIV/AIDS. I was invited to moderate the panel.

Phill Wilson, the chief executive officer of the Black AIDS Institute, opened the event with some new information from the annual report, "We are the Ones We've Been Waiting for: the State of AIDS in Black America."

Mr. PHILL WILSON (Chief Executive Officer, Black AIDS Institute): When you look at the AIDS epidemic today, when you understand the reality that it is a black disease, when you know that nearly 50 percent of the estimated 1.2 million Americans living with HIV and AIDS today are black, when you know that 42 percent of the new AIDS cases among men in America today are black, when you realize 67 percent of the new AIDS cases among women in America today are black, when you understand that 70 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases among young people in America today are black, you know that anything less than an ambitious goal would be immoral.

And so we set that goal. We know that we're nowhere near a cure. We know that we are far away from a vaccine. We just had devastating blow last week when Merck announced their vaccine did not succeed and, in fact, failed in every level. But we're not talking about eradicating the virus. We certainly cannot get there in five years.

But we can do four things. We can reduce the HIV/AIDS rates in our communities by 50 percent over the next five years if we all come together. We can increase the percentage of HIV positive African-Americans who know their HIV status by 50 percent if we all do our part. We can increase the percentage of African-Americans living with HIV who are in appropriate care and treatment if we all step to the plate. And we can definitely reduce the debilitating stigma that's happening in our communities if we all just say no to stigma.

MARTIN: The event continued with a panel of young people, all affected in some way by the AIDS virus. Many shared personal testimony about the role HIV/AIDS plays in their lives. Many offered suggestions about what could and should be done to help combat the disease.

Pamela - Stefanie Brown, the director of the NAACP College and Youth Division. Justin Smith, Congressional Black Caucus project coordinator for project style. Kurt Thomas, an advocate of people living with HIV/AIDS. Quentin James, president of the South Carolina NAACP College and Youth division. Hill Harper, an HIV/AIDS activist, writer, also an actor on "CSI: New York." And Joell Royal, co-founder of LIFE AIDS.

I asked Joell how she first learned about HIV and AIDS.

Ms. JOELL ROYAL (Co-founder, LIFE AID): The first time I heard about AIDS was back in '95. I really didn't know what it meant. I just knew that people died from it, and I'm really hitting home with having losing a parent this past December, December 1st, actually.

MARTIN: I'm very sorry to hear that.

Ms. ROYAL: It was just kind of one of those things that I knew as a kid that people died from it.

MARTIN: So what made you want to get involve in LIFE AIDS?

Ms. ROYAL: It was more or less of a personal commitment to self in educating black college students, but primarily focusing on women of color.

MARTIN: Kurt? Will you tell us your story?

Mr. KURT THOMAS (AIDS Advocate): My personal struggle is that I was a youth pastor at a church. And I'm HIV positive. And the pastor found out that I was HIV positive and decided that he no longer wanted me to be the youth pastor because I was HIV positive. And he felt that it was going to be a detriment to the church. So it impacted me at that point in my life, just for the simple reason that I was doing a great job, but because I have a disease, I was stigmatized and actually thrown out within a week. They found out on a Friday and the next Friday, I was gone. And they flew me away on a vacation, told the church that I had to go away because someone was sick, and gave me a thousand dollars, and that was it.

MARTIN: When did this happen? What year was this?

Mr. THOMAS: This happened in 2006.

MARTIN: Wow, 2006. Did you ever confront the people who shunned you? Did you ever have any - have any opportunity to go back to them and say why. Do you have any desire to?

Mr. THOMAS: Right now, I have a lawsuit pending.

MARTIN: So you're talking that way.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Maybe it's my naivete, I'm actually quite shocked that in 2006, that you have received that kind of reaction. And I just wonder if anybody else is - you're not - you're not - you're not - what have you been doing since?

Mr. THOMAS: I'm a family specialist. But I also am starting a project. It's called the Leper Project. And if anyone's familiar with the Bible, you know that there were 10 lepers in the Bible and only one leper came back to say thank you. And so I perceive myself to be that one leper. It is just going to -this is going to impact people just to say thank you, to help people to understand that you may not be infected but you're affected, and that's life changing for all of us.

I haven't gone to church since then - let me say that. And I haven't done anything, as far as church is concerned - I don't hate God or anything. I don't think that God has anything to do with it. I just think that people need to be educated. And I think that one's education is key, not only in church but just in general, in life. I think that people will be more accepting to deal with people that are HIV positive. And they won't ostracize or, you know, push them away.

MARTIN: Thank you for that, Kurt. Thank you for that.

Quentin, tell me how you first heard about HIV/AIDS.

Mr. QUENTIN JAMES (President, South Carolina NAACP College and Youth Division): I really can't pinpoint it but I do remember growing up in church. And all of a sudden you started seeing, you know, some members who were sick, who were coughing a lot during service. And, you know - mom, why is brother Samuel, you know, so sick. He has AIDS, you know. And from there, my parents educated me on what it was and how it was affecting some of their friends from their generation.

But I guess, on a more personal level, kind of why I decided to get involved with the fight, my generation's definition of masculinity. How we, you know, judge our manhood by the amount of women we can sleep with or just being in the locker room, we're just hearing the conversation of how we demean our women kind of sickened me.

And so my senior in high school, I decided not to play sports to get away from the whole I'm-a-big-tough-football-player mentality and start, you know, organizing on, you know, things not only HIV and AIDS but just other things. You know, we don't have to go here and listen to this kind of music to have a good time. We don't have to define our manhood by playing sports and, you know, sleeping with women when we can do other things. So it's really that pure motivation.

MARTIN: Hill Harper, if I could ask you the same question.

Mr. HARPER: Both of my parents are physicians. And there's a lot of discussion in the household about health on all fronts and so I was introduced to those things. During graduate school, I decided to write a film with my cousin called "One Red Rose." And we decided to have the female in the film be HIV positive. That helped me be, you know, to learn more in the process of writing that movie.

And then I did another movie and I wanted to meet with as many people who are incarcerated and also living with HIV and AIDS. And there's one person I met in particular who helped me with this character, what type of things was this character going through. And he talked about how sometimes the bottom of his feet feel like they're on fire. And he personally had buried 95 friends.

And at the end of the day, I consider myself an activist, an advocate for issues regarding black people. And if you're an activist in any shape or form for the health of black people, AIDS has to be a central issue. And unfortunately, many of our leadership leaves out this issue.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

Mr. HARPER: I think that we can go through all the different stigma, reasons and all these different issues about stigmas from nation issues, homophobia - all these issues. But it comes down to, for me at least, the reason why is because we don't demanded it of them. We're complicit in them being able to advocate and being able to sidestep this issue. And the fact that we can go to a town hall in the convention center that has thousands of people in it and it's speaking on some issues. And then we have this issue here. This place should be packed. This should be fought here. There should be people…

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. HARPER: …spilling out into the street, wanting to be in here. But the reason why it's not is that we - all of us here - have allowed our leadership to get away with not making this a priority issue.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask each of you, do you still feel that part of the community is in denial about the scope of the problem? Do you think it's because we associate the disease with homosexuality or was it just sexuality, period? And the community, we don't want to talk about that? Justin?

JUSTIN: I think that's a big part of it. I mean, you think we don't talk in - you know, I don't think it's really specific to the black community. But we don't have open and honest dialog about sexuality in America, in general. You know, I think even though sex is something that we see on every minute on the television, if we turn on BET, MTV, anything, there is, you know, sex, promoting and selling things. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we have the types of nuanced and complex conversation around sexuality that I think are much more needed and necessary.

MARTIN: On the one hand I hear you saying nobody wants to talk about sex. But to my way of thinking - and maybe I feel this way because I'm parent and I'm about the business to try to figure out what my kids ingest and what they don't ingest both, you know, nutritionally and from, you know, some of the media environment - it feels like we talk about sex all the time. You cannot turn on the radio without having sex involved. You cannot turn on the television without having sex. So I guess I just don't understand what this is not-talking-about-sex thing.

Mr. HARPER: It's not the issue of not talking about sex. It's the issue of not talking about consequences of sex. So there's a difference between talking about sex and then talking about the consequences. You could look at any form of my business - the entertainment business - and the entertainment business is very quick to show you the glitz. And certain artists or certain songs can make a young brother feel like his manhood is inextricably linked to the size of the rims on his car. My goal, in all my conversations with groups that I talk to, I want to talk about consequences first - good and bad.

MARTIN: Okay. Do you want, you know, we can start talking among - as a group. I don't see any reason to keep it between, you know, you all up here and us up here. So tell us your name as you're - of course, you all knew who we are and we'd love to know who you are. Sir.

Mr. RODNEY McCOY (HIV Health Educator; Counselor, Whitman-Walker Clinic): I thank you both. My name is Rodney McCoy. I'm an HIV health educator, a counselor with Whitman-Walker Clinic and I actually do HIV counseling and help wellness classes to the inmates who were in recovery and off to jail. I've been doing HIV education, program directing for over 20 years. And I've been living with the virus for six years. And I think one of the things that's important for me, is first of all being honest and open of the fact that I am a gay man, I'm living with HIV, and that I'm also about to be ordained as a deacon in a week. So…

(Soundbite of clapping)

MARTIN: Congratulations.

Mr. McCOY: Thank you.

MARTIN: When you made the decision to choose to disclose your status, to be open, what was that like?

Mr. McCOY: Scary. Scary because the stigma is real. But I was also real clear that the person who infected me was not honest about his status. And I made a real conscious choice not to do that to someone else. And when we talk about sex, I wanted to get back to that because I don't think we talk about sexuality. We don't. Having a sexual image or sexual phrase flash on the screen or come up on the radio does not mean you're talking about sex. Talking about sex, first of all, is acknowledging that it's not just heterosexual. It's bisexual. It's asexual. It's I'm-not-sure-what-I-am. It's not just heterosexual.

And the second thing is - it's ironic I'm saying this as a soon-to-be deacon -is the church. They've not discussing on sex. The way that we don't talk about HIV or AIDS is influenced from the pulpit. We have to change that. We have to work with our pastors and say this is an issue. And Brother Kurt, the church needs you. If that one church chose not to welcome you, as it says in the Bible, shake the dust. But there's another church waiting for you because, obviously, God put that on your heart. And I think that's true for all of us. We've got to speak in to start really talking, to say it's not a gay thing but it is a gay thing, too, and we've got to talk about that.

You know, people are living with HIV, those of us who are have got to disclose - to say this is real.

MARTIN: That was Rodney McCoy. He's an HIV health educator, a counselor. He's HIV-positive. He was a member of the audience at the Fourth Annual community town hall on HIV/AIDS. I moderated the event that was sponsored by the Black AIDS Institute and Life AIDS. And as you can imagine, the panelists and audience have a lot more to say about all of these topics. You can hear more by going to our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Indian Filmmaker Promotes HIV/AIDS Awareness

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Filmmaker Mira Nair was born in India, educated at Harvard and has spent her life traversing between two worlds. Nair talks about the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival and her work to reduce misconceptions in India about HIV/AIDS.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm MICHEL MARTIN. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a look at the Latin Grammy's.

But first, filmmaker Mira Nair was born in India, educated at Harvard and has spent her life traversing between two worlds. From her debut feature "Salaam Bombay!" to the glossy star-studded remake of "Vanity Fair" to her latest feature "The Namesake," Nair has made a career of showcasing the hopes and dreams of others who cross worlds.

Now, she divides her time between the U.S., Uganda and India. But we caught up with her in New York. She's attending the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival. The festival is going now through Sunday in New York and presents a range of works from South Asian filmmakers. Ms. Nair's short film called "Migration" is among the entries. It's just one of a group of films by top Indian filmmakers and stars to help combat the spread of HIV/AIDS in India.

Mira Nair joins us now from our New York bureau.

Welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MIRA NAIR (Filmmaker): Happy to be here.

MARTIN: You've been making films for so many years now, but I want to ask, what drew you to them to begin with?

Ms. NAIR: I think that I'm sort of interested in the question or was and still am interested in the question of whether one could use art to change the world, to change how people think about what's going on around us. So at the same time as I'm not interested in making agitprop kind of films, but films that are very encompassing of the worlds we live in, off the gray area, you know, and usually films that are not just of the American reality that we always see on Hollywood films, but really the things about the world that I live in, which happens to be India and East Africa, and also very much this country, the U.S.

MARTIN: Has what you're passionate about changed overtime?

Ms. NAIR: I don't believe it has. In fact, the world has gotten much more complicated and much more terrible. So, in fact, it has endorsed the desire to use my energy on this planet to make things that get under people's skin, to make things that entertain but also make you hope to reexamine and be aware more of the world we live in and about our points of view.

MARTIN: One of the things that, I think, distinguishes your career is that you've been able to transcend the boundaries of, you know - clearly, you've dedicated to telling stories of India that you grew up in, stories of modern India today, but you've also told stories from so many other backgrounds, genres, times, "Vanity Fair," was it The Family Perez. I wonder if this was always your vision.

Ms. NAIR: I knew. You know, I grew up in a tiny little town in India Bhubaneshwar in Orissa, where Indians don't even know where that is. And I really grew up seeing "Doctor Zhivago" every month. I mean, there was not really more movies than that or even Bollywood didn't reach where I was. So I came in more through political theater and wanting to be a journalist of sorts, you know? So that was my idea. And then I got very interested and became a performer in traveling theater. But when I came to this country on a scholarship when I was 19, the theater at Harvard was not inspired, was not political - was basically hoop-skirts and musicals, "Oklahoma!" and the thing. So I took…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Imagine that.

Ms. NAIR: …the next best thing, yeah, which was the documentary and, you know, had great teachers and learned that the visual world could encompass all these ideas of politics and what happens in the world, but also of music, also of color, also of the way of looking at the world visually, but with anything that excites you whether it's a musical thing or, you know, the cinema encompasses all these mediums. So that's the privilege of it.

And, yeah, I mean, I don't want to tell stories that everyone else tells, really. And I do live in a world that is quite layered and more than one place. So I see the world with that richness. And, yes, I make things that explore that, and it needn't be about India or Asia or Africa only, except that that's what really turns me on more than anything. But it also, you know, "Hysterical Blindness" - I made a film about you know white trash New Jersey girls, who look for love in the wrong places with Uma Thurman and Juliette Lewis and so on. And that was very American, but, you know, it is the universality of the human condition that interests me.

MARTIN: You used the word rich a couple of moments ago. I want to talk about "Monsoon Wedding" because that's a word that is often used to describe Monsoon Wedding as sort of rich and lush and layered.

Ms. NAIR: That's good because you've made it very cheaply, just a million dollars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, I would have not known. But I'd like to play a short clip featuring the women in the family, of course, this is a film about a - it's a wedding and it's a - okay, a gathering of families and all the behind-the-scenes drama comes out as it so often does. Anyway, but here's a scene we're going to play during the henna-painting ritual. I just like to listen to a little bit and I'd like to hear what that means to you.

(Soundbite of movie, "Monsoon Wedding")

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. NAIR: That singing of women around the (unintelligible) or drum brings me right back home. You know, it's - especially this week because it's Diwali. It's the Hindu New Year on the 9th, and that's what going on at home right now. But this is a ceremony that is for the bride to be covered in henna and painted with henna. And it's all-women ceremony, and it's a time for women to tease and be bawdy with each other and to educate the bride through naughty songs what to expect about men and certainly what to expect on the wedding night.

So it's full of fun and raucous kind of laughter, and also a lot of love, and certain amount of sweet sorrow because it signals that after the wedding the girl, the daughter of the house, will leave her house forever and become part of another person's house, could be even far away. You know, before you fly away…

MARTIN: But when you offer something very tender to you to the rest of the world…

Ms. NAIR: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …how does that feel?

Ms. NAIR: It's very beautiful because it is - when it is embraced by the world as "Monsoon Wedding" has been, you know, that's the language of music, that's the language of, you know, great cinema, is when it crosses those borders without making you feel like you're looking at another planet.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with filmmaker Mira Nair.

And I want to talk about a film that you did that, I think, more - perhaps more sharply, I mean, because there are characters in the "Monsoon Wedding" who were traversing different expectations, different cultures or people who live abroad, who are coming home and, you know, what all that feels like, but I want to talk about "The Namesake," which is, of course, an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, a very much appreciated and very critically acclaimed novel. The title character, Gogol, goes through a lot of life changes and one of them - he's trying to talk with his parents about changing his name from that of his namesake. And let's listen for a moment about that scene.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Namesake")

Mr. KAL PENN (Actor): (As Gogol Ganguli) I've been thinking a lot about my name. Gogol's fine on my high school diploma, but can we mention Gogol on a resume or a credit card after that?

Mr. IRFAN KHAN (Actor): (As Gogol's Father) What are you trying to say?

Mr. PENN: (As Gogol Ganguli) I'd like to change my name back to my good name.

TABU (Actress): (As Gogol's Mother) What is done is done. Now Gogol has become your good name.

Mr. KHAN: It's too complicated now.

MARTIN: What's a good name?

Ms. NAIR: This is a - you know, "The Namesake" is about the - a Bengali family and in Bengal, there is a great, lovely tradition of having a family name, a nickname and a good name, a formal name, a name for the public. So Gogol was actually given to this character as his nickname. And Nikil was his formal name, his public name, but he rejected it as a four-year-old, he couldn't respond to this other - in any other word but Gogol. But when he gets older that's an embarrassment to him - the fact that he's named after his father's favorite Russian author.

And anyway, he looks different. He's an Indian kid living in, you know, New York and no one looks like him and certainly no one has a name like him. So by the time he's a teenager, he wants to change it. Anyway, so the story is really about that continuity between the old and the new, but so often the new to come to grips with who they are have to completely embrace the old.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the film festival. You've been working on it for quite sometime. I think - what is it, 50 films? - as a part of the festival including 12 world premieres, 11 U.S. premieres, 15 New York premieres…

Ms. NAIR: Yeah.

MARTIN: It just seems like a tremendous amount of work.

Ms. NAIR: It's a huge thing and it's really - it's the Indo-American Film Festival and it's all thanks to this total dynamo of a woman called Aroon Shivdasani, who decided many years ago that there should be a gathering place for South Asian artists, both from, you know, South Asia and the diaspora to find a place to look at our films because we do make a lot of films.

MARTIN: But that's what sort of funny about it. Forgive me - India has the…

Ms. NAIR: Largest.

MARTIN: …largest film industry in the world.

Ms. NAIR: Hands down. The largest city.

MARTIN: So it just seems kind of funny that, you know, why…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So…

Ms. NAIR: What's funny then?

MARTIN: No. Why have the festival in New York?

Ms. NAIR: Oh, because this is about Indian films, the so-called sort of best of Indian films that are - being made in Indian now but also largely about the diaspora, the films that are made by Indian Americans here or Pakistani Americans or people, you know, in the diaspora everywhere who are making interesting films about the Asian situation.

MARTIN: I'd like to talk about your film. You've got a short film entered - a work called "Migration." Let's play a short clip.

(Soundbite of movie, "Migration")

Unidentified Man: (As Character) And when you drive, the rules - the road…

MARTIN: I'd love to hear more about it.

Ms. NAIR: You know, I had an idea about two years ago when the members of the Bill Gates Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have put a lot of money into India to combat the alarming rise of HIV/AIDS in India. And when they came to talk to me about it, I was inspired immediately to suggest producing a series of four films and then maybe more. Four kind of exciting dramatic films made by cutting-edge, commercial Indian directors - each film to discuss an aspect of the virus, but with total carte blanche that the director could have.

And the brief was to cast movie stars in every role in these films, and to put them out before Bollywood blockbusters in the theaters so that the masses coming to see their favorite movie stars would actually see them in a pretty dramatic and entertaining way to wake them up to the fact of HIV and AIDS.

So my film is called "Migration," which is about AIDS virus as the great class level in our society, something that links the rural and urban and upper and working classes. It's making the circuit all over the world, but we are opening…

MARTIN: And are they being seen in theaters everywhere?

Ms. NAIR: Yes. We're opening in India on the 1st of December, World AIDS Day, both as a campaign on all the national television channels as well in the theaters. So it's going to be quite a blitz there of these films, and I really am proud to, you know, be a part of this.

MARTIN: You said at the beginning of our conversation that when you started making films, you saw them as a way to change the world. Easy to say in your 20s, harder when you are in your 40s to hold on to that vision?

Ms. NAIR: You know, it sounds a little pompous now to change the world, and it was probably pretentious then, too, but the idea is to, you know, stir it up with your work, not to do complacent, dull, you know, let's-have-a-pleasant-Sunday-afternoon-at-the-movies kind of work. For me, I like to give you a pleasant afternoon, but I also want to take you to places that you've never gone and look at places that this reflection of what were are doing in this world. And sometimes what we are doing in this world is treacherous and terrible for it, you know. So I like to do it, I guess, stir it up, mix it up, but take you on a journey in my cinema with a journey that makes you look at what's going on.

MARTIN: Well, it's an honor and a pleasure to speak with you.

Ms. NAIR: Thank you.

MARTIN: Mira Nair joined us from our New York bureau. She's a part of the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival. Her film is called "Migration."

Mira Nair, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. NAIR: Thank you, Michel.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

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