World AIDS Day and the Untold U.S. Stories

Of the estimated 40,000 new HIV infections each year in this country, more than half occur among African Americans. The numbers are staggering but the stories are often untold. Gil Robertson tells Farai Chideya about his new book: Not In My Family, subtitled: "AIDS in the African American Community." Regina Robertson, West Coast editor for Essence magazine, also joins the discussion.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Of the estimated 40,000 new HIV infections each year in this country, more than half occur among African-Americans. And AIDS is the number one cause of death for black adults aged 25 to 44. The numbers are staggering. And almost everyone has been affected by AIDS in some way, but the stories behind the numbers are often untold.

That's why journalist Gil L. Robertson IV goes beyond the statistics and explores the personal in his new book titled "Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community."

He's compiled a number of essays from celebrities, advocates, clergy and more. Earlier, he joined us from Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta, along with contributor Regina R. Robertson, the West Coast editor for Essence magazine. She joined us in our NPR West studios.

Gill and Regina Robertson, no relation, welcome.

Ms. REGINA ROBERTSON (West Coast Editor, Essence): Thank you.

Mr. GIL ROBERTSON (Author, "Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community"): Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Gil, how did this project come about?

Mr. ROBERTSON: I guessed the project started the night my brother told me that he was HIV-positive, and of course that's now been 25 years, or a quarter of a century. But really the project started a few years ago, maybe four or five years ago, when I approached Jeffrey, my brother with an idea that we should do something.

We didn't know what yet, but we should somehow share our family's story in how we handled his disease with other people in an effort to help them. When we found out that Jeff was HIV-positive, my parents took a very proactive, very supportive, a very loving approach to dealing with and managing that situation.

And they very effectively set the tone within our immediate family as well as our extended family that my brother was going to be stood by and supported throughout this crisis in his life.

What we discovered as we began to look at other families' stories, other families around us, other families next door across the street in middle America, in urban America, was that our family unfortunately was atypical of how far too many families handle this disease.

So in order to make sure that the community could relate to this project and that no one felt left out, it was expanded and expanded and eventually evolved into the anthology that you see (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: So your brother - your brother has survived HIV and AIDS for a quarter of a century, which is almost the duration of the epidemic here in the United States. I mean that must be an incredible feeling for you and for him, and for everyone who supported him.

Mr. ROBERTSON: I think so. I mean, you know, as I stated in my piece, you know, for a very long time our family existed under this constant dark cloud of when is it going to happen, when is it going to happen. And eventually - I'm just speaking just for myself - we came to accept his condition for what it was and when the time comes for him to make his transition, it will simply be that. But to enjoy him and the time that we have for what it is, and to value that time and to know that we're blessed for having it.

CHIDEYA: Regina, how did you come in? How did Gil solicit you into this project?

Ms. ROBERTSON: Well, Gil and I have known each other for about six years now, and I knew he was working on a book, he talked a lot about the book in the beginning. And he reached out to me about two years ago, I believe, and said that he wanted me to write an essay for him.

And, of course, it was due like, you know, the next day, right, Gil? And I said okay, you know, I'll do it. And it just sort of came out. I think he asked me to write about how I felt as a single black woman. I think that's where it came from...

CHIDEYA: I have to repeat this line. It's a line in your piece that I think a lot of women who were in our kind of age bracket - because we're roughly in the ballpark - will relate to. You said I'm not sure if I will ever feel fully confident and secure enjoying sex without the benefit of a thin protective barrier of latex.

Wow. How does it feel to put that on paper and know that everyone's going to read it?

Ms. ROBERTSON: You know, I did not think about that when I wrote it the first time.

CHIDEYA: You talk about creeping and the culture of, you know, I mean in some ways don't you think that creeping and cheating has been culturally validated?

Ms. ROBERTSON: Oh, absolutely.

CHIDEYA: And so at the same time, if you're talking about safer sex, then you have to take into account that people don't always tell the truth in romantic relationships.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Writing this piece definitely made me think, and I really worry about the younger women. Because you can't really afford to make mistakes now, you know. You can't slip up, too much going on out there.

CHIDEYA: I want to get back to you in a second about the issue of the media and how that all plays into how younger people especially view sex and AIDS prevention. But, Gil, did you find any differences by generation, by gender, in terms of all of the people that you solicited for this project?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Yes, certainly. The older (unintelligible) tended to be a lot more conservative in their thought process, surprisingly a lot more naïve, too. Younger people tend to have a clearer understanding of what was out there and what the risks were. There was also a sense, though, with younger people of that invincibility that, you know, you have when you're still in your twenties.

So it was a nice - I think it makes for a nice balance that you find in the collection.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, you have one essay that I was reading by a 22-year-old who has the disease. And, you know, the title is "I Have HIV Myself". You know, and she just talked about all these communities that she's part of, cultural work, family, you know, all these things.

And she says here it's horrible but HIV is also a marvelous teacher. Tell me what you make of that?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Heavy. You know, I think it is a marvelous teacher. That excellent essay, by the way, was written by Marvelyn Brown, who works in New York for the POZ Foundation. It opened my eyes certainly to the tremendous quest by many within our communities to better understand why HIV is here and what we need to do to properly respond to it.

And I think in order to effectively have a conversation about HIV and AIDS within our community particularly, you have to promise yourself that you're not going to make any accusations, there's going to be no finger pointing. And as Regina said earlier, you're not there to make judgments but you're there to have an honest dialogue about what this disease is and what behaviors trigger folks to put themselves at risk.

Why are people still having unprotected sex? Why aren't people dialoguing with their partners before entering into physical intimacy? Why aren't the funds available for more testing facilities? Why haven't the resources been made for more awareness, more prevention?

CHIDEYA: Regina, there was a study recently published in the American Journal of Public Health online, and it found that African-Americans, ages 18 to 26, who engage in low-risk behavior - meaning no sex in the past year, little or no alcohol and drug use - are still nearly 25-times more likely to be infected than whites who have the same patterns.

You know, it's really reached a point I guess where there has been a tipping over of how AIDS is transmitted or HIV is transmitted in the black community. Because so many young people have it, more young people in the black community than in the white. So many impacts of things ranging from prison to drug use to, you know, women's issues.

Give me your perspective on the gender issue when it comes even to prevention and how, like, people market to the younger generation in terms of these ideas of keeping yourself safe.

Ms. ROBERTSON: I remember hearing about AIDS in high school. Quietly, like things were going on and I was like, oh, you know, that's pretty scary. But I don't remember videos being what they were when I was 16, 17. But I will say this, I was watching a World AIDS Special on BET, I believe it's December 1, 2002. And there were PSAs about safe sex, and I believe Ashanti and Jill Scott were on talking about abstinence and treating your body as a temple.

And I noticed that between segments they just kept playing the same videos that they always at play. I just sat on a coach and I'm like I don't get it.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. ROBERTSON: I thought it was really irresponsible and I think that today's kids, they're just bombarded with different images and the overt sexuality with no responsibility; it's confusing. And then the AIDS awareness is sort of silenced and the volume on that kind of stuff seems to be raised.

And you asked me about being honest in that essay. When I read essays or articles I like to be told the truth. So I think that's why I wasn't thinking about it when I wrote the piece. I don't think their awareness is maintained at a level where people are aware of it all the time.

CHIDEYA: Of the 40,000 new HIV infections each year, you're talking about more than half happening to African-Americans. What's going to make people, particularly African-American communities all across the country, say this is not an issue that's ebbing and flowing. This is actually - it's just growing, and if we don't do anything it's going to keep growing.

Mr. ROBERTSON: I step out of the darkness into the light to acknowledge that HIV and AIDS exist, that people are getting it, engage in communication first in the family, second within the community, and that it's spread on from there.

CHIDEYA: When you talk in your own essay about your brother and how you sensed he was gay at a young age and you assumed that your parents probably knew but it wasn't a big deal. And your parents were very supportive of him, have been very supportive of him. And you also mentioned that that support for someone who is HIV-positive was atypical in a lot of the stories that you found.

But what about the issues facing gay and lesbian inclusion in African-American communities? Because I think we've talked about gender, we've talked about some of the family issues, but the issue of sexuality is also something that has a lot of folks in denial.

Mr. ROBERTSON: That's another huge hurdle that the black community needs to overcome. And, you know, to be fair to the black community, we are dealing with a lot of things. We are dealing with, you know, whether or not Pookie can read, whether or not Pookie is going to graduate. Is Shanica pregnant? Does Grandma have diabetes? How am I going to pay this mortgage?

So there's a lot that we have on our plates. And I think for many in our community having to deal with the whole issue of AIDS is just too much. I think the religious community is going to have to step up and going to have to wipe away the scarlet letter that's associated with homosexuality. The fact is, is that homosexuals have been in every community, including the black community, since the beginning of history. So it's time for us to wake up and to accept that fact. And it doesn't contribute to HIV and AIDS - irresponsibility does.

CHIDEYA: Well, Gil and Regina, thank you so much.

Ms. ROBERTSON: Thank you.

Mr. ROBERTSON: Thank you very much, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Gil L. Robertson IV is the editor of and a contributor to "Not In My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community," and contributor Regina Robertson is the West Coast editor for Essence magazine.

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CHIDEYA: Coming up, Bill Clinton lobbies for low-cost kids' HIV medicine, and Iraqis could get control of their country sooner that they expected.

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