Sheryl Lee Ralph Preaches HIV Testing for All

In preparation for National HIV Testing Day, award-winning actress Sheryl Lee Ralph is on a mission to encourage everyone — particularly African-Americans — to get tested for HIV. Ralph explains her passion for HIV advocacy, and why she hasn't stopped spreading the message.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

She is an award-winning actress who for decades has lit up Broadway and the television screen, an original "Dreamgirl." Now Sheryl Lee Ralph brings her considerable talents to another stage, to the fight against HIV/AIDS. Tomorrow is National HIV Testing Day. Sheryl has been traveling the country this week to encourage people, especially women, to get tested.

Recently we talked with Sheryl Lee Ralph at our NPR West Studios. The conversation was frank and contains some sensitive language. I talked with her about her early involvement in the HIV/AIDS awareness cause and why she's so passionate about it.

Ms. SHERYL LEE RALPH (Actress): Back in 1981, you know, 20, almost 30 years is time enough for people to forget that there was a time when people were dropping dead of a mysterious disease.

We now know that that disease is HIV/AIDS, and back then the silence and the stigma that covered over the shame that came along with their death and dying was something I just could not stand. That people could treat their friends the way I saw them treat them, and that's why I got so involved.

I wanted my friends living to be something that was honorable because they were. They were not terrible people. They did everything that everybody else was doing and still continues to do, but at that time nobody knew what it was, and they died.

MARTIN: This raises an interesting point, because when you first got involved in HIV/AIDS awareness, this was perceived as a disease that only affected certain communities...

Ms. RALPH: Gay, white men.

MARTIN: Gay, white men. And now that has changed considerably. In fact, the numbers are truly staggering. African-American women are accounting for something like 64 percent of HIV infections, Latinos are accounting for 18 percent. Why do you think in an era when presumably everybody knows everything about everything that this is still happening?

Ms. RALPH: People only know about what they really want to know about. But back in the day when folks were dying, there was a saying and it went, silence equals death. The reason that the rate of infection continues to rise is because people don't want to talk about it.

Let's take the Latino community, for instance. The number one reason people are starting to die now in such numbers because of AIDS is because they're not talking about it at all. They refuse to have the conversation. So when people in the Latino community present themselves, they have already transitioned from the virus to the disease and their life expectancy is cut short.

When it comes to African-American women, back in the day, when I used to say, people, look, if sex can be a problem for men, women can't be too far behind. They used to tell me, shut up, this has nothing to do with you, and you are crazy.

MARTIN: Is it true that you for years got hate mail because of your involvement with HIV/AIDS?

Ms. RALPH: You want to know, what shocks me is that hate mail has evolved so much that I get hate mail now through YouTube. That's the hurtful thing. You know, the other day I was so discouraged, I said, why? Why? And then I woke up and I said, you know what, just because people don't want to talk about it doesn't mean that you don't continue to talk about it because I'm a mother now. I have two children, and when my children have their sexual awaking, I do not want it to kill them.

MARTIN: Well, what do people say? I mean, what is it that - I guess the reason that I'm asking is I think that people are under the impression that the AIDS epidemic is some 25 years old now. And I think that a lot of people are under the impression that we are passed this, just passed this attitude that this is something that must be hidden. But you are telling me is that that's not true?

Ms. RALPH: That's not the truth. You know, the latest piece of YouTube hate mail - and God knows, I think they probably took it down, but the person just espoused such hate towards me about dealing with this disease, and they used words that I thought people had gotten past.

They said, why do I keep talking about that disease? And why do I concern myself with those people, those homosexuals and those faggots? And I thought to myself, do we still have people who would refuse to accept the fact that the number one way to contract this disease, right here in America, is through heterosexual sex? That that myth about that it's only those gay people, that's in the past? We have got to catch up with the disease right now where we are.

MARTIN: You developed a play, "Sometimes I Cry," which was inspired by women's stories and their battle with HIV. I have a short clip. I'd love to play it, if I may?

Ms. RALPH: Sure.

(Soundbite of play, "Sometimes I Cry")

Ms. RALPH: (singing): I'm an endangered species. But I sing no victim song. I am a woman. I am an artist and I know where my voice belongs.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: All right, OK. Speaking of that voice, that amazing voice, turn to an amazing purpose. Do you ever worry, though, that the people who will come to something like that are - you're preaching to the choir? People who already are aware and involved?

Ms. RALPH: You know, it's been for me about two years traveling across this country and the world. We just got back from Africa, as well, but it is never the audience that I expect it's going to be. Sometimes they are kids from high schools. Sometimes they're church audiences and it's the first time they've ever decided that they were going to talk about this disease. It's always a diverse group of people.

But the one thing that always happens at the end of the piece is that people are moved to a different understanding of this disease, and I'm just so thankful to God that I am able to use my passion and my craft to move people to take charge, to make some change when it comes to addressing this disease.

MARTIN: The latest project that you're involved in, and as you mentioned, you just got back from Cape Town as part of a new initiative, Sister Circles, journey to Africa where it is certainly an issue. But your latest project is promoting National HIV Testing Day, which is Friday. Why do we need a National HIV Testing Day?

Ms. RALPH: Because too many people don't want to get tested. They're afraid of getting tested. They're afraid of their past behavior. They don't want to know their personal status as it is in the present - so many things. You know, it's amazing to me that the one act that everybody is involved with, thinks about, wants to have at some point or the other, sex is the one thing that people just absolutely refuse to take responsibility for or do anything about.

A young woman told me, she said, Ms. Ralph, I don't want to know. And I had to ask her, do you want to walk around with a time bomb in your vagina? Is that what you want? If you're negative, why would you not want to know that and do everything to stay that? And if you are positive, why would you not want to know so that you do not pass it on to somebody else and so that you can also take the best care for yourself?

MARTIN: In all the time, though, that you have been involved with cause, as you've mentioned, it's been, man, almost 20 years now...

Ms. RALPH: Almost 30 years.

MARTIN: Almost 30. Do you feel any progress is being made?

Ms. RALPH: God, I want to say that there's been real progresses made, but when I look in my own family, I say, OK, I see progress because my son will talk about it. My daughter will talk about it. But in the community at large? The rate of infection has not gone down. It only continues to rise. You've got to get tested, and take somebody with you if you are afraid. You know, my husband, State Senator Vincent Hughes and I, we both got tested together, and I was shocked when people said, now why would you be getting tested together? And I'm like, oh, my goodness, why wouldn't we get tested together? I think that shows such great love and commitment for each other. Why not test together?

You know, and then people said, I don't know about couples. And I said, well, you know what? If it is going to make you feel better, then make it any kind of couple you want it to be. It can be your friends. It can be your children. It can be people you like, but test together. And we created testtogether.org, and it's simple. Just go there, put in your zip code and a place will come up for you to find where you can go to get tested. And very often you can get tested for free.

And testing has changed. You don't have to take a needle. They don't have to draw blood anymore. They have a quick test. It's like a flat cotton swab. You swab your mouth and you can get your results in twenty minutes. Make it a part of your health and well being. Get tested. Don't be one more.

MARTIN: Award-winning actress, writer, producer and HIV/AIDS activist Sheryl Lee Ralph. She is advocating National HIV Testing Day. You can find out more about it and resources to get tested at our web site npr.org/tellmemore. She joined us from our bureau at NPR West. Sheryl Lee Ralph, thank you so much.

Ms. RALPH: Thank you.

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