THE RELUCTANCE TO “OWN” AIDS
Already, a set of stock explanations for the Black community’s reluctance to address the AIDS crises has emerged. We are told that for too long the media have inaccurately portrayed AIDS as a disease that almost exclusively afflicts white gay men,20 that for too long public health officals have failed to use media appropriate to the black community,21 and that the black church has stood in the way of effective AIDS education because of its opposition on moral grounds to homosexuality and drug use.22 While valid to a point, these explanations have, in my opinion, been very much overblown. First, the mass media are scarcely the only avenues of communication in the black community (a point made by some of the same people who seek to pin the misrepresentation tail on the media).23 Moreover, we have long since learned to view the media with suspicion and to discount their distortions when our own experiences contradict them. Second, even though the public health establishment has relied on media not well suited to reaching the black population (too many pamphlets and not enough radio spots, for example), by and large health officials have used the same media that arguably have succeeded at presenting a distorted picture of who has AIDS.
As for the third stock explanation, it does a disservice, in my view, to the black church. It is, of course, true that much of the church is doctrinally fundamentalist and socially conservative. These characteristics, however, are constraints not so much on what can be done in the realm of social action as on how to do it. In practice, the church has proved adaptable, pragmatic, and even crafty when need be. To paraphrase former President Nixon, if you want to understand the black church, watch what it does, not what it says. Time and again, the church has demonstrated its awareness of the variability of human existence and the fragility of the soul under siege. Time and again, the church has been responsive to the needs, spiritual and nonspiritual, of the community. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is simply the most dramatic example in recent memory.
What else, then, accounts for the black community’s reluctance to grapple with AIDS? I have isolated four overlapping factors that I think explain a great deal. The first is that many African-Americans are reluctant to acknowledge our association with AIDS so long as the larger society seems bent on blaming us as a race for its origin and initial spread. Second, the deep-seated suspicion and mistrust many of us feel whenever whites express a sudden interest in our wellbeing hampers our progress in dealing with AIDS. Third, the pathology of our own homophobia hobbles us. Fourth, the uniquely problematic relationship we as a community have to the phenomenon of drug abuse complicates our dealings with AIDS.