The era of black woman and HIV/AIDS

The era of black woman and HIV/AIDS


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



  the inherent gender bias focused only on the needs of African American men and rendered women invisible.



The Era of Black Woman and HIV/AIDS

By Irene Monroe


The unrelenting tenacity of HIV/AIDS has taught us much about the preciousness and fleetingness of life. And it has also taught us about the various people — across race, class and gender — who wore and continue to wear the face of this disease.

With this week marking the 25th year of AIDS, the face of the disease is most often a heterosexual woman. And no group of women is as affected by this epidemic as women of African descent — throughout the U.S. and on the continent of Africa.

However, the invisibility of the plight of African American women and their struggle against the AIDS epidemic was never so glaringly obvious as in the 2004 vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards.

And the invisibility of my group’s plight has less to do with African American women’s agency to combat the epidemic than with how race and gender biases inherent in the problem collude with African American women’s efforts to get help.

Gwen Ifill, an African American female journalist with PBS’ “Washington Week” and moderator of the vice presidential debate, brought the issue of AIDS in the U.S. front and center when she asked the men to comment on its devastating impact on African American women.

“I want to talk to you about AIDS, and not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government’s role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?” Ifill asked.

Neither man could answer the question.

When the color of the epidemic shifted from white to black, the inherent gender bias focused only on the needs of African American men and rendered women invisible.

And when gender became a new lens to track the epidemic, white women were the focus. The invisibility of African American women in this epidemic has much to do with how the absence of a gendered race analysis makes African American women invisible to the larger society.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health organization, African American women account for 72 percent of all new HIV cases in women, and they are 23 times more likely to be infected with the virus than white women.

But the disparities within the healthcare system also contribute to the disproportionately higher number of HIV cases among African American women, which directly affects their quality of life and the spread of HIV.

The black church continues to play a part in the epidemic because women with AIDS are as unwelcome in the black church as gay people. 

One of our sister warriors in Boston, Belynda Dunn, died of AIDS in March 2002 at the age of 49. A tireless AIDS activist and a heterosexual African American church woman, Dunn’s death was the wake-up call to the African American community and the black church that HIV/AIDS is not solely a gay disease, but an equal opportunity virus. 

In African American communities across this country, the disease still shows no sign of abating. These women have hid and still hide from the community and each other. And with its harsher judgment against women with HIV/AIDS, African American women are less likely than any other group to seek help.

And although many of us in our black communities averted our eyes pretending we did not see them, we all saw them. We all knew them, and we all silently watched them die because we have still done nothing to stem the epidemic.

The feminization of this disease makes many of us AIDS activists and scholars wonder if the same amount of money, concern, communication, and moral outrage that was put into white gay men with the disease will be put into curbing its spread among women.

Because of the paucity of funds and prevention strategies targeted to African American women with HIV/AIDS, we have not adequately come up with community-based approaches to HIV/AIDS prevention and education for black women. Few if any services speak to these specific needs of black women.

The AIDS epidemic among African American women is also symptomatic of the dialogue African American women need to have about their bodies and sexuality, which has been choked for centuries by a “politic of silence.”

The silence African American women created around their bodies and sexuality that had been exploited during slavery was viewed as a revolutionary act against the white oppressive gaze. Only through secrecy could African American women achieve the psychic and sexual space to protect their bodies and sexuality.

However, in breaking the “politic of silence,” mothers, daughters, and grandmothers must access their beliefs, attitudes, experiences, and perceptions of HIV/AIDS. 

African American women are no more promiscuous than white women; however, stereotypes about African American women’s bodies and sexualities prevent the proper prevention and education needed to stem the tide.

With the image of the “strong black women” who can endure anything and “make a way out of no way,” her strength is either demonized as being emasculating of black men or impervious to the human condition. 

Consequently, African American woman’s humanity is distorted and made invisible through a prism of racist and sexist stereotypes. So too is our suffering.

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posted 22 June 2006




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