The Long Road to Washington

As AIDS kills black America, activists try to raise awareness a step at a time

On October 15, Derrick Chandler will begin walking from Times Square to Washington, D.C. In addition to water, candy bars, the Bible, and the Koran, he'll bring along his daily meds, because Chandler has AIDS.

The 49-year-old community organizer at Housing Works won't be alone. Also going to D.C. for Campaign to End AIDS's "Five Days of Action," a work week of rallies, prayer vigils, and demonstrations scheduled to begin November 4, are 10 caravans from around the country.

"Out of all the caravans, only we've decided to walk," Chandler says with a chuckle. "Initially everyone thought, 'What! Walk?' But then we gradually came to grips with it, and now everyone's looking forward to it. I know I am." Drawing their inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's March on D.C. in 1968, Chandler and the others are trying to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic currently ravaging African American communities across America.

Of the nearly 1 million AIDS cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control through 2003, African Americans accounted for just under 40 percent of the total, though they make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population. Of the 40,000 new HIV infections reported each year, 55 percent of infected individuals these days are black, according to Robert Fullilove, professor of clinical health at Columbia University.

These statistics seem impossible to ignore, but they have been. "HIV and AIDS are not talked about as much anymore," says Chandler. "People have become apathetic towards it. A lot of people were under the impression—not that it was cured, but because of breakthroughs with the medicines—that we were all right. But the fact remains that our black and Hispanic communities are being decimated."

Phill Wilson, CEO of the Los Angeles–based Black AIDS Institute, calls it "a fundamental statement of fact" that "AIDS in America is virtually a black disease."

But what some have called this "new face of AIDS" is not new at all. Since the beginning of the epidemic in the early 1980s, AIDS has devastated the black community in comparable measures to the gay population. By 1986, a quarter of all people with AIDS in the United States were black, while only 10 years later 54 percent of all new cases were black.

But apart from Magic Johnson's 1991 admission that he had contracted HIV, the public face of HIV and AIDS was white. "When it was first in the news, how was it portrayed? As a gay white man's disease," says Shawn (not his real name), an African American counselor at the AIDS Service Center on 11th Street in the East Village. "We said, 'We ain't got to worry. They ain't talking about us.' But now look what happened."

Gender lines have also long since been broken. In 1998, AIDS was the leading cause of death for black men aged 25 to 44; it is now the number one killer of black women aged 25 to 34.

"Long before I became infected," Denise, a young black HIV-positive mother of three, tells the Voice, requesting that her real name not be used, "my mother had died from the virus, my father was living with the virus, and I had twin sisters that were living with the virus.

"My story don't consist of street corners, and I've never shot drugs. Now, how the fuck am I HIV-positive?"

In fact, black women account for nearly 60 percent of all women with AIDS and are 25 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than white women.

But indifference, even inside the community, seems to shroud the astounding statistics. The caravan plans to wend its way through the neighborhoods hardest hit by HIV and AIDS at each city where they're scheduled to stop, says Chandler, adding, "I'm hoping that this inspires some people to come out and either acknowledge their personal status, or the problem at large, while we're in their town."

Shame and homophobia add to the seeming indifference about AIDS. Recently at Levels Barbershop, on 125th Street in Harlem, customers lined the benches, waiting for fresh cuts; the conversation snapped like popcorn. But when one employee was asked to talk about AIDS in the black community, he demurred.

Outside on the stoop and out of the earshot of the crowd, however, he was more accommodating, saying, "I know that the percentage of African Americans contracting AIDS has increased in the last five to 10 years. That comes from people not strapping up. I'm in a relationship right now with someone who's HIV-positive, but I always protect myself. A lot of these cats out here don't think. A lot of women too—especially young girls. People still take chances."

Churches, long an important force in black communities, haven't been at the forefront of this particular battle. To Sandra (not her real name), a 46-year-old African American woman on staff at the AIDS Service Center and a minister at a black church, it's about stigmas. "The African American perspective is one from which we don't talk about sex," she says. "In churches, it's an abomination to be gay, and it's 'fornication' to have sex if you're not married—so we have these stigmas that we put before people."

The church, she says, "is the one organization in our community that belongs to us that hasn't been taken away." But the problem, she adds, is that "some churches do not deal with HIV and AIDS, will not distribute condoms to the congregation, or don't want to deal with the real issues. The reality is that half the folks in the congregation are having sex without barriers, and for me my job as a minister is not to judge you."

It's not that people don't know that HIV is out there. "People know, but they're in denial," says Sandra. "You go into forums and show people the statistics, and they cringe. We know, but it's something we don't want to deal with. Because of our fear, we suffer. But we have to be able to move past that."

Chandler sees the consequences, but he knows that in this case, youth simply don't want to know. "Young people are being infected at an alarming rate—being young, they think they're bulletproof," he says. "Promiscuity is cool, and the consequences are not discussed in detail as they should be. I shudder to think that they're out having as much unprotected sex as they describe, because that's us—that's the future, our next generation."

He has added motivation for the trek to D.C.: the memory of departed friend, confidante, and fellow Housing Works activist Keith Cylar, whom, Chandler notes, "part of the campaign is definitely dedicated to."

The logistics are daunting for a person living with AIDS. Chandler and the other caravan marchers plan to walk for 21 days, 10 to 12 miles a day. At night, they'll stay in basements and cleared-out office spaces, on sleeping bags and air mattresses.

"I can't wait to go," he says. "I hope I have enough strength to complete it, but I feel great right now so I don't anticipate any problems. We're hoping to get huge media attention. Part of our mission is to get the word back out there: HIV is still around, people are still being infected; AIDS is still around, and it's still killing people."

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