The freedom of knowledge, the purpose of faith
Whenever new statistics on old issues are released, we get alarmed. We get outraged. We get disturbed. But do we get moving in a direction to reverse the trend? It can be disheartening listening to the negative health trends afflicting the Black community, but it must not become paralyzing. Statistics should spawn new activity, even if the numbers only draw more light to a condition that has so saturated our lives that we have become numb and blind to the reality.
The Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute released in February its annual report on the State of AIDS in Black America, entitled, “The Way Forward.” The Institute said that, “The stunning racial divide of AIDS in America persists, with African Americans accounting for half of all people living with HIV/AIDS today. But we now also begin to see a divide even within the Black epidemic. In those areas where we have been willing to take meaningful action, we have seen progress. In those areas where we have let petty politics, subjective notions of morality and the unrestrained pursuit of profit in healthcare economics reign, we have seen the epidemic deepen.”
On its website, the Institute quotes Coretta Scott King, acknowledging her as one of the first civil rights leaders to address the AIDS crisis in connection to the struggle for justice. “AIDS is a human crisis, no matter where you live,” Mrs. King told a gathering of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Anyone who sincerely cares about the future of Black America had better be speaking out about AIDS, calling for preventive measures and increased funding for research and treatment.”
The debate on AIDS awareness, prevention and treatment continues to simmer across the country and the world. CNN hosted a special summit, “The End of AIDS” with former U.S. president Bill Clinton, which was broadcasted twice on two days, Apr. 29 and 30. One of the main points that was stressed, along with the devastating impact of infection rates of children and young adults, was the fact that 90 percent of people who have contracted the virus do not know that they have the disease.
The rapid increase in infection rates is due largely in part to the fact that most people do not know that they have the virus and so continue to engage in the behavior that made them vulnerable. They do not know because they have not been tested, a seemingly simple solution to a problem that is morphing out of control.
The AIDS pandemic is also fueled among heterosexuals by the unwillingness to openly address the homosexual activity of men while incarcerated and the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse, instead preferring to keep these issues locked in taboo boxes of derision and shame. But there is another cloak of silence that has dressed the problem: Filled with the uncertainty of the lines of propriety and the dread of crossing them, religious communities struggle to open avenues to bring awareness to their communities.
Is it possible for religious communities to find a balance between upholding their standard of morality and addressing the health crisis? Is it possible to promote the sacredness of our bodies and the institution of marriage, while engaging in informative and effective initiatives? The church need not pass out condoms along with wafers during Communion. The mosque need not require its members to recite their sexual history along with the shahada. If the teachings of the prophets and messengers of God are extolled for being life-giving, how can our religious institutions truly claim to “save” our people while fostering an environment of ignorance and shame that locks its members in silent dungeons that lead to death and disease? Truth is said to set us free.
It is a matter of life and death because it is dangerous to apply moral restrictions to a health issue that is decimating the vibrancy of the life of our community. What will result is cheap, self-righteous banter that skirts the realities to which we close our “holy” eyes and ears. What will result is a religious community that has condemned its members to the shadows of faith due to an absence of empowering knowledge–a community that refuses to bury the remains of a member that it claimed to minister to in life because that life was found to be lived outside its moral regulations; a community that cannot speak to its youth candidly about their bodies, sexuality and God, yet despairingly stands by and witnesses a generation of unwed teenage parents made vulnerable by unprotected sex that they are obviously having with each other.
As a Black woman who has remained chaste in Islam for the past 16 years, I am a firm advocate and witness of the power, strength and growth that is rooted in chastity rooted in the knowledge of the sacredness of the female and how an unwavering commitment to the institution of marriage can guide a path that does not tread along the shores of risky behaviors. However, as a survivor of years of child abuse, I am fully informed about the consequences of choosing to remain in silence or become instructive through positive dialogue. We must all embolden ourselves to travel a truly enlightened path of faith buttressed by accurate knowledge. Words in my December 14, 2004 Final Call editorial, “Black Women vs. AIDS,” ring ever more clearer two years further along the debilitating path of this pandemic:
We no longer have ringside seats in this fight–we are on the mat, sweaty, broken and bleeding and the referee is counting down. Women do not have to engage in high-risk behaviors, be drug users or prostitutes to be in the 72-percentile; they just have to suffer the misfortune of sleeping with the wrong person.
But does the prevalence of this pandemic facing the Black womanhood stem from a lack of power, or a lust for pleasure? Is it carelessness or did we not pay attention to preventive measures out of a false sense of security that this disease was not relevant to us; it was a gay White man’s disease?
Why don’t we get tested as we should? Have Black people been so focused on proving to the skeptics that an enemy of our rise does exist and has created this virus that we have neglected to guard ourselves against the risk that exists?
What you don’t know can kill you–and it is killing Black women. So, when do we begin to take absolute responsibility for our lives and our bodies–and that of our children who wind up suffering directly with the disease contracted in the womb, or indirectly as we wither away from the disease? Pointing out the enemy does not stop the weapons that he has already unleashed on us. We will die if we don’t get out of the way.
Are we too ashamed to confront the stigma of talking about sex openly? Or too prideful to accept constructive criticism to correct irresponsible sexual behavior–corrections that may save our lives and the lives of those we profess to care about? A little bit of pleasure is not worth the lifetime of pain to which this scourge continues to subvert our families and communities.
Men must realize: If you are HIV-positive, then the life of your woman depends on your willingness to protect her during sexual intercourse. If you want the pleasure, spare her the pain.
Abstinence, while the safest route to circumvent contracting the virus, is a challenge that obviously the majority in our communities has not accepted. Black men and women must fight to secure our future. We cannot let the fear of knowing if we have the disease remain greater than our fear of dying.
It’s better to be honest with ourselves now than be dead at age 35.