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“My community’s dying”

I

How African-American women are leading the fight against HIV and AIDS In three decades since the dawn of the HIV/AIDS crisis,

Her book traced the work of an activist organization, the

there have been significant changes in the way society thinks

Balm in Gilead, which prompted churches in the African-

about its victims and advances in what medical science can do

American community to become more involved in the fight

to treat them.

against AIDS.

But much of that progress has bypassed the African-American

“Now it’s not weird, really, for churches in the United States

community, where social stigma presents roadblocks and new

to address HIV,” Harris says. “In fact, many of them are expected

infections continue to skyrocket.

to in some way, shape or form.”

A small group of activists, almost exclusively women, is trying

to change that. Dr. Angelique Harris, an assistant professor of social and cultural sciences, wants to know what motivates them.

And women led the way, a phenomenon Harris says holds true for most social justice issues in the African-American community. “That’s just seen as being the responsibility of black women

“When you’re asking them about how they see their work,

within the culture to do that,” she says. “I thought that was inter-

all of them say something along the lines of, ‘My community’s

esting in terms of linking that to the AIDS work that I was doing

dying, the people are sick and I need to do something about

because there were very few heterosexual black men involved

it,’” Harris says.

in the AIDS movement. It’s just incredibly, incredibly rare, in

Harris has conducted extensive interviews with 36 female

large part because of the stigmas associated with it.”

African-American HIV/AIDS activists around the country. After

For her latest research project, Harris spoke with a wide

analyzing the data, she plans to publish her findings in several

variety of female AIDS activists facing different challenges. In

papers and, eventually, a book.

rural areas, victims might not have access to the latest medical

It’s an extension of work she did earlier in her career, when

advances. And in urban areas, it can be a struggle for an activist

she examined how churches in the African-American community

to have her voice heard — quite literally, in the case of one

initially responded to the HIV and AIDS epidemic — or, as

New York City activist she interviewed.

often was the case, didn’t respond at all. Her first book, AIDS, Sexuality, and the Black Church: Making the Wounded Whole, was published in 2010. Harris’

“There’s even one woman who walks around in Harlem on 125th Street with a bullhorn, just yelling about HIV and handing out condoms,” Harris says.

research on the often-precarious intersection of AIDS awareness

What drives them all to act?

and religion has made her a sought-after speaker at conferences.

“A lot of them are infected themselves — but a lot of them

In examining the church’s role in the African-American

aren’t infected,” she says. “They just got involved because some-

community, Harris found that stigmas against HIV and AIDS

body was sick years ago that got them really upset, a sister got

victims — including the initial perception that it was a disease that affected only

Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans comprised 14 percent of the U.S. population in 2009 but accounted for

there’s still a lot of ignorance in terms of

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They still face an uphill fight. According to the Centers for

— kept churches from addressing the crisis. says. “And it still exists in large part, because

Dr. Angelique Harris

sick or a friend. And they wanted to do something.”

homosexual men and intravenous drug users “A lot of that was the church,” Harris

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By Chris Jenkins

how people actually become infected.”

44 percent of all new HIV infections. “It’s a massive problem,” Harris says. “And the numbers aren’t going down.”


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