By Marcus Davis
Life is a series of ledges. Precipices. Platforms. Opportunities. Each moment opens a window to our essence, a chance to see the real potential of self. Each minute reminds us that tomorrow remains but fiction, and the charge is ours if we hope to author its epilogue. Each second is a footstep closer towards the summit—and closer toward the end. This moment is indeed a ledge, and I teeter along the threshold.
Many people had the good fortune of knowing LeRoy Whitfield. He was a hard man not to like, and even if the time you spent with him was brief, he left an indelible mark on your memory. He was a juggernaut, undaunted by the looming malice tomorrow presented him. He had moved to New York, without a college degree or money, and survived through intellect, talent and wit. He was a respected journalist who also happened to be HIV-positive. He juggled freelance articles and editing responsibilities while struggling just to find an affordable place to live. He was a griot, and told stories with the passion of a lover. He was loved by many. Unfortunately, he is now dead, having passed away last year. He was only 36 years old.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the following statistics:
— Of the over 1 million cases of AIDS diagnosed in the United States by 2004, 40% were in African-Americans.
—In 2002, HIV/AIDS was the No. 1 killer of Black women between the ages of 25-34.
The CDC recently conducted a five-city study of HIV-positive men who engaged in sex with other men. The study concluded that 64 percent were African-American, 18 percent were Hispanic and 11 percent were white. ( Source: CDC HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report, 2004. Vol. 16. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC; 2005:1-46. )
It's humbling that my first column in Identity would fall under the legacy of HIV/AIDS. My generation grew up striving to decipher the reality of this polarizing disease, and I have far too many stories of friends and loved ones affected by it. I have wrangled with my own emotions of fear, heartbreak and regret in dealing with the disease.
What if I were to acquire it myself? How would I deal with it?
What if I fell in love with someone who is positive? Would I be able to handle all that comes along with it?
What if a friend or family member contracted it? Would I have the strength to support them through their journey?
I still confront these issues, only now with the enlightenment people like LeRoy Whitfield have provided me.
LeRoy was an outspoken advocate of AIDS awareness and prevention, but made the personal decision to not take antiviral medication. This choice was not one made lightly, and he struggled with the consequences of it perpetually. He chronicled these challenges throughout his writings and, while courageous in his resolve, he also was not afraid to admit his fear about what was yet to come for him.
When word made its way back to Chicago from New York that LeRoy had passed away, my friends and I were very taken aback. We hoped to mourn his death in a relevant and reverent way at the funeral ceremony, but that was not to be. The proceedings, held at Sweet Holy Spirit Church, were farcical and in no way captured the magnitude of this giant among us. The preacher officiating didn't even know LeRoy, and misstated his name several times. The entire time was spent telling the audience how they need to be repentant and contributory towards the church. His illness was not mentioned. His legacy as an activist was glazed over. I was incensed with the Black church in ways that we will develop as this column goes along, but the point is that this house of God denied him in his hour of reckoning.
As we face an ever-growing amount of HIV-positive cases within the Black gay community and further vilification of that community by the Black church, it's apropos that such a proceeding should take place. If ever there was a time for us to galvanize our efforts and celebrate those fighting on the battlefield against this disease, it is now. But instead, people affected with HIV like LeRoy are often summarized and disregarded. Their legacies lay dormant amidst the sedation of ignorance and apathy. Society kills them over and over by virtue of its disregard.
The real cruelty of AIDS is that it has taken so many of our brightest stars—those who could have carried the fire through the night. I had just started to reach out to LeRoy for advice on pursuing my writing career when he began suffering through the latter stages of AIDS. He was a huge inspiration, and the few times I talked real business with him provided such a natural perspective on the world that awaited me. I wish I was more aware of LeRoy's health, because I would have exploited every moment I had been honored to share with his spirit.
The Black family is dying of fear and ignorance. We stand looking out over a ledge, afraid to jump but too unorganized and distrustful to build any bridges. This truth is inescapable, but I remain inspired by those who are suffering with this disease but who are still reaching out with their voices and embracing us despite our fear; they shame us with their utter determination in the face of the indeterminate.
With this column, I hope to contribute to the discourse that will hopefully awaken us to the reality that the bell tolls for us, and we must answer the call. I am committed to discussing complex and difficult topics because that is the only way to arrive at understanding. I look forward to engaging you, offending you, inspiring you and learning from you.
Please send me your comments or personal stories at Griot79@hotmail.com .