This Era of Black Women and HIV/AIDS

December 1 is World AIDS Day and Black women are dying of AIDS. Is anyone doing anything about it?

Right here in the nation’s capitol, the HIV/AIDS epidemic rivals that of many Third World countries. Affectionately dubbed the “Chocolate City,” Washington D.C.’s population is approximately 60 percent people of African descent. Of its residents, one in twenty is thought to have HIV; one in fifty thought to have AIDS. Of the 3,269 HIV cases identified between 2001 and 2006 who tested positive, nine of ten were African American.

Are these statistics overwhelming?

“The Washington data is really a microcosm of what we already know: that AIDS in America today is a black disease,” said Phil Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute, an HIV/AIDS think tank that focuses exclusively on AIDS among black Americans.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans account for half of all new HIV cases despite comprising 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Equally alarming is that HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women between the ages of 25 and 44.

At the “Women and Response to AIDS” panel at the at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006, Sheila Johnson — founder of the Crump-Johnson Foundation in Washington D.C. — pointed out that another at-risk population in the African American community is teenage girls.

Seventeen percent of the U.S. teen population is African American. In 2004, 70 percent of all teens testing HIV-positive were black. One in ten African American teenage girls tests HIV-positive in the nation’s capital, the highest percentage in the country among this age group.

When asked why such a high percentage test positive, Johnson said, “As long as girls see themselves as glorified sex objects in hip-hop videos, HIV/AIDS will increase within this population.”

Aren’t these statistics overwhelming?!

But so too is the failure of leadership African Americans have faced since the epidemic began.

No group of women is as affected by the failure of leadership in this country as women of African descent.

African American women and their struggle against the AIDS epidemic was never so glaringly obvious than in the 2004 vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards.

The invisibility of my group’s plight has less to do with African-American women’s agency to combat the epidemic than with how the government, African-American men, the Black Church, and race and gender biases inherent in the problem interfere with African-American women’s efforts to get help.

Gwen Ifill, an African-American female journalist with PBS’ “Washington Week” and moderator of that year’s 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.

Vice President Cheney responded to Ifill’s question by saying, “Here in the United States, we’ve made significant progress. I have not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women. I was not aware that it was – that they’re in epidemic there.”

But Edwards’ response wasn’t any better. Edwards deflected the question by first going back to answering the previous question. Then with the remaining seconds left, he flubbed his way through.

However, three years later in the June 2007 Democratic Primary Debate at Howard University — which focused on African American issues ranging from health care and housing to Katrina relief, the economy and the environment — Black women stood on there feet as they applauded Sen. Hillary Clinton’s comment about the impact of HIV/AIDS on African American women.

“Let me just put this in perspective: If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.”

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.

What is also unnerving is that today African American women make up 60 percent of all AIDS cases reported among women, 64 percent of new AIDS cases among women, and are three times the number of new cases reported among white women.

Many African-American women with HIV contracted it from heterosexual sex. Two ways that the virus is contracted heterosexually is through intravenous drug use and African-American men “on the down low” — hiding their homosexuality. But men living on the DL is not a new phenomenon in the African-American community. Naming it, however, is. It was J.L. King who became the country’s poster boy by exposing the behavior in his best-seller, On The Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep with Men.

“There are many women, too many women, in relationships with men who they think they know but really don’t. He knew he had the disease, his mother knew he had the disease, his doctors knew, everyone seemed to know except me. And no one said a word,” LaJoyce Brookshire wrote in the foreword of Browder’s book, herself author of Faith Under Fire: Betrayed by a Thing Called Love.

While homophobic attitudes in the larger African-American community and church contribute to their behavior, African-American men are also not taking responsibility for how their behavior is killing African-American women, and putting the entire community at risk.

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.

While health disparities in the black community is overwhelming so too is the failure of leadership African Americans have faced since the epidemic began.

Phil Wilson states it plainly:

“I think it’s important for us to take just a moment to realize that we are where we are today because we weren’t concerned when we thought it was somebody else’s disease,”

However, the disease has also taught us about the various faces – across race, class and gender – who wore and continue to wear the face of this disease.

When The New York Native, a now-defunct gay newspaper, in its May 18, 1981, issue first reported on a virus found in gay men then known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), an editorial noted that “even if the disease first became apparent in gay men, it is not just ‘a gay disease.'” And HIV/AIDS, having neither an alliance to nor an affinity for queer sexualities, spread.

Where would the leadership on HIV/AIDS come from?

Let’s confront the elephant in the black community, by telling the truth and shaming the devil. The biggest problem that black lawmakers have had to confront concerning the HIV/AIDS crisis in their communities is the political gag order imposed on them by their voting constituency’s homophobia and animus toward any discussion of the disease.

Would the leadership on HIV/AIDS come from the black church?

When it comes to the black church and HIV/AIDS, I am always reminded of what my mayor in Cambridge, Mass., Ken Reeves, who is both African American and gay, told The Washington Blade in March, 1998, during a two-day Harvard University HIV/AIDS conference: “African American male ministers over 40 are a tough nut to crack. If we wait for the black church on this, we’ll all be dead.”

The Black Church continues to play a part in the death of African Americans with AIDS. While its silence on the issue is appalling and unconscionable, so too is its various forms of heterosexualized rituals and pronouncements that denigrate both LGBT people and women. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that since 2000, African-American Protestants are less likely than other Protestant groups to believe that LGBT people should have equal rights. And since hot-button issues like gay adoption and marriage equality have become more prominent, support for LGBT rights among African-American Protestants has dipped as low as 40 percent.

Therefore, women with AIDS are as unwelcome in the Black Church as LGBT people. Within Black Nationalist milieus like the Black Church and the Nation of Islam, African-American women with AIDS are also viewed as race traitors. In this patriarchal straightjacket, biological essentialist views are as holy and deified as the Bible itself. And with the belief that women are to multiply and bring forth new life for the perpetuation of the race, women with AIDS lose their status in the community. Often labeled as “loose” for having contracted the virus, she is viewed as not only diseased but also dangerous because her sexual wiles continue to seduce men. A woman with AIDS is a fallen woman, not only for having contracted the disease, but also for having disregarded the policing of sexual behavior by the Black Church.

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 black women.

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

Working in conjunction with the “Politic of silence” is what African-American women historically created as a “culture of dissemblance” and “the politic of respectability,” 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.

African-American women are no more promiscuous than white women, however, stereotypes about African-American women’s bodies and sexualitities prevent the proper prevention and education needed to stem the tide of HIV/AIDS.

irene-headshot.jpgThe iconography of black women is predicated on four racist cultural images: the Jezebel, the Sapphire, Aunt Jemima, and Mammy. 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. The Aunt Jemima and Mammy stereotypes are now conflated into what’s called “Big Mamma” in today’s present iconography of racist and sexist images of African-American women.

While the Aunt Jemima and Mammy stereotypes are prevalent images that derive from slavery, for centuries both of them have not only been threatening, comforting and nurturing to white culture but also to African-American men. The dominant culture doesn’t see and hear African-American voices on this issue because our humanity is distorted and made invisible through a prism of racist and sexist stereotypes. So too is our suffering.

Rev. Irene Monroe

Posts by Rev. Irene Monroe:


  1. Jay says

    Great article.

    I am in the process of writing my dissertation on helping African American Women reduce their risk of being infected with HIV. While yes blame can be put on many fronts, I think it is imperative that we teach African American Women how to take care of themselves, while “we” still decide who came first, the chicken or the egg, to blame Adam or to blame Eve, etc, etc.

    African American Women have to be taught how to perceive risk, so that they take the necessary steps to reduce risk of being infected at all costs.

    While studies say results demonstrate an improvement, the bottom line continues to demonstrate this target population continues to increase in prevalence & incidence rates with each passing year.

    There continues to be insufficient information about personal risk for African American Women, including myths, stigma, and the hope of a cure in time. But in the mean time this population continues to rise in rates that show no signs of slowing down.

    We have to talk about sex more openly, in the schools, churches, and every aspect of society, so that they can better understand the risk they continue to be in with each passing day.

    We have to value their lives like that of men, and care for them with respect, honor and dignity, regardless of our relationship difficulties.

    I am hopeful my intervention will help African American Women reduce incidence and prevalence rates of this epidemic, and also with time help women in general perceive risk regardless of race.


  2. says

    It is quite scary that there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS and the only way we can fight it is by prevention. How long would it take our scientists to develop a cure or vaccine for this disease?

  3. Marrianette says

    HIV/AIDS is still a problem today despite huge medical advances, i am wondering if there would ever be a cure for this disease .

  4. says

    Today, February 7, 2009 is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. This is an annual event designed for community mobilization HIV testing and treatment initiative. Sojourner’s Place is pleased to be a part of this awareness effort and I invite you to read my post which can be found here.

    Much obliged, SjP

  5. Eric says

    Great article! This should be required reading for all African Americans with the hopes of creating an “open forum” for greater discussion within our communities. But, honestly I don’t think that’s ever going to happen! As a black man I realize that black men are a major component in the continual spreading of this dreaded disease, but the aftermentioned article “never” highlights the ignorance and denial that most black woman display with regard to “their” role in the destruction of our people by not praticing “safe sex”! This isn’t just a black man problem, nor just a black women’s problem, but in fact it’s a serious problem for all African American people atas a whole! I’m sick and tired od always hearing most black women always blaming the black men, and at the very same time “divorcing” themselves of their complicity in this process! Sorry, to say this, but the vast majority of black women today only continue to live in “total denial” about their behavior as well. also, please let’s not forget about other contributing activities/behaviors like prostitution, and drug usuage. I’m enclosing some excerpts from a survey to better illustrate my point.

    U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention • U.S. News
    Study: Denial Infects the Mississippi Delta — Black Women’s Attitudes Toward Safe-Sex Practices Deadly

    April 17, 2007

    A survey of attitudes toward HIV/AIDS among African-American women in the Mississippi Delta found troubling levels of denial and ignorance about the disease:

    Nearly 85 percent of the 1200 women surveyed said they would not ask their male partners if they ever had sex with men.
    71.6 percent of those surveyed, ages 15 to 50-plus, engaged in casual sex without using condoms; 76.7 percent used drugs or alcohol before intercourse.
    Older women, those ages 30-34 and 40-44, scored higher on an AIDS awareness test than subjects ages 15-29.
    Those with greater knowledge and awareness of HIV/AIDS were about as likely to engage in high-risk sex as women who were less knowledgeable.
    More than 50 percent said that anyone with AIDS deserves it, especially if he or she is homosexual, bisexual or a prostitute.
    87.6 percent said HIV-positive teachers and childcare workers should be removed from their jobs.
    The Delta was chosen due to its high AIDS rate, and because more than 60 percent of its residents are black, said study co-author Ademola Omishakin, professor of environmental health at Mississippi Valley State University. Residents there are among the poorest in the nation, with some 35 percent living in poverty.

    Sadly, the bottomline is that most residents of our communities just don’t care to even discuss HIV/AIDS! And, I concur fully that the black leadership has done little or nothing! The blkack church which at one time was a “stablizing element” in the black community is for the most part “invisible” on this matter. So, you please help me to better understand “why” our people just can’t seem to, or are simply not willing to modify our behavior? You go to the clubs, and what do you see…nothing but black women sexing all over the place up to and including on the floor…as if they have absolutely no respect for themselves! Hate to say this, but many of those “stereotypes” about black women being too easy aren’t all that wrong, but I’m sure that someone will take issue with that observation, but that’s both expected and yet only more denial!

  6. Paul Koretz says

    One of the reasons for the high rate of HIV/AIDS among African-American women is something few people want to talk about. It is the high rate of men–straight men–having sex with other men in prison. The rate of HIV in prison is estimated as high as 12 times that of the general population. Add to that the fact that African-American men are over-represented in the prison system. The men who have sex with men in prison get out. They don’t know they are HIV+, and have sex with their unsuspecting wives and girlfriends.

    The result of all that is a high rate of HIV among African-American women who have done nothing wrong except remain loyal to their men.

    I did a bill a couple of years ago to prevent hundreds if not thousands of cases of HIV by allowing condoms to be distributed in the State prison system. No one wants to admit sex is happening between men in the prisons, but since it is and no one seems to be able to stop it, its time to stop pretending and start preventing. So many thousands of women should not be contracting this deadly disease because of denial and an unwillingness to discuss the subject, even in the Legislature. Despite the squeamishness among legislators who wanted to avoid discussing the subject, the bill passed, only to be vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger. I was termed out, and Sandre Swanson picked up the bill the following year. It passed again and was vetoed again, but this time in his veto message, the Governor said he would allow a pilot program at one prison. So, we are slowly on our way toward a solution that will save thousands of cases of HIV and breaking the cycle that leads to so many African-American women contracting HIV. If there was more of a public push, the Governor might allow it to happen earlier, but there are not many organizations or even individuals that want to acknowledge the issue and this very pressing need. Any takers?

    Assemblymember Paul Koretz (ret.)

  7. Carl Matthes says

    Comment from Carl Matthes…
    An important article, Reverend Monroe, spotlighting the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in America’s minority communities, especially black women. I also appreciate your insistence that stereotypes and churches are two tremendous stumbling blocks affecting treatment in the minority community. While so much has gone wrong in our country during the last eight years, there is reason to be believe that more rational and experienced people will be available when President Obama is leading. Through the years, I have been impressed with the work of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) here in Los Angeles because it realized during the late ’80s that HIV was not going to recognize any racial, gender or socio/economic boundary in it’s deadly move across the globe. This is a disease were truly no one has been left behind. However, as you point out, shame and denial is rampant. For the American gay white male, the battle was joined early and relentlessly. Even then, AHF used it’s early resources to establish clinics and hospice care in neighborhoods where there was need. In our area, that meant outside of LA’s Westside. Chris Brownlie, who was an early activist in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and the partner of Phill Wilson, joined with AIDS Healthcare Foundation inestablishing the first HIV/AIDS hospice in the late ’80s in Elysian Park in Los Angeles. It was named after Chris. Especially important for the African/American community was the building in 1992 of the Carl Bean Center on West Adams in Los Angeles. Both of these hospices are now closed due to the efficacy of todays drug therapies. Today, AHF is the nation’s leading AIDS/HIV provider and is continuing outreach to the very community you write about. AHF’s mission is to provide cutting-edge medicine and advocacy, regardless of ability to pay. It is working to end the AIDS epidemic through prevention, research and advocacy. Assuring that medically indigent persons infected with HIV have equal access to healthcare. Advocating for the rights of all persons living with HIV/AIDS, with particular emphasis on the most underserved, including women, people of color, the incarcerated and drug users. Much more needs to be done around the world, but right here in our own backyard is the best place to work harder. How do we get all churches to understand that they may/must embrace the inclusion of gay men and lesbians and address HIV/AIDS? I know your article brings additional focus to the fight against this deadly virus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *