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Why Black AIDS History Matters


Why Black AIDS History Matters

Jessie Jackson speaking at AIDS rally, New York City, New York (Joseph Sohm/ Shutterstock)

As we enter the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, it might be easy to forget that in early 2020 we were already living through another pandemic—the one caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and its advanced stage of infection, called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which was publicly recognized by doctors in the United States over forty years ago, in 1981. And while Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted Black communities, racial disparities in the US HIV/AIDS epidemic are even more stark. African Americans account for around 12 percent of the US population, but they make up 40 percent of the 1.2 million people who are living with HIV in America today.

This is nothing new. From the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, African Americans have been overrepresented among people testing positive. That’s why today, National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, is important. But even as we recognize that AIDS has devastated, and continues to devastate Black America, our stories about the disease remain overwhelmingly white.

Over the last fifteen years or so, we’ve seen lots of new attention to the history of AIDS and AIDS activism. The story of AIDS in the US is most often told through the viewpoint of white gay men, in plays and made-for-TV movies like The Normal Heart, or the documentary How to Survive a Plague. Recent AIDS activist memoirs, including entries by Avram Finkelstein and Peter Staley, as well as Sarah Schulman’s oral history collection, Let the Record Show, chronicle personal histories of the New York chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP/New York), a group made up mostly of white, gay men.

These stories deserve to be told, but as long as they dominate our shared understanding of AIDS and AIDS activist history, we are left with a blinkered view of the past. What would it mean to, instead, put Black America at the center of the story? How would that change how we think about the past, present, and future of the epidemic?

First, a focus on Black communities changes…

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