AIDS AND THE AFRICAN
By Wil Haygood, Globe Staff, 10/13/99
Last of four parts
Stunned by the soaring number of AIDS deaths in Africa, where more than
12 million lives have already been lost, American black leaders are
scrambling to call attention to the crisis, and concluding that they themselves
must exercise more vigor and ingenuity in confronting the epidemic.
''People have been slow to recognize the changing face of AIDS, and
therefore the changing politics of AIDS,'' says Ron Dellums, the former
California congressman who was a leader in forcing economic sanctions
against the old apartheid regime in South Africa. Dellums now heads the
Washington, D.C.-based Constituency for Africa, an advocacy group whose
mission for the next year, he says, will be to try to focus American attention
on the AIDS crisis in Africa.
After returning from a recent trip to Africa, Dellums rolled from pulpit to
pulpit across black America, confronting church leaders. ''I said, `Look
folks, 12 million Africans have already died. You should stand up with moral
outrage.' The reaction of people was, `My God, I had no idea,''' Dellums
says. ''What this issue has lacked is people prepared to talk loud enough to
take it to a political level.''
In addition to those who have already died of AIDS, it is estimated that
upwards of 22 million people are infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.
The crisis has gotten so grave that in Zimbabwe, one of the most besieged
countries, many funeral homes now keep their doors open 24 hours a day.
''With ferocious speed, AIDS has wiped out many of the development gains
Africa has achieved over the last two decades,'' said Calisto Madavo, a
Zimbabwean who is the World Bank's vice president for Africa. Speaking at
an international conference on the epidemic held in Zambia last month,
Madavo said AIDS was ''killing adults in the prime of their working and
parenting lives, decimating the workforce, fracturing and impoverishing
families, orphaning millions, and shredding the fabric of communities .... It has
reduced life expectancy in the most-affected areas and now threatens
businesses and economies.''
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,
America's oldest civil rights organization, recently passed a resolution vowing
to pay more attention to the AIDS scourge in Africa.
``For many years the NAACP didn't do enough about AIDS,'' concedes
Julian Bond, chairman of the organization's board of directors. ``I don't think
anyone in the US, the NAACP included, is doing enough about AIDS in
America, let alone Africa.''
That admitted shortcoming, and other we-must-catch-up sentiments echoed
by black leaders, is being seized upon by Eugene Rivers, the peripatetic
Boston minister who has long felt comfortable bumping heads with old-guard
civil rights leaders and their practiced orthodoxy. Rivers is leading his upstart
21st Century Group into the heart of the Africa AIDS debate by trying to
place the issue at the top of black America's post-civil rights agenda, and by
assailing many American black leaders as ``exhausted'' or suffering from a
``crisis of vision.''
Rivers calls 21st Century the ``intellectual arm'' of his 10-Point Coalition,
which has long battled crime in Boston's urban areas. Rivers sees sexual
promiscuity in Africa as a form of violence against women that is mainly to
blame for the astonishing rate of AIDS deaths on the continent. He is
planning a series of nationwide forums to increase public awareness, political
advocacy, and humanitarian assistance, both in America and Africa.
``We want to give the issue of AIDS and sexual behavior the same level of
visibility that a previous generation gave apartheid in South Africa,'' he says.
Rivers has also been recruiting some prominent national figures to his cause,
among them Bishop Charles E. Blake of the 18,000-member West Angeles
Church of God In Christ.
``The Africans, based on my observations there, are very religious people,''
Blake says. ``Many are very responsive to Christianity. They would be
influenced by a message that had Christian morality attached to it. If Gene
saves only 10 people with his message, that would be great. But I'm sure it
will be greater numbers.
``It is time for us to link up city to city,'' Blake says of those congregations
wishing to focus attention on AIDS in Africa.
Rivers recognizes that his inflammatory charge that many African men are
promiscuous, and his call for abstinence, may win him unlikely allies among
some white conservatives, moralists, and other so-called Eurocentrics -
thereby alienating his liberal, civil rights base.
``Where the argument has merit, it will be addressed,'' he says of possible
criticism. ``When they are obviously partisan, they will be ignored.''
But seminars, conferences, and resolutions about AIDS are meaningless,
according to Rivers, if the issue of promiscuity isn't broached.
``The behavior dimension of this is the third rail,'' Rivers says. ``That's the
one no one wants to touch.''
Bond denies that promiscuity is taboo. ``I've heard people talk about this,''
he says. ``In a speech I am currently giving, I quote (W.E.B.) Du Bois
talking about `a loss of ancient African chastity.' I heard Jesse Jackson talk
about this. Maybe it's not talked about enough.''
Eva Thorne, a member of Rivers' 21st Century Group, contends blacks have
long been shy in airing their troubles from within. ``People don't want to talk
about when black is ugly,'' Thorne says. ``They only want to hear about
`black is beautiful.'''
Bond, who has been praised for chairing the NAACP board following a
period of turmoil within the organization, says there is only so much the
NAACP can do when it comes to AIDS and the issue of promiscuity.
``Is our role to speak of abstinence?'' asks Bond. ``We're not a birth control
organization. That's not our mission.''
Rivers, a minister in the Church of God In Christ, is being courted by the
presidential campaigns of both George W. Bush, the Texas governor, and
Vice President Al Gore. He plans to circumvent traditional black leaders and
appeal to the major political parties, as well as the Roman Catholic Church,
to help him and his organization address the plight of AIDS sufferers in
``You cannot advocate for black people in the United States without
understanding the interdependence of black problems throughout the world,''
Rivers says. ``We're going to be moving beyond the bifurcation between
domestic and foreign.''
For decades, black Americans have had a spiritual connection to Africa.
During the 1960s, stories of Africa's struggles for independence from the
French and British were chronicled endlessly in the black press. Blacks were
proud when their representatives in Congress - principally Adam Clayton
Powell and Charles Diggs in those halcyon days of African freedom battles -
presented themselves at African independence ceremonies. Diggs was
known to drop tears on such occasions.
The 1970s saw an even more impassioned identification with Africa
following the dramatization of Alex Haley's ``Roots'' from book to television
screen, a telling of an African's journey from his homeland to slavery in
America. The 1980s were a rallying cry to cripple apartheid in South Africa.
But it didn't take long, following the 1990 freeing of Nelson Mandela and his
1994 ascent to the presidency, for some American blacks to dream of
putting a foothold on the continent.
``Black Americans felt that economic opportunities were limited to them in
America, Asia, and Europe,'' says Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a former
senior foreign policy researcher for the Congressional Black Caucus
Foundation, who now heads Ncediwe/Brits, a Washington D.C.-based
group that works with Africans grappling with the AIDS crisis. ``So they
focused their attention on a continent that might be more open to them and
provide more economic opportunities.''
Meanwhile, underlying the romance of going back to Africa, of making
money there, a monumental health crisis was looming: AIDS. But black
business interests still continued to push the Clinton administration for a trade
bill with Africa.
``I would argue that that is extremely shortsighted and detrimental,''
Coleman-Adebayo says. ``Is that the most important thing you can do in
Africa - support a trade bill - when we have millions dying of AIDS?''
Coleman-Adebayo sees further catastrophe looming. ``We're looking at the
depopulation of Africa as we know it,'' she says. ``It's going to become a
continent of orphans, the elderly, war victims, and the sick. I believe we
should look at AIDS in Africa as a war. And we need a war chest. We need
at least $1 billion.''
The Clinton administration recently announced a $100 million aid package to
help Africa deal with its AIDS crisis.
``That's an important step - but a small step,'' says Dellums, who plans to
encourage other foreign governments to contribute. ``Africa is our heritage,
America is our citizenship. As part of our citizenship, it is our duty to
challenge this country to realize that millions are dying in Africa.''
US Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, has presented
what she is calling a ``Marshall Plan'' to Congress to help deal with the
African AIDS epidemic. The bill, which would establish an independent
agency to help fund research and programs to combat the crisis, is
languishing in the House. Lee has corralled nearly four dozen sponsors, but
realizes there is no hope the bill will be passed this session. ``But the support
is building,'' Lee says. ``Next year we'll have a jump start.''
Lee doesn't think Rivers' criticism of other black leaders will help. ``We've
got to unify,'' she says. ``This is a whole new state of emergency. You can't
get cynical and you can't bash organizations that are doing a good job.''
One challenge, black officials acknowledge, will be how to focus on the
AIDS crisis in Africa when black Americans have a major AIDS problem
themselves. Blacks contract 45 percent of new AIDS cases in the United
States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In the mid-1980s, that
number was only 25 percent.
``Many blacks who have not done anything in the black community are now
going to help the Africans,'' says Pernessa Seele, founder of Balm In Gilead,
a New York -based group working to develop AIDS awareness in black
churches. ``I am saddened by some of the very movers and shakers who
have jumped on AIDS in Africa and not done anything about AIDS in our
Dellums agrees. ``This AIDS issue is not an `over there' issue alone,'' he
says. ``It's also right here in the 'hood.''
Seele's is one voice not shying from the issue of promiscuity. She wants
blacks to talk more openly about sexual practices in their own communities.
The issue of promiscuity, she says, is not endemic to Africans only. ``We
have some of the same practices here and we don't talk about them. We
don't talk about the brothers who sleep with four and five women.''
Seele says that the traditional role of missionaries alighting from American
churches for the shores of Africa now must change. ``As our black churches
continue to do their missionary work in Africa, they have to do something
other than just spread the word of God,'' she says. ``They must begin to
address the issue of AIDS.''
Rivers believes that black Americans can position themselves to save a
continent that continues to grip them emotionally and spiritually.
``Africa may yet be delivered by those to whom Africa sold into slavery,'' he
says. ``That's the great irony.''
End of series
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This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 10/12/99.
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