AIDS AND THE AFRICAN

AIDS AND THE AFRICAN

 

DENIAL

US black leaders react

 

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

Africa.

 

``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

own communities.''

 

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.

Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.