Talking the Talk

South Africans aren't the only ones keeping quiet about AIDS.


Jonny Steinberg’s article on South African AIDS literature reminded me of a reading from my book The Invisible Cure I had arranged to give at a black bookstore near my house in Harlem (“An Eerie Silence,” May/June 2011).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the HIV rate in this and other predominantly black New York neighborhoods may be as high as 6 percent — not in South Africa’s league, but very high indeed. But just as in South Africa, no one wanted to talk about it. Pharmaceutical companies advertise AIDS drugs on bus shelters, and the Department of Health and Human Services sponsors HIV-testing campaigns, but local newspapers, churches, and community groups are silent on the issue. In keeping with this general tendency, the only people who turned up at my reading were my husband and the bookstore’s cashier. (Two friends and the bookstore’s owner appeared later.)

Fighting AIDS isn’t impossible. During the 1980s and early 1990s, steep declines in HIV infections occurred in both American gay white men and in the general population of the East African country of Uganda, where the virus was spreading predominantly among heterosexuals, as it is in South Africa and the U.S. black community today. Even if the causes of the gay white American and Ugandan epidemics were different, the key to fighting them was similar: behavior change among communities at risk, motivated by frank discussion of sex and relationships. Literary and artistic responses to AIDS in both countries were part of this vital conversation.

What is stifling a similar response to AIDS among African-Americans and in South Africa? As Steinberg notes, it’s probably shame. In both South Africa and the United States, the alleged hypersexuality of blacks was used to justify the racist ideas that underpinned apartheid and Jim Crow laws, and much black cultural expression today is devoted to dispelling racist myths and promoting black pride. As Steinberg also notes, talking frankly about AIDS and sex must seem like capitulation, an admission that the sexualized racist stereotypes of the past were true. Ugandans, by contrast, never endured these burdens of alleged inferiority to anything like a similar degree. During colonial times, the advancement of native Ugandans in medicine, law, government, agriculture, and other fields promoted the idea that they could solve their own problems. Similarly, the gay pride movement rooted in the 1960s helped gay men face up to the reality of AIDS in the 1980s. In communities where this sense of empowerment is lacking, programs for HIV treatment and testing alone can never generate it. Only language can do that, and only black culture at its most creative can find it.  

Helen Epstein
New York, N.Y.

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