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Silent killer of Black American women

Ray Jordan | 10/3/2013, 1:33 p.m.
“If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of White women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would ...
Kimberly Edwards, a recent college graduate, chooses a headstone for her mother’s grave. Seated to her left is Raymond Carroll with Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Edwards said that her mother died from AIDS, a secret the two kept from family and friends until her mother was too sick to hide it any longer. Photo by Robyn H. Jimenez

Wilson point out that the ravishing rates of HIV among Black women can be traced to the age-old culprits of racial and gender bias. The first cases of HIV/AIDS were found among White MSMs or “men who have sex with men.” However, when the color of the epidemic shifted from White to Black, the inherent gender bias focused only on the needs of Black men, rendering women seemingly invisible. Likewise, when gender became a new lens through which to track the epidemic, White women were the first and primary focus, yet again leaving no measures to examine the epidemic through the lives and experiences of Black women.

The invisibility of African American women within the HIV/AIDS epidemic, some argue, is indicative of how Black women are also viewed or not, in larger society. For decades, Black women and their advocates have argued that the absence of Black women from the world of research has as much to do with how they are viewed in most national dialogues. Therefore, advocates of Black women’s health have called for what is known as a “gendered race analysis,” which might account for the experiences of both genders across a wide racial and ethnicity spectrum. Moreover, the lack of such analysis, they argue, has not only made Black women invisible to the channels of medical and public health research, but to American society at large.

While Black women encounter other factors that fuel disparities among all African Americans, such as poverty and the lack of accessible health care, they also encounter issues surrounding health care, relationships and other social context that is unique to them. Therefore, a gendered race analysis seeks to view an area of interest through the lens of race as well as gender. Without both emphases, Black women and their specific needs have often gone neglected.

This lack of perspective and outreach to Black women is exactly what has fueled Marsha Jones and her advocacy. Jones is the co-founder and executive director of The Afiya Center, a women-centered organization that seeks reproductive justice and HIV prevention. Her work within HIV/AIDS started close to home. As she watched her nephew lay in a stranger’s home in South Dallas while dying of AIDS in the late 1980s, she recognized that if anything was worse than the actual virus, it was the shame, stigma and isolation he received from his family, community and church. At this point, she dedicated her life to HIV advocacy, seeking to end the effects of the disease and the effects of the stigma.

In her efforts, it wasn’t long before Jones recognized the pressing need for HIV prevention, treatment and advocacy among Black women. “HIV mirrors the societal context by which Black women have been regarded in America,” Jones said. “So in some context HIV has not treated Black women differently, it simply followed a pattern that was already woven into the societal fabric. Because of this, Black women from the very beginning were becoming sick and dying from this disease and nobody even noticed when we were gone.”