Today is World AIDS Day (#WAD2017) and this year’s campaign theme is “Let’s End It.” World AIDS Day was the first global health day. The worldwide day of recognition began in 1988 as a campaign to raise funds to fight the disease, raise awareness about the disease, and commemorate the lives of those who have succumbed to the disease.
For too long AIDS has been thought of as “those” people’s disease. Since the dawn of fear and blame, “those” people have allowed “us” to sleep without worry. “Those” people remind “us” that “we” are okay. And with AIDS it is no different. “We” reason that AIDS is a disease afflicting LGBTQ individuals, so “we” recklessly reason that if “we” do not engage in same-sex encounters, we can never be infected. “We” reason that AIDS is a disease of drug-abusers, so we recklessly reason that as long as “we” do not use intravenous drugs, “we” can never be infected. “We” reason that individuals infected with HIV/AIDS are unattractive, undesirable, economically depraved, unkind, unholy, or uneducated. “We” tell ourselves that HIV/AIDS happens to people who are unfamiliar, people who are unlike “us.” This is the kind of flawed logic that allowed HIV/AIDS to spread during the 1980s and 90s. Few were willing to face the reality that HIV/AIDS has no sexual preference, no socioeconomic preference, no religious preference, no type at all. HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, needs only a human body for it to thrive.
On this global day of support and reflection, I would like to spotlight the work of poet, writer, playwright, and academic, Kwame Dawes and photographer Joshua Cogan. After carrying out dozens of interviews with HIV infected individuals in Jamaica, in 2007 Dawes and Cogan, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, created a visually stunning, multi-modal, and interactive website called Live Hope Love (and a book published by Peepal Tree Press) that takes a very human look at HIV and AIDS on the island of Jamaica. For too long HIV/AIDS has been thought of as “those” people’s disease, not “ours.” With the nuanced dexterity that only a poet and a photographer can bring, HIV/AIDS is explored in a way that reminds everyone that disease has no face or status, and that this disease does not discriminate.
In a poem titled “News,” we hear the voice of a man, newly diagnosed with HIV. Kwame Dawes captures the voice of reflection, ignorance, and regret. Dawes captures the voice of someone who thought he knew what AIDS looked like, someone who chose unprotected sex and wound up with a life-long diagnosis. Below, I quote portions of Kwame Dawes’ poem “News.” I warn you, the poem is uncensored and raw in language as well as in subject matter.
At first you look at your naked self
and you hold your dick in your hand,
and you think, “all this, all this
over some quick and fleeting fuck?”
You say you was minding your
business when the woman call
you; say you must come in,
take a test; you say you never know.
But people talk and you heard. Hannah
dead of AIDS. And you remember
Hannah, her legs over your shoulder,
And the way she laughed, dear God!
Outside, you can’t talk to a soul;
don’t know where you must turn.
You want to take a shower, and to shower
For days and days, and days.
But this betrayal of desire
is a cruel, cruel thing, for true.
Let Kwame Dawes’ words serve as a reflection and a warning. Don’t let the ignorance, discrimination, or the “betrayal of desire” infect you.
When we begin to understand that HIV/AIDS does not discriminate, then we all work to end the isolation and the stigma associated with the disease. And when we end discrimination and commit to protection, we all help to end HIV transmission. In honor of World AIDS Day and in honor of all those who have died to this disease, I urge everyone to be wise.