The black AIDS movement has its firmly established heroes—the Black AIDS Institute’s Phill Wilson, BEBASHI’s Gary Bell, the Balm in Gilead’s Pernessa Seele, Dr. Benny Primm, and Magic Johnson, to name just a few. But so much more work remains to be done—in the realms of prevention, policy, clinical research and fighting stigma in the community. Who are the next bright lights? Who’s boldly going where few others dare? Here is POZ’s 2006 list of ten black AIDS leaders to watch—and what we expect from them.
The Powerbroker: Constance Howard
Thanks to Illinois state representative Constance Howard, prisoners there are getting access to condoms and motorists can get free rapid HIV tests while renewing their licenses. Last year, Howard, now 63, co-drafted the African-American HIV/AIDS Response Act, the first of its kind. It’s packed with truly innovative provisions, including a new state cabinet official and voluntary HIV testing for any Illinois inmate who requests it. Signed into law by Governor Rod Blagojevich, the act took effect in January of this year. Howard says it was critical to help prisoners, who have an infection rate five times that of the general Illinois population. The six-term Chicago Democrat, who has never had any close friends or family with AIDS, knows that much will be demanded of her next year. “We still have to get the funding for much of this,” she says. “So I’m running again in March.” Rock the vote.
The Grandmother: Thelma Wright
It’s hard for a drug user to get any love, much less clean needles, even from liberal policymakers around the country. But Wright, 57, a retired tobacco-factory mechanic, singlehandedly started an underground needle exchange program in High Point, her hometown, and founded the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, urging the state to stop banning HIV prevention programs that include clean needle distribution. Despite the illegality of needle exchange in North Carolina, Wright insists it’s critical in order to stem HIV transmission. (The state’s health director and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regional planning group both stand behind her.) Can she maintain her momentum? Wright says humbly: “I just do what I have to do.” More than a decade ago, she made a deathbed promise to a friend who died of AIDS: “I’ll do everything I can to fight this disease.”
The Soloist: Joseph Gathe, MD
Attacking HIV with a combination of meds has been the standard of care. So when Dr. Gathe came along, thinking he could treat the mostly African-American patients in his clinical trial with a single drug (the protease inhibitor Kaletra) peers balked. But with one in five African Americans lacking health insurance, Gathe, 49, thinks he can decrease the number of pills they have to take, simplify therapy and cut cost as well as transmission rates. In a pioneering study last year, he found promising data supporting a solo flight. “To ignore single-agent therapy is to turn our backs on a potential, viable cost-effective treatment intervention on a worldwide basis,” says Gathe, an infectious-disease specialist at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine. While docs charge that Gathe’s approach could spur treatment resistance, his research continues. “It’s attainable,” he says.
The Equalizer: M. Keith Rawlings, MD
Do activist docs taint their medical credibility? It’s a risk M. Keith Rawlings, MD, 49, is willing to take. Colleagues dub him, perhaps skeptically, “the Mr. HIV of the National Medical Association.” Indeed, he has dedicated his career to ensuring that African Americans, who constitute 50% of HIV infections but have been glaringly absent from clinical trials, win proportionate representation as patients, clinicians and beneficiaries of AIDS research dollars. “We must be proactive in educating, training and establishing policy as it relates to the needs of our community,” says Dr. Rawlings, who founded Houston’s Integrated Minority AIDS Network Inc. (IMANI) to educate clinicians on HIV issues. As director of the Peabody Health Center/AIDS Arms Inc. in Dallas, he also helps indigent people of color with HIV get the meds and services they need. “As a physician, parent and community member, I have a responsibility,” Rawlings says. Let’s hope he impacts doctors and dollars, too.
The Young Gun: Marvelyn Brown
Meet Generation HIV. “In high school, you knew students like me, right?” asks Marvelyn Brown, 21. “I ran with the popular group; I had the hottie boyfriend.” But in 2003, after graduation and a two-month fling with another hottie, Brown contracted pneumonia—and found that she had HIV. Her friends and family disowned her. “I was upset with myself and mad that more information on STDs wasn’t covered in school,” she says. So Brown committed herself to helping at-risk teens—and has taught her native Nashville a crash course in youth prevention. A peer educator at Nashville CARES, she became the first recipient of the Tarsha Durant Youth Award for Positive Leadership at the Ryan White National Youth Conference. She spoke outside the White House at a national student AIDS march and brought her message to MTV—and might soon appear on the UPN network. “In high school, it only looked like I was on top of the world,” she says on her HIV journal, www.marvelynbrown.com. Will she face a similar reality check in the AIDS movement? Brown giggles. “Oh, I don’t think so.”
The Maverick: Alicia Keys
Many black celebs have rocked the mike for AIDS awareness—Sheryl Lee Ralph, LL Cool J, Dionne Warwick, Mary J. Blige and Russell Simmons, for instance. But in her AIDS activism, which began in 2001 after a trip to Africa, Alicia Keys has shown the kind of commitment and global vision that could make her the next Bono. The singer/songwriter, who turned down a scholarship to Columbia University to sign with Columbia Records (later decamping for Clive Davis’ J Records), packs intellectual weight and mass appeal, counting both hip-hop teens and rap-abhorring grown folks among her fans. She is the global ambassador for Keep a Child Alive, which sponsors HIV meds for children and parents in Africa; she also helps two children and their mothers get the meds they need and has enjoined the Chers of the world to do so as well. “She’s tireless when it comes to this issue,” says rapper Common, who joined other artists on a Keys-led tour of Africa in 2006. Keys says her motive is simple: “The pandemic is truly just destroying the continent.”
The Dissident: David Malebranche, MD
David Malebranche, MD, has been debunking what everyone else, from your Aunt Bessie to Oprah, has been hyping: black men on the down low. In 2005, the Emory University physician and CDC researchers released a groundbreaking analysis of the sexual behavior of men of different races. They found that black men who have sex with men, while more likely to identify as straight and have unsafe sex with women than men of other races, were actually less likely than openly gay black men to practice unprotected sex with other men. Research “doesn’t support the theory that DL men are a bridge for HIV to the general black community,” says Dr. Malebranche, 37. The study called for further research into HIV in prison, low condom use, the trading of sex for drugs or money and higher rates of other STDs. Meanwhile, he’s taking Oprah and author JL King to task. “Demonizing black male sexuality has been a staple of American culture since slavery,” he says.
The Bohemian: Common
Rapper and frequent Kanye West collaborator Common is not your ordinary platinum artist. The weed- and alcohol-free vegetarian and yoga enthusiast doesn’t sport diamond ropes or fancy rims and rarely does he rhyme about bling, bullets and booty. Rather, the themes of his music, in full effect in his critically acclaimed 2005 album, Be, are personal and spiritual growth as well as racial empowerment. Common has been perhaps the lone rapper with mainstream name recognition to tackle the subject of homophobia in his music. And as a spokesperson for the HIV testing campaign “Knowing Is Beautiful,” his face has been ubiquitous at subway stops and bus shelters around the nation. Hardly content to be a poster child, he runs a nonprofit foundation called Common Ground. “Our whole premise is raising AIDS awareness among youth,” he says. “I speak at colleges, high schools and grammar schools, to whoever will listen. The fact that my uncle passed away from AIDS was just more motivation for me to speak up.”
The Coach: Larry Bryant
Can Bryant, a smooth former college football jock, become a Most Valuable Player in the rush against HIV? Housing Works, one of the country’s largest AIDS agencies, hired him last year to build networks in 13 states for its new national AIDS coalition, the Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA). Bryant, 39, straight and positive, will crisscross the country from Washington, DC, where he’ll keep tackling Congress about its HIV obligations. The military brat says that he’s a natural adapter. “I can reach across boundaries,” he says. “Sometimes advocates get caught up in their own thing.” Bryant’s thing won’t be easy—turnout for C2EA’s 2005 DC rally was small. “People who measure with numbers didn’t see our impact in, say, Georgia or Arkansas,” says Bryant. “But it’s happening.”
The Gadfly: Rev. Al Sharpton
Yes, he’s a slick opportunist. And when it comes to speaking out about AIDS and homophobia in the black community, he’s a Johnny-come-lately compared to Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Balm in Gilead’s Pernessa Seele and courageous faith leaders like Rev. James A. Forbes in New York City and Rev. Alvin O. Jackson in Washington, DC. But let’s face it—when you’ve hosted Saturday Night Live, flossed fly gear in GQ and are simply the most sought-after talking head on race and politics in America, people are bound to listen to you. That’s why, in July 2005, when Sharpton announced a campaign through his National Action Network to attack AIDS in the black community, it was news. “I’m calling on black preachers to step to the line in confronting the issue of homophobia among African Americans,” he said. OK, he announced in the home of a major gay donor. But let’s hope the words, long overdue from a major black leader, indeed lead to action.