August 14, 2006—At past International AIDS Conferences, African Americans and the scope of the HIV epidemic in black America has largely been missing from the conversation. Conference attendees, even those from other parts of the black/African diaspora, have been shocked to hear that HIV continues to plague the United States, the richest country on the planet.

But it does, and African Americans bear the brunt. Blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population but represent 49% of all AIDS cases. African-American women comprise nearly 70% of women who are newly diagnosed with HIV, and black men are 44% of new HIV diagnoses. The death rate for AIDS is seven times higher for black men and 23 times higher among black women compared to their white counterparts. HIV is the number one killer of young black women.

Against the startling statistical backdrop and in the presence of the international AIDS community in Toronto this week, the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute (BAI) has begun to bring the details of the African-American HIV epidemic to light. “In Bangkok, Helene Gayle [president of the International AIDS Society] and I had a conversation about the lack of visibility of African Americans at these meetings,” says Phill Wilson, executive director of BAI. “We said there would be a change this time, and there was.”

Wilson’s approach is multi-pronged. He and his organization are mobilizing African-American churches, media, fraternities and sororities, civil rights organizations and politicians to take action against AIDS. By and large, each of these groups ignored the scope of the HIV crisis early on, and had to be dragged to the table. But they are beginning to sit there now. “Today AIDS in America is a black disease,” Wilson told POZ. “The tragedy is it didn’t have to be that way, but it is. We can no longer afford to pretend that it’s somebody else’s problem. The only way for us to survive is for everyone to do their part.”

In Toronto on Saturday, BAI kicked off its mobilization strategy with an all-day roundtable for the black media. About 25 representatives from radio, internet, television, magazines and newspapers participated, all attending an international AIDS meeting for the first time. The participants were an eclectic bunch, representing a wide range of interest and experience—from the elder stateswoman Mary Mitchell, a columnist for the Chicago Sun Times to Morgan Dukes, an on-air personality on an Atlanta gospel radio program and “Dr. Rachael,” who hosts a sex and entertainment radio talk show in Miami.

Hosted by Jerry Lopes of American Urban Radio Network and George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and, participants heard presentations about HIV epidemiology, vaccine trials, microbicides and prevention and treatment policy. The highlight was a lunchtime appearance by the actor/director Bill Duke, who showed a rough cut of his documentary, “Faces of HIV,” which he hopes to complete in the next few months.

While doing research for a feature film about the so-called downlow, Duke, who has directed “Sister Act 2” and “Deep Cover” among other movies and starred in “Get Rich or Die Trying” and “X Men 3,” was horrified by the statistics about the African-American AIDS crisis. In response, he executive produced the 45-minute doc which features interviews with ministers, community leaders, politicians and people living with HIV.

Then yesterday, BAI pulled together its delegation of African American elected officials, ministers and civil rights leaders—the largest group of its kind ever to attend an international HIV/AIDS conference, for a special afternoon session called “The State of AIDS in Black America.” The large slate of speakers included Julian Bond; Congresswomen Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters and Donna M. Christensen; actress Sheryl Lee Ralph and featured representatives from The National Council of Negro Women, National Black Justice Coalition, Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and others.

To illustrate the radical change in the response of traditional African American organizations to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Pernessa Seele of the Balm in Gilead, an organization now based in South Carolina that encourages church participation in the AIDS fight, offered this story: “At Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, we convinced the pastor to teach about AIDS prevention, but he agreed to abstinence-only—that was it,” says Seele. “But after the fifth woman infected with HIV came to him, he realized that he had to do something more. Now the Antioch Baptist Church tests more people for HIV than the Department of Health in Cleveland.”

BAI will continue its African-American outreach activities throughout the week in conjunction with ACCHO, the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario. Here are a few. For a complete list, ask for a brochure called “The African/Black Diaspora Stream” in the press room:

--10:30 to Noon: Mobilizing Black College students, TS1, Black Networking Zone
--3-5 PM: Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, “Black women telling their stories, room 310 in Metro Hall

--10:30 AM-12:15 PM: Screening and Discussion, Bill Duke “Faces of HIV,” WS1, Global Village, Black Networking Zone
--4:15-6:15: Screening and Discussion, winners of the BET “Rap It Up” Film Competition, Global Village Film Lounge Theater
--6:30-8 PM: Special Screening and Discussion with Renata Simon, producer of the TV special “Age of AIDS” Global Village, Black Networking Zone

Also look out for a round-up of Monday events of the conference later on today.