Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Return from exile: Sanchez illuminates World AIDS Day

Last night, I made my first trip to WNYC's Greene Space for a World AIDS Day event featuring performances by the pioneering poet Sonia Sanchez and acclaimed dancer-choreographer Ronald K. Brown as well as a conversation among Sanchez and health advocates. Greene Space's intimate setting created a special feeling of welcome quite appropriate to the artists' theme of acceptance, truthful dialogue and reconciliation within the Black family and within the larger family that is the Black community.

Warmly accompanied by jazz musicians Odean Pope (saxophone), Kenny Gates (piano) and Lee Smith (bass), Sanchez performed her award-winning Does Your House Have Lions?--a rhythmic conjure-work in book form. The poem deals with her gay brother's estrangement and struggles, his migration from the South to New York City where "a new geography created him," his political awakening and his passing, from AIDS, in 1981. Brown enhanced Sanchez's mesmerizing vocal performance with big, hungry, panther-ish moves. The radiance of speaker, dancer and musical trio reached across the short distance from artists to audience, hearts to hearts.

"How how how...how to return from exile?" Sanchez's poem asks. The evening's panel, moderated by pan-media journalist Esther Armah, explored this question as it relates to the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS on people of African descent. With an increase in HIV infection among Black men who have sex with men, young Black men and Black women under 30, the African-American community simply cannot afford to avoid frank, uncensored talk about sexuality and health.

Panelists Dr. Monica Sweeney, MD (Assistant Commissioner for HIV/AIDS for the New York City Department of Health) and Phill Wilson (Founder and Executive Director, Black AIDS Institute) offered some measure of hope, pointing to a gradual decrease in stigmatization of people with HIV/AIDS, even within Black churches, and more openness to honest talk about sexual orientation, sexual behavior and methods of preventing infection.

Societal and psychological barriers to prevention and care still exist, but Armah's panelists emphasized how individuals and communities can empower and protect themselves. "We need to have these conversations in more robust ways," Wilson said. "You have the power to stop transmission of HIV. You deserve to protect yourself."

Sweeney noted, with great concern, one segment of the population--women over 50--who sometimes engage in unprotected sex "as if age is a vaccine" and HIV something that happens to other people. She offers HIV testing to people of all ages and believes that if the test were part of all routine care, it would be accepted with no shame. The NYC health department's female condom program has been expanded, she says, enabling women to guard their health without having to figure out ways to negotiate safety with their partners.

One audience member raised the question of sexual abuse and domestic violence in the community and how they complicate prevention and healthcare. The panelists noted that the Black family and community have tended to shroud these issues in silence, although--thanks to high-profile cases, the testimony of celebrities who have been victimized, and works of art such as Sapphire's novel Push and the extraordinary film, Precious, based on it--more attention and resources are being directed to these parallel problems.

"AIDS is the health crisis of our day, and what we do about it will be our legacy," Wilson said. While he acknowledged the Obama administration's efforts around needle exchange programs, the extension of the Ryan White Act and the recent lifting of the ban for HIV+ people traveling into the US, he noted that we still lack a comprehensive, national AIDS strategy and meaningful healthcare reform.

I commend WNYC for presenting this informative and imaginative program. To view a schedule of upcoming events at the Greene Space, click here.

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