I don’t know when the AIDS crisis happens. In the sixties? Seventies?
The eighties. My AP U.S. History teacher calls the virus “hiv”, like it doesn’t stand for something else, like it’s supposed to be funny. When we watch Forrest Gump in class,he says that’s what Jenny probably died from. Nobody understands how. A contaminated needle? Sex work?
“All right, calm down,” he tells us. “It was hiv that killed her, definitely. You all have heard of it. Okay. Anyway. Now, Reaganomics.”
I’ve never heard of Reaganomics before, nor do I care much for Ronald Reagan, but I do know about HIV. Or, at least, I know about AIDS. My babysitter, a twenty-five year old from Mali, had told my sister and me about it when we were children.
“You have to take medication forever,” she said. “No cure at all.”
“How do you get it?”
“You have to touch body fluid.”
“So what if you want to kiss your baby?”
I am 15 years old clicking a pen in the back of the classroom, thinking about the babysitter and her miseducation. Mine, too: I take Health on Tuesday and Thursday mornings but sex ed consists of researching the statistics of condom failure and taking quizzes on the effects of latex versus those of polyurethane. I am 15 and have never touched a condom even in its wrapper, don’t know what one looks like in real life or how to put one on a banana. That it prevents HIV infection I know from watching Grey’s Anatomy and Degrassi, the same way I pieced together sex years after my classmates had already started doing it.
My pediatrician never asks me if I’m sexually active. He’s from Ghana and has known me since I was a baby. When he retires in May and I have to go to an out-of-town medical center to do my physical, the doctor ends up being a Nigerian who goes to my church. She also does not bother asking me if I’m sexually active, but there are papers taped to the wall reminding girls over the age of fourteen to get tested for HIV.
She sees me staring. “It’s important,” she says. “For girls in this area.” It doesn’t occur to me to even ask about the boys.
For Africa I could see the realism. Photos of rail-thin women, their robes falling down, and their children starving, flies swarming their mouths.
My mother never talked to us about AIDS in Nigeria. By the time I could understand the connections people made between Africans and disease, I was old enough to brush off the jokes as First World ignorance. It didn’t matter, anyway—she didn’t tell us much about her country in general. My sister and I only knew about the dust, from visiting in 2001, and the bombings because of the newspapers, and then the rice at parties.
My mother, though, has actually lived in the United States longer than she has lived in Nigeria. She came here in 1986, a nineteen-year old graduate student living with her brother and his family in Brooklyn. The first cases of AIDS in the U.S. had been published in newspapers five years earlier. When I asked her what she thought about the epidemic at the time, she texted back:
I was not Scare because I knew what to do .. I knew Aids is spread in certain way and people need to use Condom I was not having unprotect ed sex nor was i using contaminated needles.
it wasn’t a scary thing, all those people dying? even if you weren’t affected?
She called me then. “It’s not that I didn’t care,” she said. “It’s just that I wasn’t scared, because I knew.”
College in Nigeria had taught her well: safe sex workshops and doctors coming to speak about how AIDS really kills, more than malaria or polio.
“How did they teach you?”
“What kind of workshops?”
“Just workshops.” She pauses. “Why do you like this class so much, anyway?”
She’s referring to the one class I’m required to take as a freshman at Harvard, Expository Writing. I’d told her I put HIV/AIDS in Culture as my first choice.
“You shouldn’t have it as a first choice,” she continues. “Those times are done, it won’t help you to learn about it. AIDS? Why would you want to learn about that?”
I’m not very sure how to answer that question. I have read Three Junes, How I Loved You, Just Between Us, and The Hours—all novels with HIV-positive gay men as central characters. I’ve read Two Boys Kissing and felt my eyes widen with horror at the author’s description of death, constant death, before this new wave of LGBTQ liberation. AIDS, for me, is associated with terrible loss. For my mother, though, AIDS is not about homosexuality at all. It’s about the stigmatization of her homeland, racial slurs against her people, Africa becoming an embodiment of contamination. In America, she only saw the illness on the news and heard about protests on the radio, but she did not know the extent to which AIDS was ravaging the cities. I think of her sitting on the subway in her long skirts and sweaters, Jeri-curled hair, staring, perplexed, at an ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) poster wheat-pasted on the other side of the train.
My father might also have seen these posters, but on the Capital Metro in Austin where he was an undergrad at the University of Texas. When I call to ask him what he thought about AIDS in the eighties, he says, “Oh, it was very, very scary. We didn’t really know what was going on. Nobody know what was going on, people sick, dying, left to right…there was so much people, nobody I knew but still…nobody knew what was AIDS...”
It’s an answer I hadn’t expected. My mother is typically more aware of her surroundings, and of current events, than he is. But she had come from the village and America was paradise. My father, in contrast, came from a very wealthy family in Nigeria, and consequently poverty was not a characteristic he was trying to shake off; he came to study in the U.S. only because he failed his WAEC, West Africa’s version of the SAT. His confusion throughout the years of the epidemic, as he goes on to explain to me, stemmed from everyone else’s confusion. People said you could get it from touching hands. People said that was impossible, you could only get it from sex. People said heterosexuals didn’t have to worry about contracting anything.
“You see,” he tells me. “Very crazy. Very scary.”
“What was the government doing? Reagan, or whoever.”
“Eh. A lot of stuff, I think. The disease was just very bad.”
But on Reagan’s Wikipedia page, his response to the AIDS epidemic consists of two thin paragraphs detailing how the administration mostly ignored the crisis. Even the War on Drugs and a list of his filmography both have lengthy descriptions (and links to their own separate articles), and there is nothing about AIDS in regards to his legacy. Instead, Wikipedia describes his restoration of the American morale and a renewal of the American Dream.
“Why are you asking?” my father wants to know, and so I answer him the way I answered my mother: “Because I don’t have much knowledge about that time in history.”
He makes no comment about it. My mother had repeated, “But how is that going to help you?”
There is a new drug called Truvada that prevents HIV infection. I learn about it at an AIDS Walk in July, an end-of-the-year activity planned by my STEP program.
At this point, I have a love-hate relationship with the STEP program. On one hand, I like it better than school because of all the friends I’ve made there. On the other, I’d undeclared myself pre-med in February, and attending the Saturday classes remind me of the nightmare that was tenth grade chemistry.
Despite the program’s deep emphasis on medicine, we receive no information about HIV and AIDS before assembling on 168th Street to board the train together. The event is sent to the email list, highlighted mandatory, and that’s that. We are expected to show up robust and attentive.
It’s the twenty-eighth annual AIDS Walk NY, hosted by the GMHC. Nobody has any idea what GMHC stands for. My friend Jude suggests that it is a medical insurance company, perhaps, or some kind of fundraising organization like the American Cancer Society. There are stands named after people who’ve died from AIDS, testing stations, merchandise being given out. Tearful black women thanking us for our support. We are too confused to understand why. Even more confused when the STEP administrator asks us to hold up signs with the program’s name on them.
“We’re representing the university,” he says, but it just seems so strange to me, so callous, when everyone else is carrying signs with the names of the dead.
DeBlasio speaks about the cost of the pills for high risk populations and I raise up my arms to take snapchats of him, a tiny glowing figure at the podium under the American flag. Smells of body, as we are all so close together, sounds of crying as DeBlasio addresses the audience. People start the walk in tears. We, a blue-shirted, poster-wielding group of high school students, complain about the humidity along the checkpoints, stopping at random to pose for group photos.
I don’t even make it out until the end. It gets too hot, I’m tired, and once I can see the streets over Central Park’s hills, I duck under the security tape and dash into a convenience store for air conditioning.
Why is AIDS such a big thing in New York City anyway? I wonder, fanning myself against the wall, wiping the sweat off my phone screen to scroll through my Legião Urbana albums. Nobody dies from it in America anymore.
My birthday’s passed but I have not yet read Three Junes, and so I don’t know about Malachy Burns dying alone in his Greenwich Village apartment. I know, however, that the lead singer of Legião Urbana, Renato Russo, died of complications due to AIDS in 1996. But I have seen him too many times on YouTube, strolling across the stage, sinking to his knees and wailing into the microphone. The greatest artist of all time could not have died horrifically.
I picture Jenny from Forrest Gump, dressed in white with flowers in her hair, peacefully going in her sleep—that’s how it must have been, I think, for lots of people.
I’ve cried a lot this semester because of Expository Writing. I finish watching The Normal Heart at 2 a.m. and sit there on my bed in the dark, sobbing. One of the documentaries we’re asked to watch, How to Survive a Plague, almost brings me to tears in the common room. In the car over spring break, I read Angels in America, one of our required texts, and my mother asks me if I’m developing a cold, from the sound of my sniffling.
“No,” I say. “It’s this book.”
“What about the book?”
“Just. The book.”
Actually, the readings. And the “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” posters. And the pictures of emaciated bodies tied up in garbage bags, turned away from funeral homes: one of the nation’s greatest manifestations of indifference. How disturbing that it was a relief at that time, when my AP U.S. History teacher skipped over the unit, to not have to take another test on something else.
We don’t take exams in Expos, but we don’t skip over anything related to the epidemic either. We analyze ACT UP t-shirt designs and learn that if we were to be transported back into the nineties, most students on campus would have been wearing them, and we would have had SILENCE=DEATH buttons on our backpacks.
Would I have had a button on my backpack?
I look to my bare laptop, no stickers that identify me as a supporter of anything significant. The only rally I’ve ever attended was that AIDS Walk in 2014, and as a child, had accompanied my mother to a March for Life. There were other demonstrations, ones sponsored by Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, but they were in New York City and my suburban lifestyle encouraged laziness: the Long Island Rail Road was expensive, I could never figure out how to navigate the subway trains, and moreover, I was deathly afraid of getting arrested for protesting.
I am not, however, afraid of reading about AIDS. Or talking about it. In fact, I call my mother all the time to tell her about the literature we read and the films I’ve watched. Every time I say, “So in my HIV/AIDS class…” I can feel her discomfort on the other end of the line. Which is totally okay, I want to tell her. For a lot of people, it’s an uncomfortable topic.
She doesn’t ask me why I care about the class anymore, she just listens to me. And that is the most gratifying part.