A World AIDS Day Speech: A Celebration of Life

T, one of my closest friends during my teenage and college years: a young man that was esteemed by so many, a passionate friend with a heart and smile that was mesmerizing, a jokester, a confidant, a loving brother, a responsible son, a compassionate and gentle lover, an angel…passed on much too early–and too the dismay of many of those that loved him, passed on from this earth with a life shrouded in shock, secrecy and shame.

I missed his going-home service, but discovered that no one was daring and devoted enough to name the disease that complicated his illness and wreaked havoc on his striking, but fragile, body.

His choice of “lifestyle” un-named.

His wrestle with HIV-related illness, un-named.

His ability, strength and witness to a life worth living, even while having to face the fear of public and private humiliation, un-named.

The fact that he shut the world out because of their fierce judgments, un-named.

T, a brilliant, beautiful, bountiful, blissful Black man whose life, humor, generosity, and candor touched the lives of everyone he came into contact with, passed on without having the full story of his life told. T, and many others who are infected with/or affected by HIV/AIDS–should not have to exist in the memories of family and friends un-named because of one’s inability to see beyond the negativity that is too often attached to HIV and AIDS. Thus, I am here to proclaim loudly, in solidarity with all of you, that we can still celebrate life even in the midst of seeming despair.

I know that it seems paradoxical to laugh when a situation may call for tears, to jump up and down in an excitable fervor when the time calls for a solemn embrace, to shout out a heart-felt word of thanks even though the moment may warrant silence; however, we are living during a particular space in time that requires us to be paradoxical, to see light even in the midst of darkness, to laugh when we should be crying, simply, to break the rules that have governed our responses to HIV/AIDS for far too long.

I am not arguing for us to be ignorant to the grim realities that we are faced with right now as it relates to HIV/AIDS and its local, regional and global impact, no. We can not ignore the disturbing fact that among the five (5) counties in the Newark Eligible Metropolitan Area [EMA], Essex County is grossly impacted by HIV/AIDS. We can not be happy that the city of Newark is home to the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS [PLWHA] in the EMA. We can not jump up and rejoice because of the fact that women in general, African-Americans specifically, infants, children and men-who have sex with men, are populations that are disproportionately affected by HIV. No!

These facts are and should be alarming to all elected officials, public officers, corporations, small businesses, schools, hospitals, community leaders, adults, children, mothers, fathers, gay, bi, straight, black, white, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, rich or poor…everyone in our city, everyone in our county, everyone in our region, everyone in our country…everyone in the world. Yet, like any other epidemic of this proportion that has ravaged the lives of the most marginalized in our communities we can not allow IT to overcome our tenacity, our strength or our ability as human beings to transcend the desperation and sadness that cloaks even the mention of HIV or AIDS. We can’t! And, we won’t!

Far too many of us are gripped by fear because of HIV/AIDS.
We won’t get tested because of fear.
We won’t tell our status to those whom it directly affects because of fear.
We won’t tell our closest friends about the plight of our infected and affected partners, family members, or friends because of fear.
We won’t sip off of the cup of that person we know is infected because of fear.

HIV/AIDS: it should not be named, we think.
HIV/AIDS: it is a disgraceful disease, we think.
HIV/AIDS: it’s God’s punishment for sinful behavior, we think.

But I am here to advance the argument that as long as we continue to give power to fear, negativity and shame…as long as we allow HIV/AIDS, and those infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS to be pathologized, we will have no reason for celebration. Therefore, if we are to take back our lives, our witness, our communities and our bodies, we must first de-pathologize the epidemic and testify to the realistic dimensions of its impact while at the same time humanizing our fight, our human struggle against it.

But that still doesn’t respond to the difficulty of celebrating when many think that we should be looming in despair. It doesn’t respond to the real questions that plaque the minds of those who daily face HIV/AIDS: Like, How do you expect me to celebrate what some see as an impending death wish? How can I dance when my body still wants to rest? How is it even possible for me to speak about my plight against a disease so demonized?

These questions are real. They are piercing and hint at the reality of what it is like to live under the label of HIV positive. But I am reminded of the ability of the human spirit and the human body to rise above despair. The ability of the human body to still produce a smile even when one is fighting back a tear. The ability of the human spirit to rejuvenate itself even after the most difficult of tragedies. The ability of the human body to resist pain and atrophy even after being told that it is being warred against by venomous viruses. The ability of the human spirit to stand up and rejoice even when the world that it resides in appears to be dressed in gloom and desperation.

Several years ago, I boarded a plane in route to California. I can remember the day like it was yesterday. The sky was a dark and a gloomy grey, a hard rainfall was pouring wetting everything in its path…I entered my plane with sullen, worried and teary eyes…I was crying on the inside and shedding tears on the outside. Life seemed to be at its worst! I felt alone. I felt depressed. I felt as if there was no need to live on. I watched the wing of the plane shift and glide through the wind gust as we took flight…I watched the rain batter the wings…I could see the lightning flashing across the sky…more tears and more pain. As we elevated I sensed a shift in the atmosphere. The rain was slowing down…and the grey was rapidly disappearing. I was still hiding my tears until finally we flew so high above the clouds that the sun was shining as boldly and beautifully as ever. It was almost as if the universe was sending me a message…encouraging me that as long that I could live long enough to see what stood on the opposite side of the gloomy clouds I would have reason enough to live on and rejoice. My tears ceased…my hands dried, I took a deep breathe, and I rejoiced.

In the same way, the world would have us to think that we exist only in the dimension of gloom…in the grey, but I would like to encourage you to stick your head up above the cloud so that you too can see the sun shining bright! I ended landing in California and, yes, it was still cloudy, but I had already seen the sun and therefore still had reason to rejoice. We may not be able to wish away the alarming statistics or the harsh realities associated with HIV/AIDS but we can change the way we view our selves in the midst of it.

It is possible for us to celebrate life, yes, even if it’s in the midst of disparity.

-darnell m.

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