by Erica Woodland
I came into the social justice movement by way of harm reduction and work in the fields of HIV prevention and the prison industrial complex. After college, I returned home to Baltimore (one of the few remaining Chocolate cities) and began volunteering at Power Inside, an organization that works with women impacted by violence, the prison system, and HIV. I was guided to this work because of its explicit focus on healing for black women, poor women, lesbian, queer and trans women. Direct service work rooted in the core understanding that “risk” for HIV and incarceration are deeply tied to poverty, white supremacy, and patriarchy.
Mainstream HIV work continues to deny the ways that these systems of oppression are set up to feed black bodies into the HIV and prison industries. With coded language such as “racial disparities” and “disproportionate minority confinement”, we are allowed to distance ourselves from the real legacy of genocide and slavery that are the basis of this country and the so-called health care system. Baltimore continues to have one of the highest rates of HIV in the country and in 2010 was ranked number 3 for the rate of people living with HIV*. Having privilege and access to even a few basic resources in this city may mean the difference between going to college or jail; and most definitely influences how much you are affected by HIV and AIDS.
I only later learned how close to home HIV was to me and my family. Silence, stigma, and isolation surely contributed to this. Growing up, my mother had a very dear friend named Russell. At an early age he was one of a few consistent, nurturing and beautiful men in my life. What I remember most is his deep devotion to my mother and her children, the emotional and likely financial support he offered her, and visits to his house, which was reminiscent of Studio 54 – black and red velvet, mirrors, all gold everything and dim lighting. He would take my brother and I on outings probably to give my mother a much needed break. Recently I found a photo of him at my mother’s baby shower a testament to their long-term friendship.
In my early 20s, my mother and I were having a rare conversation about homophobia amongst black folks. She shared that Russell was gay and that after a long period of time of losing touch with him, she found out that he had passed away. His family did not inform her or likely any of his other friends but only told her that he had “cancer”. She knew that he had died from AIDS and regretted not being able to see him before he died or attend his funeral. As with most grief-laden topics, my mother only mentioned this to me once and we never spoke of it again.
Since then I have worked with many HIV positive people – primarily black folks who are also poor and LGBTQ. I have had dear friends get diagnosed and struggle to navigate accessing healthcare and healing resources while maintaining a sense of dignity. I have worked in social justice movements that rarely mention HIV or AIDS as an issue that impacts people of color and I have engaged in HIV prevention work that is disconnected from national and global movements for racial and gender justice.
This series is my attempt at bridging this gap. To honor and celebrate our black poz ancestors, as well as black people living with HIV who have pushed me to think about these intersections in my own work; to use my privilege and access to support movements for justice that will lead to substantive change and healing for black people most directly impacted by HIV. This series builds on the work of other black people transforming the field of HIV and the movements for gender and racial justice who know that until we bring intersectionality into this work we will never be free.