African American Men Living With HIV/AIDS: Interview with Dr. Christopher Brooks
When I moved to Richmond, I mentioned to my roommate, Cate, that I write articles on HIV/AIDS for several LGBTQ web publications. It was then that I was introduced to the book Dangerous Intimacy. Cate remembered a class she took at Virginia Commonwealth University, taught by Dr. Christopher A. Brooks, a professor of anthropology. In the class, Dr. Brooks had his students read from his new book, Dangerous Intimacy: Ten African American Men with HIV.
“It’s sad, but I think you will like it,” she told as she handed me the book. After writing about HIV/AIDS for a little over a year I am used to sad, but when I picked up this book, I was moved to tears. HIV/AIDS stories found in mainstream media are often focused on statistics and advances in medicine. Dangerous Intimacy, however, is a collection of stories told by people living with HIV/AIDS. Commenting on his work, Brooks states, “I do ethnographies. I tell people’s stories within the context of culture.”
Research for the book began when Dr. Brooks was approached by his co-author Christopher Lance Coleman, a professor in the VCU School of Nursing and an expert on the topic of African American men and HIV. Although most of Dr. Brooks’ previous work focused on HIV/AIDS in Africa, he believed this was a necessary book and took on the project. Dangerous Intimacy is the first in what Brooks anticipates being a series on men with HIV around the world.
Brooks and Coleman began by establishing criteria for interviews. The African American men in the book are from cities and counties all over the United States. However, all of the men featured in the book had been diagnosed HIV positive and started some form of treatment at the time of their interview.
During our conversation, Brooks stated that although many of the men interviewed had multiple homosexual encounters in their lives, the majority of men identified as heterosexual. Religion was a common theme in the lives of the men as well, which most likely contributed to homophobic tendencies among the men interviewed. Even some men who admitted having sex with men contributed to the plethora of homophobic remarks found throughout Dangerous Intimacy.
Roque Florio, one of the ten men featured in the book remembers, “Back in the late 1980s, African American churches and the preachers were among the severest critics of the HIV/AIDS explosion…it was mostly affecting gays which gave many of these preachers even more ammunition to use in speaking about the effects of the ‘homosexual demon.’”
For many of the men, religion also helped establish inner-peace and self-esteem after being diagnosed. In one chapter Robert Smith tells the reader, “It was because of the presence of a spiritual being in my life that I got to where I am today…I now have God to lean on.”
In Dangerous Intimacy, there are stories of IV drug use, unprotected homosexual encounters, child molestation, and participation in the sex trade. However, these stories aren’t isolated experiences, they are part of larger trends. According to the Center for Disease Control website an African Americans man is six times more likely to contract HIV than a Caucasian man. The CDC states that IV drug use, unprotected sex and poverty are more common in these communities and are believed to be contributing factors in the high prevalence of HIV among African Americans.
In a phone interview with Dr. Brooks, we discussed the importance of ethnographies like Dangerous Intimacy, as well as the role of racism, religion and science in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
GayRVA.com: Often times, we see HIV/AIDS research and forget the people who are living with the disease? What is the role of personal stories in the fight against AIDS?
Dr. Christopher Brooks: I felt compelled to add my voice to this important and devastating issue by putting these stories out there to read. They are meant to be instructive. Medical science is going to do what it does in order to address the science of the virus. However, it will require social science to address the contraction and spread, because you are looking at people’s culture and experiences. A number of cultural customs have played a role in how the virus is contracted and spread. For this reason, social science must play a larger role than the “hard sciences.”
Your book highlights personal stories, but at what point does HIV/AIDS become more than a personal problem and instead, a societal problem? Does racism in America need to be addressed before HIV/AIDS can be eradicated in African American communities?
This is an issue of healthcare systems. There is clearly a racial disparity, because a number of men in this community were late testers, meaning that these individuals tested HIV positive within months of an AIDS diagnosis.
Education will need to be a large part of any solution. I heard a continuous theme throughout my work with Dangerous Intimacy. Most of the men thought that HIV was a disease only caught by white gay men. We need to make adjustments concerning how we train our children about sex and sexual activity. The subject has often been ignored in schools and at home, because it is taboo.
There are a lot of statistics on the rate of AIDS in African American communities and the problems surrounding them, but little change is occurring within these communities. Some scholars suggest a move towards local as opposed to national solutions. Should African Americans who come from high-risk communities take the lead in developing programs to address HIV/AIDS?
I recently wrote an article on the African American Church and this virus. I think once those institutions are engaged there will be significant impact. An example I mention in my article was The Balm in Gilead. Also, the Catholic Church recently altered its view on condom usage, which is definitely a step in the right direction.
In part two of this interview, Dr. Brooks and I discuss his upcoming book on HIV/AIDS among South African men entitled, Through the Voices of Men: South African Men Speak About HIV.
Annie is journalist and activist living in Richmond, Virginia. Her journalism focuses on issues of gender, health and economic inequality. Check out her portfolio here: http://anniebrownportfolio.blogspot.com/ Also, Annie helps run a independent publication entitled, Lips Richmond: http://lipsrichmond.wordpress.com
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