Though not unaccustomed to a steady flow of visitors, the emblematic Harlem Hospital Center was especially abuzz last week. Grammy Award-winning musician and proud Harlem native Alicia Keys joined forces with the ever-charismatic Rep. Charlie Rangel and a host of others to speak at an open forum about the impact of HIV/AIDS within the Black community.
On Thursday, Aug. 22, people flocked to the hospital’s Herbert Cave Auditorium to participate in an open conversation with Keys and Rangel, as well as other advocates of HIV/AIDS awareness such as Harlem Hospital Center Executive Director Denise Soares; CARE USA CEO Dr. Helene Gayle; AIDS ambassador and artist Stephanie Brown; former NBA player the Rev. Vin Baker; and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. After giving speeches about their personal encounters with the disease, stating their obligations to abolish the rate of HIV infections and answering audience questions, Keys, Rangel and Gayle all got tested to challenge the stigma around it.
In addition to her career as a singer-songwriter, Keys co-founded Keep a Child Alive, an international organization that spreads awareness of AIDS in countries throughout Africa and India and provides those infected with the necessary resources to thrive. She recently teamed up with Empowered, a branch of the Greater than AIDS movement that encourages the HIV/AIDS conversation among women. In the United States, 1.1 million people are infected with the disease.
Keys acknowledged her Harlem roots as having strongly influenced her humanitarian work.
“My nana worked at Harlem Hospital in the ’40s. When I lived on 137th between Fifth and Lenox, I would always look at the backside of the hospital and know that she walked down the same block that I walked down to get to work,” said Keys, 32.
Keys also noted the differences in her work abroad and at home.
“I realized after some time that there was so much forward motion in the international AIDS conversation, and as I looked here in America, I realized maybe we aren’t having that type of dialogue anymore,” she said.
Despite the medical advances made within the past 30 years to effectively diagnose and treat HIV/AIDS, Keys said there are still areas of improvement in the current movement.
“In the ʼ’80s, when I was a little girl, there was a lot of conversation, fights and outrage about how this can’t happen to people. Now we’re not having that dialogue as much,” she said, citing society’s recent emotional distance from the virus. “We don’t see people just dropping like flies, physically becoming a skeleton and then just dying. We saw that 30 years ago, and that’s why there was such an outrage. We wouldn’t just let people die in front of us.”
Gayle charged the current generation with being less passionate about the need to spread AIDS awareness.
“If you look back to where we were at the beginning of the epidemic, there was a lot more talk about it, more urgency, and I think we have started to see more complacency. How do we get some of that fire back?” she asked.
Keys also commented on the importance of opening up the conversation in social circles, both physical and virtual, and how anonymity in the latter tends to embolden Internet users.
“We’re OK talking because we’re ‘Angela-Yellow-1234-Blue,’” she said, mocking an online username, “but when we’re Alicia or Stephanie, someone people know, we get afraid to start asking questions.”
Rangel, known for his longtime dedication to the eradication of HIV/AIDS in the Black community, urged the crowd to do away with the negative stereotypes associated with the virus. This, he said, is crucial to encouraging people to get tested and treated.
“People who have AIDS, some of them have given up,” he said. “They’re homeless, jobless, some don’t have an education. But worse than that is the stigma to believe that you’re inferior.”
One of the leading misconceptions people have about HIV/AIDS is that it is impossible to live a healthy life and continue to build relationships with others while infected. Stephanie Brown, who works with Keys on the Empowered campaign, is committed to debunking that myth. She has no qualms discussing her HIV-positive status, nor holding Black women accountable for enforcing certain standards in their relationships with men.
“Women’s infection rates are going up because, from my own experience, we are relying too much on men to know their status,” said Brown, a Fayetteville, N.C., native. “When we get in that bedroom, that man’s is the last word we hear, and there’s too much dependency on that word when he doesn’t even know his status himself.”
Given that only one in five people nationwide know their status, Brown’s claim is not particularly out of left field.
Keys added that women may feel uncomfortable requiring a man to wear a condom, especially when complaints of a loss of pleasure may pressure them to agree to unprotected sex. For this, she offered a simple solution.
“If it don’t ‘feel good’ because it’s with a condom, then the person just ain’t that good,” she said to a roaring audience.