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Not In My Family 

Uncovering America's silent epidemic

We were fast friends, Terrence and I. A perfect fit: he was outgoing with enough feminine brashness for the both of us, while I was the sarcastic tomboy who didn't quite know what I had to offer. Over the course of the next few years, he became one of my best friends.

I don't even remember what I was doing before I received the call, but I'll never forget how the night ended. Terrence (and that's not his real name) called to ask me to drive him to his doctor's office because he didn't feel well. I'd known he was HIV positive for a while, but I'd shrugged it off because it had yet to complicate our friendship. As we waited for the doctor in the reception area, my friend laid on the floor because he was too weak to sit; I could actually see his body tremble with the effort to manage the pain raking his abdomen. I tried to remain calm, but Terrence's appearance alone was enough to unnerve me; he had lost so much weight that his high cheekbones poked violently through his freckled dark skin.

click to enlarge AGATE PUBLISHING

When his turn came, the nurse brought us a wheelchair to get him into the examining room. Once there, his breathing became labored and they had to put him on oxygen. His doctor decided he needed to be admitted into the emergency room. In that tiny examination room, with a bed the size of a gurney, I held my friend's hand and tried to lift his spirits (and my own) in my normal fashion: by telling inappropriate jokes. He laughed and tried to put on a brave face as we waited for the doctor to do something to relieve his agony. Finally, after waiting for hours, he told me he wanted it to be over -- and I knew instantly that he was talking about death.

Terrence did not die that night. After spending weeks in the hospital, he was finally released back into the world, skinnier, but as bold as ever.

The ordeal he and I experienced that night is nothing new; it's played out every day somewhere in America -- particularly in the African-American community. According to a report released earlier this month by the National Minority AIDS Council, "African-Americans have been overrepresented among those living with and dying from AIDS since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic 25 years ago." And sadly, due to a number of factors, black people -- as a collective group -- have suffered from the disease in relative silence. In the new anthology, Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community, editor Gil L. Robertson IV attempts to dissect the psychology behind this silent epidemic. The book features a collection of essays written by a host of African-American notables -- such as comedian Mo'Nique, actor Hill Harper and Charlotte-based novelist Omar Tyree (see excerpt on opposite page) -- each sharing their perspective on the problem plaguing African-Americans and offering possible solutions. Creative Loafing recently spoke with Robertson about how he wrote the book and why it's needed, especially now.

Creative Loafing: "In 2006, AIDS in America is a black disease" -- that was a proclamation issued by Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute. Do you agree with that statement?

Gil Robertson: It's true that the disease right now has disproportionately affected folks in [the black] community. [However], it's not fair to call it "a black disease."

Well, that said, what's the purpose of this anthology?

The purpose of the book is to open up channels of communication that will lead to a change in behavior and attitude. There's a profound need within the general community, and within the African-American community in particular, for a comprehensive understanding of why certain groups are carrying the biggest burdens of this disease.

The book includes essays from a diverse group of writers -- from a porn star to a novelist. How did you go about choosing the writers?

The essays represent a wide cross-section of voices from [the black] community. So you have everyone from rich to poor, to young to old, to gay to straight, women, men, children, you have Afro-Latinos, African-Americans, Africans who have adopted America as their new homeland. You have a lot of desperate voices that have come together to address this subject matter with the goal of providing a comprehensive understanding of where [this] community is at where it comes to this disease.

The book also features essays by two representatives from the religious community. How important do you think it is to get religious leaders on board?

The two prominent ministers in the book [Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Calvin Butts], I think speaks clearly to the fact that this disease is something we are waking up to that the religious community had recognized. I think the religious community is waking up and as the most important institution in America when it comes to HIV and AIDS, when it comes to anything, it's very important that the religious community is part of the conversation.

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