Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan
By Tina A. Brown
AIDS didn’t become important to me until somebody I knew died.
I imagine that is also the case for most people in the U.S. Even now it has been easy for most of us to put our thoughts about HIV/AIDS behind us because of the way the disease was introduced into our society. We were told in the mid-1980s that it was an infectious disease killing gay White men, Haitians and intravenous drug users. I didn’t know anyone who fit those categories. I had read in school about epidemics throughout history and I never expected to experience this sort of pandemic in my lifetime in such a personal way.
I was a rookie reporter when I heard about AIDS for the first time. The TV broadcaster described it as a mysterious disease that was rapidly taking the lives of mostly White gay men in New York and San Francisco. The news report sparked my curiosity. But I didn’t think much else about how AIDS would affect me personally until 1986, when one of my colleagues at the Macon Telegraph in Georgia died suddenly.
I was just getting to know this quiet, smart and young Black man who worked as a copy editor. Now, he was dead. Though I had volunteered, I hated writing his obituary. I knew so little about this guy’s personal life. The word AIDS never appeared in his news obituary. As far as the public was concerned, my colleague died of a sudden illness, a popular buzz phrase coined when young people, mostly men, died of complications related to AIDS or the human immunodeficiency virus that causes the disease. The funeral home directors whispered AIDS as the cause of death to very few people.
His death was unsettling. It became apparent to me that this disease would not just strike White gay men in their prime. I realized then that AIDS might become a silent killer in Black America. Despite the statistics made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta in the mid-1980s, there was very little visual evidence that Black Americans were contracting HIV. I pushed my concern into the back of mind.
By 1988, I was trying to advance my career. I was one of seven journalists selected to go to California to develop my skills at the Summer Program of Minority Journalists — now The Maynard Institute — at the University of California at Berkeley. On assignment, I was asked to write about the return of the AIDS Memorial quilt to the Castro District in San Francisco, at the time the epicenter of the AIDS movement in the U.S. The event was one of the most emotional stories I had written. The quilt had traveled across the U.S. and was displayed at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., before arriving in San Francisco. The mayor of San Francisco and other public officials cried as the thousands of AIDS memorial quilt panels were unfolded for miles down a city street.
This disease was real, I thought. I had never seen so many people so emotionally affected by one event. Yet as I looked closer at the quilts being paraded down the street, I noticed that there were very few photographs of Black faces, particularly of women, on display.
I was touched and felt sympathetic about those affected by the AIDS virus, but I felt safe as a heterosexual Black woman. My feelings about my personal safety changed five years later when the CDC announced that heterosexual Black women would be the next wave of people infected by the virus in the Northeast U.S. I fit that demographic. I wondered quietly whether I could become one of those statistics.
That feeling stayed with me when I left my reporting job at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey for a new reporting position in Hartford, Conn. I promised myself once I got settled that I would write a story about how the Black community was responding to HIV/AIDS in Connecticut, especially since so many people in Hartford were infected. I asked my editors: What were the traditional Black institutions, especially the churches doing to help people cope with the disease?
I set out to do that story in 1994. Though still in my early 30s, I was naive. My knowledge about the streets and issues associated with poverty were limited. I didn’t grow up in the slums. I had never interviewed sex workers or intravenous drug users, people health officials said were also spreading the virus. I admit now that those people scared me because I had seen too many movies.
As the daughter of African Methodist Episcopal ministers, I took the safe approach to the story and called church leaders first in cities that dotted Connecticut. To my dismay, they did not return my calls. Since I was working on the special assignment, I didn’t have time to wait by the telephone. I ventured out into community-based organizations, such as the Urban League and health departments in Hartford, New Britain, New Haven and Bridgeport to talk to the professionals who were serving the “at risk” populations.
Within a month, I was walking the streets or getting connected with outreach workers like Buster Jenkins and Mark Little in Hartford. Two church mothers Gladys Pennington and Elsie Cofield helped to direct my path through New Britain and New Haven. They connected me with Black and Latino women who told me their life stories, but were unwilling to allow me to use their full names or to have their faces photographed for a newspaper story. Having the virus was a secret to many of their families; they didn’t want to reveal their HIV status in The Hartford Courant. But so many of them and the outreach workers who distributed condoms, clean needles and bleach kits saw my frustration and asked me if I had met Linda Jordan, who was quickly becoming an icon in AIDS prevention communities across Connecticut.
I called her and she invited me over to her house in West Hartford, a suburb of Hartford. My first interview lasted about five hours. She told me that she was a recovering heroin addict who was volunteering with seven different AIDS organizations in Connecticut. That work earned her the Mary Fisher Foundation’s National Outstanding Caregiver Award in 1993.
Linda showed me the posters that she and her daughters and grandson had taken for a public awareness campaign for the Connecticut Department of Revenue and the Concerned Citizens for Humanity. Her family is believed to be one of the first African-American families in the U.S. to put a human face on the disease. The posters are still circulating the globe.
Linda was so open about her story that it struck me as odd that this woman who had experienced a lifetime of repeated tragedies wasn’t keeping it a secret. She didn’t believe in having skeletons. She shared her HIV status and the status of her oldest daughter Tanya and her husband, Alvin, who was in prison at the time. I wasn’t prepared to hear all of what she had to share in 1994.
My limited street smarts were obvious. It showed in my facial expressions, Linda laughed when we talked about it years later. Yet she trusted that I could learn enough to write her story. At the time, I was too far removed from the life she had led to understand her resilience. She had been molested, abused and raped before she was 10 years old. She had used heroin by the time she was 18, had married and divorced her childhood sweetheart twice. She stayed with him and bore his children, even though he spent most of their relationship in prison. She allowed me to hang around, attend her family functions and her speaking engagements so that I could learn more.
My story for the Courant, “Fighting AIDS with Resilience: Sense of Unity Blacks Confront Epidemic,” captured only small fragments of Linda Jordan’s life story. I felt unfilled after it was published in October 1994 and I went back to my regular beat covering a predominantly White upper middle-class community outside of Hartford.
About six months after the story was published, I was in Puerto Rico for vacation. The ocean has always been a place for clarity for me. I remember sitting on a rock on a beach one day. I felt like I had made the wrong decision by moving to Connecticut. I asked God why he had sent me here. What was I supposed to do in Hartford? I left there thinking that once I returned to Hartford, I had to continue my work reporting about Linda Jordan. I owed her much more as a journalist.
I want to write your book, I told her over the telephone.
When do we start? she responded.
For the next five years, I went to Linda’s house on Maplewood Avenue in West Hartford regularly before I went to work at the Courant. I’m not a morning person, so she made sure that I had coffee and she drank tea. I also brought her my copy of the daily newspaper, and was always struck that she was always most interested in the obituary page. She read it and recounted the people that she knew had died of AIDS, had overdosed on heroin or died of other premature deaths because of their lifestyles.
It became clear to me that my premonition back in the early 1980s that Black American women would have to wake up and respond to this disease became clear and present. Like in the early days, very few if any of the obituaries cited the true causes of death when someone died of AIDS. So many people were dying in secret and ashamed. But here I was sitting at Linda Jordan’s kitchen table amazed that she didn’t look sick. She was very much alive. She was not afraid to reveal her HIV status and the diagnosis of her husband and her oldest daughter. She strongly believed if the HIV/AIDS community stopped hiding their status, more people would accept that the disease was claiming so many others and leaving their families to cope in secret. She told her story to anyone who would listen, hoping and praying that it would be the catalyst for other women who had gone down her crooked path to change their lifestyles.
Over time, my assignment at the Courant changed. In 1998, I started writing about crime, courts and social trends in Hartford, one of the poorest cities in the nation. My time in Hartford was not wasted as I became able to write Linda’s story with authority. I was here to see the housing projects where Linda grew up before the federal government tore them down. I witnessed the rise of the AIDS epidemic among intravenous drug community in this city and others. I saw how welfare reform changed the life of a third-generation welfare recipient who moved into the world of work not just as an AIDS outreach worker, but as a factory worker once the monthly stipends that she received for most of her life dried up.
Linda’s story is about living with AIDS. Her spiritual development and belief in God once she forced her way into drug treatment taught her that she could live without the medications that so many people depend upon today. Her unfilled wish was that all religious leaders, especially those in the Black church, would stand and help those who had the virus who were lost and forgotten. She believed that God saved her from killing herself and AIDS was just something she had to live with. She used her life story to show others that change is possible.
This story affirmed my reasons for becoming a journalist 23 years ago. I chose this profession to tell stories about the people in our society who are largely ignored by the general public. Fortunately, my mission has placed me in unfamiliar situations and enabled me to grow up and reach inside myself to find a common ground with most of the people I’ve interviewed.
“Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan” was written so that people of all races, ages, class and generations could inspect their lives, their past sins and troubles and come to grips with things that hurt them. Linda had to forgive a lot of people because she knew that God had forgiven her. Hers is a story about choosing life despite the odds.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned in Linda’s story. She accepted the roots of her pain that led to her addictions. Once she accepted her faults, she learned to live.
This book is a dream come true for both of us.