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African-American Men Stood Strong in Savannah on World AIDS Day 2011

I’ve been attending World AIDS Day events for years now to promote my book “Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan.” My reception today was exceptional. As hundreds of Savannah residents stopped by Forsyth Park in historic Savannah to get tested, I overheard a telephone conversation that demonstrated to me that HIV/AIDS activists are making headway in this town.
“Hey Baby, I just wanted you to know that I’m in the park waiting to get tested for HIV,” the middle-aged man said over his telephone. “I wanted you to know that I’m safe.”
I was floored by what I’d heard. This guy loved his woman, I thought. I stopped to tell him how beautiful I thought he was that he loved himself and his woman enough to get tested.
He shared with me that he did it for selfish reasons. He had dated another woman who had full-blown AIDS and his test results were negative. He was so grateful that he committed to staying HIV negative.
“Wow,” was the only thing I could say. He had tears in his eyes.
Other men and women today demonstrated phenomenal strength as they entered the orange neon tents to obtain their test results.
Hours later, scores gathered as members of the Chatham County Health Department and the Georgia AIDS Coalition partners burned candles in remembrance of those we have lost. I picked up my bags and headed to a social downtown sponsored by the Savannah Chapter of the 100 Black Men and its collegiate chapters at Savannah State and Armstrong Atlantic State University. These groups represent a new generation of folks who also want to end the surge of HIV infections in Savannah, which ranks No. two in the state of Georgia. They stood strong on the promise that together these men and women can and will curb the rate of new infections. Thanks for supporting Crooked Road Straight and for standing strong.


Today is World AIDS Day 2010

By Tina A. Brown

Today is World AIDS Day 2010.

Many of us aligned ourselves with the HIV prevention movement because we’ve loss a loved one.

Annually, we attend candle light vigils and try to spread the word that if you’ve witnessed this disease first hand you don’t want anyone else to suffer.

I realized last year, one of the few times over the past 30 years that I’ve been at home during the holiday season, that I’ve been too busy to celebrate the lives of HIV positive men and women who had stood on the front lines.

I’m not HIV positive. I stood in the gap by writing and publishing “Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan,” a book about a champion of the movement. I’ve spoken to thousands about her efforts to save lives and created the Patches of Healing art project to encourage grieving families to celebrate their loved ones years later.

I asked myself what else could I do to celebrate World AIDS Day 2010?

I hope you’ve also asked yourselves the same question.

I resolved to do something for me to remember others by decorating my holiday tree with red ribbons for Christmas.

It’s become my small way to say as a member of the world community that we must always remember those on the front lines by encouraging others to celebrate life.

AIDS won’t go away until we cherish our memories.

I encourage you and yours to be safe and to get tested on World AIDS Day.

Mostly, I urge you to remember your loved ones.

Join the Red Ribbon Campaign.

Tina A. Brown is an independent journalist, lecturer and media consultant based in Savannah, Ga.

I wrote this book years ago. But Today’s Headlines about spikes in HIV infections prove that “Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan” remains relevant today.

Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan
By Tina A. Brown

The Prologue
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.

Is HIV/AIDS prevention worth fighting for?

I’ve never like to argue. But I had a disturbing conversation recently with a student that got under my skin.

This college senior was adamant in his belief that African-Americans are not disproportionately infected with the HIV virus.

He suggested the white community often wealthier is able to hide its rate of infection. They have health insurance, he said. They are conspiring with their private physicians to keep their rate of HIV infection out of the public eye so African-Americans will look bad.
Was he serious?
I was dumbfounded by this uninformed conspiracy theory. He said the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the African-American community was overblown. A myth, he said.

The numbers don’t lie, I argued. One new HIV infection is too many. We should fight together to stop the virus worldwide until it is eradicated.
People are dying, I argued. Have you seen anyone dying of AIDS? The disease takes you out, organ by organ. If you’d witnessed this as I have you’ll be on the front lines too.

As we mark another anniversary to make our women and girls aware of the risks they face: we can no longer wallow in this kind of ignorance. If you doubt the facts, visit an AIDS ward, get involved and check the statistics.

The virus won’t stop spreading until we do something together. Let’s base our opinions about HIV/AIDS upon facts.
Tina A. Brown is the author of Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan. Buy your copy in stores today.

My Student Taught Me a Lesson

My Student Taught Me a Lesson

Every now and then, I get a contract to teach young men
how to write about their educational journeys. These young
men were supposed to be statistics. They are mostly young
African-American and Latino men, first generation high school
graduates, who’d skated through high school and are now trying to catch
up in community college.

The outcome is never predictable because of their life stories.
I use Dr. Ben Carson’s story as an example of a narrative that might mirror
their own educational journeys. He was failing in fifth grade but after being kicked in the behind by his mother, ended up being one of world’s top surgeons.

Describe something good or bad in school or in your life that shaped you as a student, I ask my students. Brainstorm this question in your mind. Map it out and outline it before you start writing your essay.

I didn’t know how hard this would be until about three
years ago when I started. I never expected to read that
my students were motivated after surviving a
gunshot wound; watching others stolen away by gun violence
or reading a book for the first time inside a jail cell.
When I created my lesson plan, I thought of my own
experience would be relevant. My fourth
grade teacher in Cleveland, Ohio asked the class to write
an essay about freedom during 1976, a Bicentennial year.
I created a character that pushed her way through the obstacles
of segregation to ring the liberty bell. My teacher,
Shirley Whitaker, whispered to me later that she thought
I could become a writer. I believed her.
That’s been a long time ago. While my experience resulted
from a positive interaction with an adult, I find that my
students – whether in community college or in the county
jail – develop their educational aspirations from
negative experiences.

One student recently, taught me a few things about focusing
my students on the task at hand. He didn’t want to write
this essay. He complained so loudly that his rambling
became contagious. If I didn’t ask him to leave none of my
other students would benefit from the life lesson. You see,
I believe that when you are starting something new, such
as entering your first semester of community college, you
need to reflect upon your past experiences. What brought you
here to the classroom when you could be home playing Xbox
or hanging out.

Many of my students want to discuss their
educational journeys verbally. I let a few students share to
build community. One student said he perception of himself as
a student changed when he went to prison.

What happened? I asked.

“I read a book,’’ he said. “I’d never read a whole book before all through school.”

Others credited their mothers, or “Queens” as one
student described his mother and grandmother for forcing him to take
life seriously. And of course, “Money, Money, Money,’’
was another motivating factor, they said.
My favorite student didn’t feel compelled to humor me.
He didn’t want to do the writing assignment and his announced
his intentions not to do it.
“You are welcomed to leave,’’ I said.
I was happy when he got up. He was messing with my flow.
I had less than two hours to teach a lesson that normally takes
four hours.

My favorite student returned to the class after he thought about it. Welcome back,
I told him. Get to work. But before we finished for the day he had written about how getting shot, going to jail and having a daughter had shaped him as a student.

I understood his initial reservations. Sometimes, it’s hurtful to look back so
we can look forward. He taught me a lot about humility as a teacher.

Remembering Michael Jackson

It was hard to admit this but I’m in mourning. I don’t feel any different today than I would feeling if I lost a beloved member of my family.

We all have family members who stray. But we still love them because we grew up with them, established a foundation for love, music and dance with them.

No matter what anyone says Michael Jackson and his family were members of my extended family. As children growing up in Cleveland/Shaker Heights, we gravitated to the family band and even tried starting one of our own. Our musical endeavors only lasted for an instant. But our love for the Jacksons’ and other groups like them is evident after each holiday we share together. We still host family talent shows.

Some of us are still on stage and others are comfortable being spectators.

Our quest for musical satisfaction is still ever present. Some of sing and dance in front of broom sticks and others get up in church and try our best to show off what God has given us.

For me, my love for popular music started with my first 45 of ABC. It was the only music my mother approved of and that was fine with me.

The music dances in my head today and will forever be in my heart.

Journalist/Author Tina A. Brown added a video from

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