Black AIDS Institute making an impact at International AIDS Conference in Australia

Wilson-story01The Jackson Advocate conducted an exclusive interview with Phill Wilson, President/CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, during the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. The meeting was the 20th biennial conference of the organization and the session was held with JA reporter Jim Sulton.

Jackson Advocate: Phill, I have already had the advantage of reviewing the web site for the Black AIDS Institute and gained a good understanding of the background and history of your organization. Still, let me ask you to enhance our perception of the Institute – when it originated, from whence it has come and where it is going.

Phill Wilson: The organization was founded in 1999. Its actual genesis can be traced to my personal involvement in 1980 when a friend of mine became sick and died in short order. Later, found that my partner had developed swollen lymph nodes. I subsequently learned that I had swollen lymph nodes as well. At that time, there was no consensus about the generic nature of what was wrong. My partner subsequently died in 1989.

Then, in 1996, I became very ill. The doctors I consulted directed me to stop working. Coincidentally,
1996 was the year when protease inhibitors were first approved by the FDA as the first antiretroviral drugs. Consequently, I was able to get back on my feet by 1999, and it became incumbent on me to determine what avenue to pursue next in life.

There were no major black organizations that were prioritizing AIDS education at that time. Most other organizations that existed at that time would now acknowledge that the founding of the, Black AIDS Institute brought the epidemic into their range of consciousness for the first time. Among other things, this meant that it was an extremely heavy lift to get the Institute started from the beginning. Outwardly or silently, an attitude existed that “we don’t want them to blame this thing on us.” People looked at AIDS as a white gay man’s disease.

Yet, from the beginning of the epidemic black men represented 25% of the people afflicted with the disease. Had we responded more forthrightly at the time, we would never have reached the threshold of 50% of the affected population that we are today.

JA: Reflecting on the legendary book written by Randy Shiltz, “And the Band Played On,” was there ever any correspondingly significantly work produced about AIDS in the black community? Was there a black Patient Zero for instance?

PW: Regarding Shiltz’s book, it is very interesting or important that we remind ourselves that history is precisely that, i.e., history. The omission of black references in that work was obvious, but it overlooked the prevalence of AIDS in our community. There were some significant documentaries done later, not the least of which was a series CNN did that focused on the black AIDS epidemic. Yet, there was not any real counterpart to “And the Band Played On,” of “The Normal Heart,” another seminal work.

That makes it even more ironic that as we speak repeatedly in 2014 at this conference and beyond about “The Mississippi Child” in the context of current research or evidence based scientific studies we are talking about a black baby. The seeds of a cure for AIDS are going to come from a black child, a factoid that remains unpronounced.

JA: Let’s shift perspective for a moment and talk about the reluctance to highlight the contributions of gay men and women to the victories realized through the civil rights movement. So many heroes remained unsung due to their own aversion to come out or that of others to acknowledge their achievements.

PW: Yes, we now see that there has been a universal acknowledgement now of Bayard Rustin’s work. People are also at ease in taking note of the sexuality of other stalwart figures like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. I must personally say in this regard that Coretta Scott King was a tireless champion in promoting the recognition of the contributions gay men and women made to the cause.

I have to add that as much as we may be prone to remark about the tardiness of black leaders to acknowledge the contributions of gay men and women it is just as important to note that once they chose to reverse course they did so almost with a vengeance. I can hardly enumerate the people like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and many others who vocally pointed out the importance of acknowledging
all civil rights champions, regardless of their sexuality. There were a great many people who personified the truth of what Maya Angelou meant when she said, “When we know better, we do better.” Our community is now responding in a fashion akin to the ideals we were taught when we were young. We take all the children.

JA: Would you say that when it comes to creating the sort of open mindedness on which progress depends that the church’s attitude was the toughest barrier to overcome?

PW: No, I would not. Rather, I would say that the toughest hurdle was the complacency that prevailed among so many of us in watching people die. That was worse by far.

In addition, I want to caution against the generalization people make when they refer to “The Black Church.” There is no such thing as “The Black Church.” That is a reckless reference people use that homogenizes too many great spiritual institutions and the beliefs people hold.

I also think that as long as there is breath within people there is the opportunity for change. If you meet people where they are today, it is likely that tomorrow they will have a desire to do more.

JA: What is your view of the International AIDS Society, sponsor of this 20th biennial conference we are attending now?

PW: The IAS is an organization in transition now. Considering it in comparative perspective, this is a smaller conference than it usually is. Moreover, this year’s event is bound to be more closely identified
with the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 than any science that comes out of it. I also think the new president, Linda-Gail Bekker is going to face some significant challenges including the need for increased membership. As an international community, we are going to have to determine how to utilize the available tools we have. The IAS has a major role to play in this regard.

There are two major benefits the IAS is bound to provide:

It enables what are actually small groups of people across the globe to come together every two years.
It provides an opportunity to shine a spotlight on AIDS for at least a brief period and it is incalculably important to remind the world that this disease is still ravaging its population.

JA: When it comes to the important challenge of consciousness raising among future generations, how can we reach students earlier and earlier in the educational pipeline?

PW: The curious thing is that people think it is difficult to deliver a message to students at the primary or even prekindergarten levels. It is not. So much of the HIV battle is not about teaching people to protect themselves so much as it is about teaching them to understand that their lives are worth protecting. The saga of AIDS is an important story. Nobody should want to miss the end.