African Americans

Epidemic Faith

Historically, African-American church leaders have provided guidance and support in our struggle for civil rights. They lead the songs of nonviolent protest for equality in education, housing, and employment. As Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker once wrote, "If you listen to what African-Americans are singing religiously, it is a clue to what is happening to them sociologically."

Why was the church silent for so long about HIV/AIDS? Early in the epidemic, there were so many mixed messages. HIV was first depicted primarily as a disease of white gay men. Then we were told Haitian immigrants, sex industry workers (prostitutes), and the African green monkey were the cause for the spread of the disease. What response could the African-American church provide, when historically we people of color have been blamed for the social ills of America?

Addressing HIV/AIDS meant discussing man-to-man sex, IV drug-using behavior, and issues seen as problems of the world beyond of the walls of the church. Consequently, persons living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs) were blamed for their illness, feared, and stigmatized. Their families were embarrassed and ashamed. Although this insidious virus was taking a devastating toll, a wall of shame and denial was erected between the African-American community and the church.

Faced with little or no information and support network, African-American gay and heterosexual HIV/AIDS activists had to learn from white gay activists how to discuss the virus and educate our community. When many churches did not respond with compassion, PWAs created their own support systems and even churches. The issue of loss in our community became so great that family members began to knock down the walls of shame to seek guidance and prayer from church leaders.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
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A Nation Within a Nation

Eugene F. Rivers 3d, a Sojourners contributing editor, is pastor of Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and co-chair of the National Ten-Point Leadership Foundation. He was interviewed by telephone on January 27, 1998, by Sojourners assistant editor Aaron Gallegos. —The Editors

Aaron Gallegos: In your opinion, does multiculturalism redefine the racial issue in the United States, or is it still largely based on the legacy of black and white history in this country?

Eugene Rivers: The ideological phenomenon of multiculturalism has been one of the most retarding influences to advancing a discussion of authentic diversity and elevating the quality of discourse on racism in the United States. The multicultural ideology asserts that America is one big multicultural, multiethnic salad and that the historical experiences of various groups are essentially the same as that of black groups that were enslaved.

That analysis is fundamentally flawed. The experience of slavery in the United States is historically unique—there is no contemporary analogue. Unlike those who voluntarily crossed the border into the United States, the myriads of black people who came here involuntarily have no way of locating their place of origin. For that reason, slavery is the pivotal question that still shapes the structure of racial discourse in the United States.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1998
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Challenge from Within

EACH DAY, 1,118 BLACK TEEN-AGERS are victims of violent crime, 1,451 black children are arrested, and 907 teen-age girls get pregnant. A generation of black males is drowning in its own blood in the prison camps we euphemistically call "inner cities." And things are likely to get much worse.

Some 40 years after the beginning of the civil rights movement, younger black Americans are growing up unqualified for gainful employment even as slaves. The result is a state of civil war, with children in violent revolt against the failed secular and religious leadership of the black community.

Consider the dimensions of this failure. A black boy has a 1-in-3,700 chance of getting a Ph.D. in mathematics, engineering, or the physical sciences; a 1-in-766 chance of becoming a lawyer; a 1-in-395 chance of becoming a physician; a 1-in-195 chance of becoming a teacher. But his chances are 1-in-2 of never attending college, even if he graduates from high school; 1-in-9 of using cocaine; 1-in-12 of having gonorrhea; and 1-in-20 of being imprisoned while in his 20s. Only the details are different for his sister.

According to James A. Fox, Dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, from 1990 to 1993 (the last year for which detailed national data are available) the overall rate of murder in the United States remained virtually unchanged. For this same period, the rate of killing at the hands of adults, ages 23 and over, actually declined 10 percent; however, for young adults, ages 18-24, the rate rose 14 percent, and for teen-agers it jumped a terrifying 26 percent.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1996
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A Lesson in Rainbows

When Ntozake Shange published For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, I was delighted. I read the book six times, and I saw the play three times. This work meant so much to me then and continues to mean a great deal to me primarily because I am a "colored girl" who has considered suicide often and who struggles to find how the "rainbow is enuf."

Thanks be to God that he speaks to me in the ways that I can hear best. God used Shange to help me name the pain that I felt and also to show me that he was present to me, and more importantly that he had always been present to me, even before the time of my birth. Like the women in For Colored Girls, I knew of no one who would "sing a black girl's song" and make clear, affirmative statements about my worth as a human being upon the planet.

While this continues to be true, it was a much more destructive fact for me in the past than it is now. I had a great deal of difficulty living as a black female follower of Jesus in a world that deemed me alien first on the basis of my blackness, then my femaleness, and finally because of my faith. As a result my life has often been and is now at times plagued by depression and despair.

So why is a person who admits to being suicidal writing about hope? Because the fact that I am 37 years old and able to articulate why I am alive speaks to where I find hope.

I am not really sure about what it means to love God, but I do know what it means to be loved by God; and while God's love for me is no guarantee against struggles, despair, or suicidal thoughts, it gives me the strength to take the next step.

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