One such moment happened for me on a Saturday morning in February 2003. That morning, a woman named Diana Aubourg was giving a talk to the W.E.B. DuBois Society program—an academically rigorous Saturday school program of African and African American studies for gifted and talented black youth—for which I tutor. Aubourg, director of program development in Africa for the Pan-African Children’s Fund and a scholar of development studies with a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gave an in-depth and impassioned presentation on the extent of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.
Vaguely aware of high HIV/AIDS rates on the African continent, I was overwhelmed as Aubourg’s presentation rolled through the statistics that have become increasingly familiar to me, yet have never lost their sting as a reminder of the level of human catastrophe which faces us at the dawn of the 21st century. Since the AIDS epidemic emerged in the early 1980s, over 15 million Africans have died. In 2004 alone, another 3.1 million became newly infected with the disease and 2.3 million sub-Saharan Africans lost their lives to it. To put that staggering figure in context, the disease takes over 6,000 African lives daily—approximately the same number of people as comprise the undergraduate population at Harvard College.
And in one of the even more disheartening aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, as the disease claims the lives of adults left and right, their children are often left as orphans—struggling to make it on their own or taken in by extended family already stretched thin by the entrenched poverty that plagues much of sub-Saharan Africa. In this region of the African continent alone, more than 5.5 million children have lost one or both parents due to AIDS, and that number is expected to skyrocket to 40 million by 2010. Again to put this in context, that number would represent about two-thirds of the children under the age of 18 in the entire United States.
Unfortunately, these grim numbers have come to characterize life throughout the African diaspora—in the Caribbean, South America, and the United States as well. After sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean is the world’s most heavily infected region—with approximately 2.4 percent of the entire adult population carrying the disease. In the United States, AIDS is the number one cause of death for African Americans between the ages of 25 and 44, and black women are thirteen times more likely to contract the disease than white women, while black men are nine times more likely to contract it than white men.
Aubourg’s presentation started on a grim note, and indeed ended on one as well, as she detailed the stunning lack of information, mobilization, and advocacy that had been conducted either by or on behalf of black people to confront the spread of HIV/AIDS. Galvanized by this dire set of affairs, I sought to make myself more knowledgeable about the crisis, particularly its political dimensions, and set about organizing something that could affect others the same way Aubourg’s presentation had affected me.
As I thought more about the HIV/AIDS crisis, I began to realize that HIV/AIDS, moreso than most other concerns of our age, sits at the center of a lot of other conflicts and struggles—and in that way, serves as both a peculiar challenge and opportunity. If we are to seriously discuss HIV/AIDS, and more importantly, our responses to it as individuals, communities, or societies, we must necessarily wrestle with issues of sex and sexuality, concepts of masculinity, women’s empowerment, and the relationship between race and moral worth. But these are, of course, some of the more obvious issues at hand. By virtue of the sheer magnitude of the death and disorder directly caused by HIV/AIDS, I also think that it will eventually force us, whether we want to or not, to rethink the role of religion and religious institutions, the tension between profit and morality in an era defined by global capitalism, and the impact that the epidemic, and particularly the orphan crisis, will have on the international security landscape.
These are, admittedly, difficult discussions that could prove deadly for any serious unified attempt to turn the tide against the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, the African diaspora, and elsewhere. We should not, however, capitulate in the face of these potential pitfalls, if only because of the opportunity I alluded to earlier. If we can foster cooperation in the larger name of humanity and morality to achieve victory in the crisis of our generation, I earnestly believe it will provide a foundation from which we can create a more equitable and just global community, and history will look upon us fondly for our courage in the face of uncertainty.
This upcoming weekend, students at Harvard are attempting to take a step in that direction. The Harvard Black Men’s Forum, the Harvard AIDS Coalition, the Harvard African Students’ Association, and the Harvard Concert Commission will host the first ever Unite Against AIDS Summit (www.uniteagainstaids.org). It is my hope that this Summit, which includes a concert, a benefit gala, and most importantly, a day-long conference, will be a moment that many of us here at Harvard, and others around the world, will look back on as one of those moments that forced us to realize our generation’s calling and really change the world for the better. HIV/AIDS is a formidable threat to all that we value in the world, but it is not one that, united, inspired, educated, and active, we cannot defeat.
Brandon M. Terry ’05 is a government and African and African American studies concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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