Jenice Armstrong | Sisters, we need to talk

SISTAHS LOVE to talk. Pardon the generalization, but when girlfriends gather at hair salons, book clubs, sorority meetings or wherever, there's always plenty to say.

But there's one topic that we really need to talk about a lot more than we do, and that's HIV and AIDS. We're in the midst of a deadly epidemic. AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American females age 25 to 34.

Nearly 70 percent of all new infections in the United States between 2001 and 2004 were in black females, most of whom got it from their male partners. Yet, where's the sense of urgency? Not just on the part of health officials and governmental agencies, but in our own social circles? Black women are 19 times more likely to be infected with HIV than our white counterparts. So, why aren't we talking about it more? And why do so many of us continue to act as if this isn't our problem?

"We never talk about those kinds of things. I know you know a lot of folks who are still having unprotected sex in the name of love," said actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, a longtime AIDS activist.

"We're still about hiding things and trying to make it what we want it to be instead of looking at it as it really is. We're trying to walk around like we don't see the elephant in the kitchen."

Ralph, who married State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D.-Phila., in 2005, held a luncheon Friday at the Urban Education Center in West Philly to try to figure out ways to get more black women talking about HIV and AIDS. After all, this isn't something you catch from the air. AIDS is a preventable disease. So, why are such a disproportionately high number of black women still getting infected?

"Somewhere along the line, we're not getting the message," said Ralph, who was co-starring in the Broadway version of "Dreamgirls" when she became aware of HIV and AIDS. "The posters are not connecting with us. The radio commercials are not connecting with us."

Meanwhile, black women are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than white women.

How to explain this disparity? "Most of the times, there are issues of self-esteem, self-worth. A lot of times, there are mental-health issues to be dealt with - depression," explained Ralph, who's scheduled to perform her one-woman play on the topic in Capetown, South Africa, this week.

"It seems sometimes that AIDS is just the result of a whole lot of other things that we also don't talk about."

Some of our complacency is the result of the scientific progress in the treatment of the disease. We see Magic Johnson, who has had tremendous business success after quitting the NBA following his diagnosis, looking healthy and strong, and get the misimpression that the disease is no longer the public-health threat it once was.

"The perception is that 'It's all OK. It's all good.' Particularly, in the black community, we always think that it's not going to happen to me," said radio personality Dyana Williams of WRNB (107.9-FM), who attended the luncheon. "When I talk to my girlfriends, they're taking some risks, exposing themselves to potentially life-threatening diseases."

Another reason we don't talk about it is ignorance. For instance, Rashida Abdul-Khabeer said the Philadelphia-based nonprofit, Circle of Care, has learned from its surveys that some black women don't consider condoms necessary for anal intercourse.

"They said, 'That's not sex. I don't use it for that' " Abdul-Khabeer said at the luncheon. "They didn't connect anal sex with intercourse.

"We have to find ways to have honest dialogue," she added.

And not just in formal forums such as last week's luncheon, but also when we're talking to our friends or daughters or anyone else who needs a reminder about the importance of protecting yourself. *

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