Donta Morrison talks need for new ‘African-American face of HIV’

Written by | Ray Cornelius 

February 7 is National Black HIV-AIDS Awareness Day and RC chatted with noted HIV-AIDS activist Donta Morrison about the relevance of the day.

Having worked in HIV-AIDS education and prevention for over 10 years, Morrison has seen firsthand what the devastation of the virus has done to the African-American community.  The author and motivational speaker has facilitated countless HIV 101 workshops for the Tavis Smiley Leadership Institute and has worked with Kaiser Permanente Hospitals. Morrison has also appeared on billboards for AIDS Project Los Angeles and can be seen giving his “two cents” in the Bill Duke documentary, Faces of HIV.  Morrison is also a friend  of the Faith-based community and has been applauded by pastors nationwide for his eye-opening and realistic approach to the topic of HIV, homosexuality and the Black church.

Check out my conversation with him below where we discussed everything from the importance of testing to BET’s Being Mary Jane  to the African-American community’s need for a new HIV spokesperson.

RC: Why is National Black HIV-AIDS Awareness Day so important?

DM: HIV is still an issue within the Black community.  It’s important that we bring about awareness, especially amongst African-Americans.  HIV is still overlooked by many as a problem and it’s still a relevant conversation that needs to be discussed.  Although I think it should be talked about year-round, I’m glad that we have set aside a day during Black History Month to address the issue considering we [African-Americans] have the highest infection rates.

RC: What do you see as the determining factor to why African-Americans are still getting infected in such high numbers?

DM: There is still a lot of stigma surrounding HIV.  There’s a lot of ignorance and miseducation surrounding the disease.  Couple that stigma with the fear of just having the conversation about sex, sexuality, sexual behaviors and there are still blockages within the Black community.  Until we’re able to have open and honest dialogue about what we like sexually and who we like to do it with, we’re going to constantly have higher rates of infection.  We must get to a place where we openly discuss what we like—gay, straight, and bisexual—without fear of being judged or ostracized by the Black family and the Black church.  There is still a lot of stigma regarding homosexuality and as long as that continues to be an issue, we can’t have the conversations that are so desperately needed.

RC: Why is frequent testing so important?

DM: Frequent testing is important especially if you’re not in a monogamous relationship or if you have multiple sex partners.  So if a person has a lot of sexual partners or doesn’t have protected sex or doesn’t even know the status of their partners, it’s important to get tested and become part of their natural routine.  If by chance, a person finds out that they’re are infected, it’s important to seek a healthcare provider and disclose your status to your partners.  Always, always use a condom.

RC: What affect does pop culture have on HIV infection rates?

DM: Ironically, as much as we don’t like to talk about sex, we live in a very “sex driven” society.  The discussions about sex that need to occur from a healthy standpoint never do. However, we live in a society that glorifies it all the time.  Sex is in the forefront of everything we do; music videos, television, and even the way we dress.  However, we never talk about the ramifications of having unsafe sex.  So I believe that pop culture, as liberating as we have become, needs to filter some of the messaging and have more safe sex messages attached to it.  There is nothing wrong with a sex positive campaign but we must tell the whole story.

RC: Speaking of pop culture, BET’s original series “Being Mary Jane” include safe sex commercials and commentary from television personality Jacque Reid. How important is it to have messages like this?

DM: I think it’s very important because it makes for a natural conversation.  It removes the awkwardness.  HIV should be something that we discuss without having to whisper about it or feel ashamed or feel like we’re having a dirty conversation.  To be able to have a dialogue around such a popular show, normalizes the subject of HIV and makes for a healthy conversation amongst African-American woman.  I think it’s a great plug for HIV education and prevention and wish more shows would consider it since African-American women have the highest number of infection rates.

RC: Do you think HIV rates will decrease because being gay is no longer taboo issue in this country?

DM: I would disagree. I think being gay is still very taboo.  I just think society is being forced to discuss that  taboo.  It’s more in your face now but I think there is still a lot of stigma across cultures. I believe it’s still a very sensitive subject that most would rather not discuss.  I think we still have a long way to go before being gay is seen as normal within mainstream America and especially the Black community.  I don’t think that the Black LGBT community is respected or appreciated.  There is still a lot of oppression towards Black gays and with that being said, HIV will remain an issue.

Here’s the bigger picture.  Those who are comfortable with their sexuality and affirmed in their orientation have a different outlook on life.  They don’t feel the shame or embarrassment for who they are.  I think the problem lies with those who are still dealing with social acceptance…family acceptance…church acceptance, which leads to low self-esteem and self-worth.  That way of thinking leads to behaviors that put individuals at risk for contracting HIV.  While being gay appears to be normal because of recently passed gay marriage laws, the reality is that it’s not.  Yes, the LGBT community had made a lot of strides but I still think there is still a lot to overcome as it pertains to being gay, especially Black and gay in this country.

RC: Earvin “Magic” Johnson has been the face of HIV within the Black community for quite some time now and he continues to defy the odds with his success. However, does his healthy status send a mixed message to individuals that becoming HIV is manageable, therefore allowing people to continue engaging in reckless sexual behavior?

DM: Yes and no.  While I am very proud of Magic Johnson and all that he has achieved and overcome, I do believe that we need a new face within our community. We need a new celebrity spokesperson for HIV.  Magic Johnson was diagnosed in 1991 and the Black community is still holding on to that over two decades later.  At what point are we going to have a new face emerge that is currently infected? I’m sure Magic Johnson is not the only HIV-positive African-American celebrity since 1991. I refuse to believe that.

We have an entirely new generation that wasn’t even born when he was diagnosed.  They don’t know Magic Johnson as the star of the Los Angeles Lakers.  They don’t know him as the iconic pro basketball player.  They know him as the entrepreneur.  So they don’t have a face of their own that says, “Wow he or she is from ‘my generation’ and if it can happen to them, it can happen to me.”  When Magic Johnson came out about his status it was an in your face  message to my generation and it made the subject of HIV real and tangible. However, today’s generation doesn’t have a face to identify with.  For us to continue to hold onto 1991 Magic Johnson and it’s 2014, is only hindering our progress.  Again, I applaud Magic Johnson for what he has accomplished but I just think it’s time for a game changer and a fresh reminder that we still have a problem, a major  problem.

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Ray Cornelius is an entertainment news blogger and media personality. He is also the host of Jazz 91.9 WCLK's arts and entertainment show "UPFRONT." He lives in Atlanta.

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