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In the United States, AIDS is increasingly an African-American epidemic, taking

a disproportionate toll on the black community where someone is ten times

 as likely to contract the disease as in a white neighborhood.



Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Family

Edited by Gil L. Robertson, IV

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A Review by Kam Williams


HIV/AIDS is running rampant through our communities. Many of us are sick and dying and living in fear and shame, and many of us who aren’t afflicted are living in denial, detachment, ignorant, and glass houses. Worse yet, too many people in our communities act as if they are immune to the problem altogether.

‘Not me.’ ‘Not in my family!’ And that’s the problem.

Not in My Family is a weapon of warfare, a tool of empowerment, and a manual on friendship. It includes lessons before dying, lessons on living, lessons on love, and lessons on letting go. It is a collection of colorful stories, hard truths, and differing opinions from people of various lifestyles strung together to teach us not only how to survive, but how to thrive in the face of HIV and AIDS.

It is a dose of truth to our community. And hopefully, the truth will make us free.”Excerpted from the Introduction  


In the United States, AIDS is increasingly an African-American epidemic, taking a disproportionate toll on the black community where someone is ten times as likely to contract the disease as in a white neighborhood. According to Gil Robertson, many factors have contributed to the explosion of this frightening phenomenon, including “dysfunction, fear, poverty, and lack of information.” In fact, he suggests, that upon close inspection, we find the causes to be almost as plentiful as the number of individuals infected.

For this reason, Robertson, decided to edit an anthology of essays by folks touched by the disease, whether they might having a loved one coping with the ailment, be personally infected, on the front lines as an activist, or modestly ministering to patients. In Gil’s case, his brother, Jeffrey, was diagnosed as HIV-positive over 20 years ago, and the fallout visited upon the family in the form of “shock, fear and regret” has taken the Robertsons years to overcome.

Fortunately, Gil, a gifted, syndicated journalist whose work has appeared in Essence, Billboard, Black Enterprise, The Source, Los Angeles Times, had the wherewithal to channel his energy positively in terms of tackling a subject which has heretofore been left woefully unaddressed. For AIDS is a scourge likely to ravage the black community exponentially unless it wakes up and faces the fact that Silence = Death.

Thus, Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Family is an urgent, informative, groundbreaking book because it takes AIDS out of the inner-city closet by initiating an intelligent dialogue designed to shake both brothers and sisters out of their complacency and thereby inspire everyone to action. Among the sixty or so contributors to this timely text are entertainers, such as Patti LaBelle, Jasmine Guy, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Mo’Nique and Hill Harper; physicians, including Dr. Donna Christensen, DR. James Benton and Dr. Joycelyn Elders; AIDS activists Phill Wilson and Christopher Cathcart; ministers, like Reverend Al Sharpton and Calvin Butts; best-selling authors, such as Randall Robinson and Omar Tyree; and Congressmen Barbara Lee, Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Gregory Meeks.

But just as moving as the clarion call sounded by any of these celebs, are the heartfelt stories related by relative unknowns with out any pedigree. For instance, 22 year-old Marvelyn Brown talks about how having AIDS has taught her the true meaning of friendship. Jaded judge Ivory Brown waxes poetic about her late friend and hairdresser who, before he expired, inspired her to overhaul her life by seizing the day.

Dena Gray starts her chapter with an entry from her diary which describes December 20, 1991 as “the worst day of my life,” because “I found out today that I’m HIV-positive.” Such a powerfully simple, straightforward, and sobering statement can’t help but halt a reader in his or her tracks. Shawna Ervin, meanwhile, recounts how she reacted, at the tender age of 11, to learning that her best friend had contracted the illness via a blood transfusion, and how they remained close, in spite of the stigma, till Andrea’s demise ten years later. 

Filled to overflowing with such almost sacred moments, Not in My Family is a must read, but not merely as a heart-wrenching collection of moving AIDS memoirs. For perhaps more significantly, this seminal work simultaneously serves as the means of kickstarting candid dialogue about an array of pressing, collateral topics, ranging from homophobia to incarceration to brothers on the down low to low self-esteem to the use of condoms to the role of the Church in combating this virtually-invisible genocide quietly claiming African-Americana.

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Other Responses

Featuring essays by Rev. Calvin Butts, Hill Harper, Jesse Jackson Jr., Patti LaBelle and many more. A landmark collection of essays that all bear witness to the devastation AIDS has wrought on Black America, Not in My Family breaks through the cultural resistance that has surrounded this crucial issue.

The statistics are indisputable: African Americans are bearing the brunt of the AIDS epidemic in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that African Americans are 10 times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than their white counterparts.

How can we transcend cultural barriers to address this devastation? How can the black community combat HIV/AIDS, when denial has surrounded the disease for so long?

In this breakthrough anthology, leaders from all walks of contemporary African-American life face up to these questions and more. The collection includes frank and inspiring essays from performers like Patti LaBelle, Mo’Nique, and Hill Harper; bestselling authors like Randall Robinson and Omar Tyree; political leaders like Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders; religious leaders like Rev. Calvin Butts, and many more.

Full of crucial information and impassioned proposals, Not in My Family begins a much needed dialogue on the greatest crisis facing the contemporary African-American community. The essays include personal accounts and concrete guides for action. They candidly address—among myriad other topics—the impact of AIDS/HIV on family life, the role of the church in combating the disease, and the devastating effect AIDS has had on black women. Signaling black leaders’ new willingness to address the scourge in their community, this is the most important book ever published on African Americans and AIDS.Publisher, Agate Publishing


AIDS is a deadly disease that is wreaking havoc on our people, especially the younger members of our community. There are a slew of young people who have no knowledge of HIV and AIDS and they need our assistance and encouragement to become informed about this deadly disease. Our community must understand that we don’t have any choice but to talk about HIV and AIDS.—Bishop Andre Merritt, Detroit Straight Gate Church


HIV has robbed me of some of my most brilliant, colorful, and talented friends and associates. I will never understand how we as a nation can send vessels into space, fight billion-dollar wars, gouge the American people with high gas prices, and yet not be able to end this man-made disease! It's despicable, and yet another poor commentary on our present governing bodies.

—Isaiah Washington, actor, Grey’s Anatomy

This is a collection of unforgettable stories that each deliver messages of love, courage, hope, and compassion. Representing various segments of the African American community, this anthology is a body of work that’s long overdue. I applaud Gil Robertson for his efforts in breaking the silence about the threat of HIV and AIDS in black communities.—John Singleton, Oscar-nominated filmmaker


AIDS has affected the African-American community more than any other. Please read this book to get informed on how you can protect you and your loved ones. Don’t hate! Please educate!!—Vivica A. Fox, actor


Gil Robertson's Not In My Family is a compelling, cautionary collection of powerful stories from an impressive aggregation of notable individuals regarding the increasing epidemic of HIV and AIDS in the African-American community. This book will definitely help to enlighten the black community about an issue that has the majority of us in serious denial.—Cathy Hughes, CEO, Radio One


“Telling our stories is a vital part of the oral history of African Americans. There is no question that African-Americans and other minority communities are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS in this country. So by telling our stories and reading the personal stories of others it may help to demystify AIDS and personalize its devastating impact in our community as well as encourage us to become personally involved in preventing it.”—Shirley Franklin, Mayor, Atlanta


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Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Family

Edited by Gil L. Robertson, IV




I. Introduction

II. The Facts of HIV and AIDS: Plague in the Black Community

III. Deep from Within   Michael J. Burt

IV. The Essays


1. Time to Break the Silence   The Honorable Barbara Lee (D-CA

2. I Know the Face of AIDS   S.M. Young

3. "Sex" and "Safe" Aren't Mutually Exclusive   Blacque Chix

4. Who Will Step Up?   Hill Harper

5. Ms. Different   Nadia Lataillade

6. Reality Check . . . Robi Reed

7. The Power of Truth   The Rev. Al Sharpton

8. Standing United behind a Cause   The Homorable Jesse Jackson, jr. (D-IL)

9. Living My Life with AIDS   Jeffrey Robertson

10. Sweet Tea Ethics: Black Luv, health care, and cultural Mistrust   Edward M. Garnes, Jr.

11. I Remember   N. Ali Early

12. The Way Forward   Phil Wilson

13. Coping with the Loss of my father   Tony Nelson

14. AIDS: You Better Ask Somebody!   Mo'Nique

15. A Message to My straight Brothers: It's Time to talk About Our Homophobia   Christopher Cathcart

16. Acceptance is a Good Thing   Tramaine Hawkins

17. AIDA Has No Tribe   Josiah Kibera

18. A Stitch of Faith   Dena Gray

19. The Power of Love and Honesty in a Relationship   Petra Johnson

20. Sad News: A Reporter's Notes on an Epidemic   Linda Villarosa

21. Life's Ups and Downs   Patti Labelle

22. Celebrity Sex Crave in the Age of AIDS   Omar Tyree

23. No More Debates   Pernessa C. Seele

24. Generations   Regina Robertson

25. Never Judge a Book by Its Cover   M. Brown

26. Knowing Something, But Needing to Know More   Diamaan Samba Guèye

27. From the Front Lines, and Why We Are All There   Diamaan Samba Guèye

28. I Have HIV, Myself   Melvelyn Brown

29. AIDS in the Black Community and Me   Rhonda Racha Penrice

30. Something's Gotta Give   Mr. Marcus

31. Sometimes I Cry   Sheryl Lee Ralph

32. A Crisis in a Community   James Benton

33. HIV/AIDS and African Americans: Reflections of a Congresswoman, a Physician, and a Mother   

               Donna Christensen (D-US V.I.)

34. I Can't Stand the rain   Ivory Brown

35. Not in My Family, Not in My House   Nicole Joseph

36. The Black Church: False Prophets and Wandering Sheep   Nathan McCall and Randolph Byrd

37. Shedding Secrets   Jeneane Lewis

38. As It sounds   Eunetta T. Boone

39. A Revolutionary Act   Craig Washington

40. Dispelling the Myth   Joycelyn Elders, MD

41. Love Your Brothers and Sisters   Rev. Dr. Calvin D. Butts, III

42. Back to the basic   Byron Cage

43. 21st-century Sex Etiquette   Dyana Williams

44. Bittersweet Memories of a Musical legend   Bernadette Brown

45. HIV/AIDS: The Litmus Test for Love   Herndon Davis

46. Greater Lessons learned   Alexis Wilson

47. Love for a Season   Kelley Bass Jackson

48. Stand Up!   Cleo Managa

49.   The Blueprint My Father Left   David Horton

50. Giving Back: The Greatest Love of All   Dr. Rani G. Whitfield

51. When Love Abounds   Deya smith

52. Bearing Responsibility   The Honorable Gregory Meeks (D-NY)

53. AIDS in My World   Nancy Mercado, PhD

54. Not in My Church   Cynthis Powell-Hicks, MA, PhD, and Joanne Powell Lightford

55. The Last to Know   Jasmine Guy

56. Family Affair   Randall Robinson

57.   Innocence, love, and Loss to AIDS   Shawna C. Ervin

58. My shining Light   Gil L. Robertson, IV

V. Appendices

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Gil L. Robertson IV is a journalist whose work has appeared in Essence, Billboard, Black Enterprise, The Source, Los Angeles Times, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and who has appeared on the Tavis Smiley Show, CNN, and BET. His syndicated column, “The Robertson Treatment,” appears in more than thirty newspapers, reaching more than 2 million readers across the country.

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Interview with Gil L. Robertson, IV

You watched your older brother battle AIDS. How did this struggle form the genesis of Not in My Family?

My original idea for this book was simply to share my own family’s journey in dealing with my brother’s HIV diagnoses. In our family, all sides—both immediate and extended—readily engaged in what I call a “circle the wagons” approach of providing support, love, and understanding to my brother’s circumstances. In today’s world the approach was very old school: One of our members was down and we were not going to give up! I knew that if it were told, my family’s story could provide inspiration to others going down similar paths, and give voice to our shared struggle in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

However, as I began to meet other individuals and families dealing with the effects of this disease in their own lives, it became clear to me how important it was to tell many more stories related to this crisis. This brought me to the conclusion that an anthology would be the best forum for the community as a whole to tell its stories. I hope the result will be a positive impact on many more lives.

The anthology features essays from many prominent black leaders, performers, and personalities. How did you line up this remarkable group of contributors?

Our contributors came to this project via several modes of outreach. Things started, of course, with my simply telling other people, and letting word of mouth carry that inquiry around. I also issued a press release, and had a PowerPoint presentation created that asked people to contribute. Both proved very useful in generating buzz about the project, and resulted in numerous inquiries from prospective contributors. From there, the selection process began based in large part on the category of stories and messages that contributors wanted to share.

As one essay in the book tells us, African Americans make up about half of all AIDS cases in the U.S. despite representing only 12 percent of the population. Why has HIV/AIDS has such a disproportionate effect on the black community?

There are so many reasons for this…. Dysfunction, fear, poverty, and lack of information all contribute to this problem. The reasons why this disease has gained such a strong hold in the black community are as numerous as the various individual infected by the disease—which is one of the main reasons why these essays are so important. I believe they tell the personal stories of a wide cross-section of the entire African American population. It’s my hope that these voices will lead us to an answer to that question.

What do you think are the best ways for the African-American community to address the devastation caused by AIDS?

Communication is the key. Improving communication is the only way for us to begin totackle this problem. The primary goal of each essay included in this collection is to address the causes: the “how” and the “why” of this disease’s spread in the black community. I truly believe that if we engage in the right dialogue as it relates to this question, we can then inform public policy in the direction of eradicating AIDS not only from the African-American community, but also completely off the face of this planet.

One issue that arises often in the anthology is the particularly adverse effect AIDS has had on African-American women. Why has AIDS taken such a toll on black women, and what can be done to combat this trend?

Because black women didn’t believe it could happen to them, so they didn’t take the precautions to safeguard themselves from a possible infection. Now, that is understandable when you consider that this disease was first believed to be a gay white man’s disease.

Unfortunately many black women held too much stock in that belief. Also, I think many women are socialized not to question their men’s sexualities and sexual appetites. I think this resulted in many women being lulled into complacency about the possible impact HIV/AIDS might have on them. Not in My Family presents the voices of many remarkable women, whose words I feel will lead us to more and better answers.

Many of the essays in Not in My Family are highly personal testimonials. How can publicly sharing stories like these shape the fight against AIDS?

This book is all about creating a heightened sense awareness, and through that bringing about a more powerful public dialogue leading to action and change. Historically, any time the people have risen for a cause, the government and private enterprise has stepped up with the resources to help solve the problem. I sincerely hope this will be the case again.

posted 1 November 2006

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The New Jim Crow

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Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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The Price of Civilization

Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

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The White Masters of the World

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