I am sitting in the back of the New Spirit Revival Center, a Cleveland Megachurch. The 2nd or 3rd pew from the back, the wooden groaning betraying my eager desire to be invisible there. There is so much grief and disappointment in the room. In the cascade of rows in front of me, there is quiet weeping from what I assume is his family seemingly miles away from my small, isolated island, room only for a 6’3 skinny Black boy. They are so much closer to him in every way. He was my prom date after all, 7 years prior, or he was supposed to be until he stood me up, which didn’t bother me nearly as much as our mutual friends. We never lost contact, just less. To the right, I see our friends that aren’t mine anymore, the ones I lost, the ones that were pulled here by the gravity of loss. We are all grieving.

They keep calling him James, but we knew him as Jimmy. His father, James Davis, the fourth, is delivering an impassioned, but hollow sounding speech. It is too far from what Jimi was, but poetic enough for Jimi to have appreciated. James the fourth, I think our Jimi was the fifth. My lil prom date. Lil Bit, as some of us called the short petite boy we couldn’t help but love. He was loved…until the day he died, ironically on his birthday, exactly 24 years old.

My prom date died when we were 24 years old from Kaposi’s Sarcoma, which was so bad, he lost his ability to speak by the end, his former beauty swelled shut and his lymph nodes like stones beneath his jaw. This, a result of AIDS and this, a result of HIV. This was 2014.

We Are Still Dying

Jimmy isn’t the only person I know who has died from AIDS related complications.

T.Y. used to do my locs up at the Beyond Identities Community Center on 36th and Superior, inconspicuously hidden in the back of a warehouse building full of office space. He was present and always felt in a room, a smile wide as an open-armed hug, usually as warm. He was the first person to make me feel welcome there that wasn’t a staff member. An unforgettable kindness that, more likely than not, shaped the future I would have there and beyond.

M died and I wouldn’t have even known had it not been for a friend closer to him asking:

“Did you hear about M?”

“Tina (that’s what we called him)? What about ‘em?”

“Yeah. Oh, you don’t know. He died last week.”

“What? How”

HIV. These were both in 2018.

We are dying. We are still dying. HIV/AIDS is our killer.

What can be done? What is being done? What is the next step now that the CDC has released the contingent information in 2016 that Black men who have sex with men have a 1 of 2 chance in getting HIV, if current rates of infection persist? (Spoiler: they persisted).

From NCHHSTP Newsroom (cdc.gov):

Despite overall progress toward ending HIV, HIV continues to affect some groups severely and disproportionately. Rates of new HIV infections among Black/African American people (hereafter referred to as Black) are over eight times as high—and among Hispanic/Latino people almost four times as high—as that of rates of new HIV infections among White people.

But…Isn’t HIV Treatable?

Yes, and preventable. The treatment available these days have much lower instances of side effects and lead to a normal life, even being unable to sexually transmit HIV to partners.

I don’t know why Jimi got so sick from something that is so easily treated in our modern times, where much less of us die than before. I don’t understand the senselessness of why this thing even exists, something so destructive to the body when left to run its course.

Why the people I knew died?

I can’t say. I don’t know. I don’t know how it got that bad. But it did. I feel exhausted at the end of this. So tired of seeing the results for young, early 20’s, Black men coming to see me about results. Coming to see my colleagues about results. People that look like my prom date. People that look like my friends. People that look like worthy human beings who are loved by someone, that have mothers and favorite foods.

People that look like me.

Where we are now

Every other demographic has declining or plateaued new HIV rates. All, except Black men. Black men like me. I watch the hills of numbers flatten as ours rise and stay higher than all. I don’t have enough heart left to break for this. I work in this not just for my community, but for me.

This work has always been about saving myself.

I saw Jimi the last time two years before he died. He looked vibrant with youthful immortality. He greeted me with the usual jump hug, and we talked about poetry and forgiveness and the like. There was tension between us that never quite dissolved. I watched him change via social media, like watching a butterfly lose its wings and become something else. His best friend told me what was going on as we stayed close.

What barriers to care did he face? Why did it get this bad? Who was tasked to help him and let him slip through the fissures of healthcare, so badly, that he paid for this fumble with his life?

I don’t know. I’ll never know. And the tension has never quite dissolved.

Reach out. Text me! Learn more. There are people waiting to help. I am devoting my life to ending HIV. All I ask for is a conversation and maybe a doctor visit. Let us do the hard stuff.

Have questions?

If you’ve got more questions about PrEP, it’s easy to get answers. Just text or call the Cleveland PrEP Navigators:

AKeem Rollins, MetroHealth – Call or Text 216.714.2223

Fiona Allan, University Hospitals
Call 216.286.7737

Email AKeem at Metro for PrEP

Email Fiona at UH for PrEP