HIV/AIDS activist speaks at UAB

By on March 14, 2014
Photo by Karah Jackson

Marvelyn Brown, author of The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive gave a lecture last Tuesday, March 4 in Heritage Hall Building 102 at 7 PM. The event was sponsored by the African-American Studies Organization.

A 29-year-old native Tennessean, Brown learned she was HIV-positive at age 19. Since then, she has lectured audiences from around the United States, Canada, Jamaica, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, South Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda with her personal account. Brown has spoken at hundreds of colleges, universities, churches and conferences worldwide. Her autobiography, The Naked Truth, is used as a text for many HIV/AIDS Awareness initiatives. A 2007 Emmy Award Winner for Outstanding National Public Service Announcement, Brown has also made several appearances on mainstream networks and shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, BET’s Rap it Up Campaign, CNN’s Black in America, CBS’s The Early Show,  and Frontline’s ENDGAME.

Utilizing a vivid narrative structure for her lecture, she recalled that day, in which her life was drastically altered. She began to talk about the fact that her learning of her HIV status was an incidental discovery.

While hospitalized for pneumonia, she learned after a series of tests that she was HIV positive.

Photo by Karah Jackson

“When the doctor told me, and he left the room, I realized that it was much more serious than I had imagined.”

As she scrambled for support while in the emergency room, she called one of her friends (to which she had just thrown a baby shower for and was to be the child’s godmother) and said casually, “I am HIV positive.” The friend, in turn, responded “I don’t want you to have anything to do with me or my kids.”

“This is the first time I really and truly experienced stigma,” Brown said.

According to Brown, a church mother who she looked up to told her that HIV was a punishment from God because of her fornication. When she told her mother, her mother told her “don’t you ever tell people you are sick from HIV, tell them you have cancer.”

She also spoke to how the lack of education made people avoid all contact with her, even her immediate family. “For a while, I would eat on separate plates, and wash my clothes separately from everyone else,” the author remembered. The fallout was so bad that she chose to live in her car until she had to move back in with her mother because she could not afford the over $3000 in medication expenses that her new found disease necessitated.

Photo by Karah Jackson

Photo by Karah Jackson

As a freshman in college working in a pizzeria, and a former self-described “tomboyish” high school athlete, she spoke to how she didn’t fit the stereotype of an HIV positive person. Brown detailed how she was swindled into love with the partner with whom she contracted the virus, and that he was her “Prince Charming” because as a “tomboy” most guys did not pay attention to her in a romantic or erotic way. So, he was entrancing, according to Brown. “He had a glow about him.”

“That he loved me meant that I loved myself that much more,” Brown said. Brown then began to pinpoint the moment that she contracted the virus remembering “we were about to be intimate and he said that he did not have a condom.”

“I thought, at least he was responsible in telling me, I had heard horror stories from my friends.”

This lead to her primary point of the lecture: the importance of self-responsibility. “The question is not ‘why me’, but ‘why not me’?” When she confronted her partner, he knew that he had the virus, and when the virus has been discovered, it was three weeks old, and thus Brown tracked it back to the time when she had unprotected sex with her “Prince Charming”.

“My life could have easily been like my friend, I could have ended up pregnant like her, and she could have been infected with HIV. I wasn’t promiscuous, but I consented to having unprotected sex with him.”

“Get tested, and educate yourselves and others,” she said.  “Stigmas come from fear, and the remedy for both is education.”

During the Q&A portion of her lecture, she was asked the hypothetically rhetorical question, “if you could cure your HIV, would you?” To the shock of most of the room, she answered “no”.

“Don’t get me wrong, there are some hard times. Sometimes I wish it would go away. I have had to take up to 46 pills in one day to treat symptoms of symptoms. It has weeded out the superficial and close-minded people in my life. But HIV taught me responsibility, and gave me a purpose.”

Reflecting on the first time she was asked to share her story in her early twenties that one of the comments, which lauded Brown, made her flee the room in distress because she didn’t feel like a role model. But after affirmation for her family and peers, she realized that she needed to educate with her story, and that she bore an important message.

“I feel that is important to come to college campuses because I was diagnosed as a college student,” remarked Brown to the Kaleidoscope.

“We wanted to bring the issue to light and continue the conversation of HIV/AIDS awareness within the African-American community here at UAB,” affirmed Jasmine Crenshaw, senior psychology student and African American Studies minor.

The African American Studies Organization (AASO) also hosted a free HIV/AIDS screening a week prior to the lecture. For more information on Marvelyn Brown, AASO, or HIV/AIDS awareness visit AASOatUAB, marvelynbrown.com, and aidsalabama.org, respectively.

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