Zora Neale Hurston, a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, served as both an author and anthropologist. Within the confines of her New York apartment, she established a nurturing haven for artists and writers, affectionately known as her salon. Similarly, Georgia Douglas Johnson hosted literary gatherings in her home, known as “Saturday Nighters.” Though Douglas Johnson lived in Washington, D.C., she wielded significant influence over Black writers hailing from various corners of the nation. This distinguished group, also known as the “Round Table” or the “S Street Salon,” boasted academics and visionaries such as Countee Cullen, W.E.B DuBois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Jessie Fauset, alongside other prominent African-American writers of that era.
Fast-forward to the present day, and we see these historic salon’s reimagined at the United States Conference on HIV/AIDS (USCHA). One of the notable plenary sessions held over the course of the four-day conference featured a powerful performance aptly named “The S Salon.” This distinctive three-act showcase incorporated elements of dance, spoken word, music, and IRL conversation all with the theme, “A Love Letter To Black Women.”
Drawing inspiration from pioneers such as Hurston and Johnson, “The S Salon” fostered the healthy conversation, all with the objective of eradicating the stigma linked to HIV, particularly within marginalized communities—most notably, Black women. The conference, held in Washington, D.C., held historical significance as well. Beyond being the city where Johnson held her famous ‘S Street Salon’ gatherings, D.C. has a compelling message about HIV. Statistics from the D.C. Department of Health show that a quarter of those living with HIV in D.C. are Black women, and 22 percent of those newly diagnosed with HIV between 2015-2019 were Black women.
The three act show included entertainers Ts Madison and Amanda Seales, Grammy-nominated songstress Baby Rose, National Book Award longlisted author Safia Elhillo, and other influential Black women delivered captivating performances centered around Black women’s sexual health and HIV prevention. “This is most definitely an important cause for me to support, or not just support, that I’m intertwined with,” said Madison, Grammy nominated entertainer and trans activist. “This is about Black people, Black women. We’re highly affected by the virus, and we’re highly affected by the virus because of the stigmas in our community.”
Madison, a former sex worker turned global sensation, firmly believes that the time has arrived to confront the issue of HIV and AIDS within the Black community. In her view, this moment is not only timely but has been overdue for quite some time. She said that it’s not the Black community’s unwillingness to learn, but the assumption that HIV/AIDS is just a “gay virus.”
“This affects us as black people in total, and so it’s important for me because it merges two communities together,” Madison explained. “I’m trans, there are a lot of trans and bio women here, and it affects us all the same.”
Sponsored by ViiV Healthcare, the sole pharmaceutical company dedicated to HIV, and produced by creative and entertainment studio Harley & Co., “The S Salon” performance explored themes of desire, intimacy, and pleasure through artistry while reshaping discussions surrounding sexual well-being and HIV prevention. While onstage, Seales expressed that “intimacy isn’t just physicality. Intimacy isn’t just about sexuality either. It requires emotional intellectualism about yourself.”
All too frequently, sexuality is misconstrued as a substitute for intimacy, when in reality, the two should coexist. In this context, Black women are often overlooked, which exacerbates the disproportionately high rates of HIV and AIDS cases among both cisgender and transgender Black women within this community. “I realize that I was misappropriating sex for intimacy,” Seales said. “I thought they were interchangeable. I thought, that’s how you get intimacy, by doing this [sex]. Sex can be intimate. But I think sometimes we think that because we are in this physical exchange, we believe that there is an emotional exchange happening. Intimacy has a lot of levels to it. There is a physical intimacy happening just with the closeness. But when we talk about intimacy, what we’re really talking about is truth that can’t be hidden from.”
The escalating problem of HIV and AIDS within the Black community disproportionately affects Black women. However, the AIDS virus is not something women are contracting by themselves. The lack of education and open dialogue surrounding HIV and AIDS contributes to the stigma, and Madison believes it’s time that men are called to the carpet for their role in this growing statistic.
She calls back to her days as a sex worker. “When I was in the business, there were a lot of gentlemen who were married or engaged, and so there’s definitely a personal connection to it for me,” Madison told ESSENCE. “I used to always ask men, ‘why are you here?’ Here you are going outside of a commitment that you’ve made, and then you’re here trying to occupy these spaces with me in an unsafe way. Even though that was the business that I was in, I still was conscious and had thoughts of why. ‘Why are you not protecting your family like you’re supposed to?’”
Nonetheless, Madison can see that even though Black women bear a disproportionate burden of the disease, the opportunity for open discussions about sexuality within the Black community is limited. “We are still in a space where discussing sexuality, sexual attraction, gender identity, sexual orientation, is difficult, and understanding that they’re all on different spectrums. It’s still something to be grasped, I don’t think Black people always see the nuance, it’s either this or that. There’s no safe space,” Madison said.
The three act performance is a part of ViiV’s Risk to Reasons initiative to elevate awareness and action where HIV prevention and care is concerned among both cisgender and transgender Black women. With guidance from advocates nationwide, this endeavor is helping to transform the narrative from “risk” to “reason” when it comes to prevention and care.
“Societal myths about who needs to think about HIV prevention, along with stigma, are preventing Black women from benefiting from the standard of care that has the potential to dramatically reduce transmission and improve quality of life for those living with HIV,” said Marc Meachem, head of US External Affairs for ViiV. “It doesn’t have to be this way. The work we’ve done with Black women to create new messages and find the right messengers to engage Black women around HIV prevention is groundbreaking and critical.”
ViiV Healthcare is distinctive in its industry, boasting a largely female executive team. Over the past decade, the company has made substantial investments in entertainment, arts, and culture to reshape the narratives surrounding Black women and gay/queer Black and Latinx men, with a particular focus on reducing HIV-related stigma.
“The S Salon” performance powerfully demonstrated how art and culture can effectively drive meaningful change in discussions about HIV prevention, sexual well-being, and the health of Black women. It highlighted the significance of collaboration and creative expression in addressing the challenges that Black women face in combating HIV.
To learn more about RiskTo Reason and ViiV Healthcare, visit the website.