Today (February 7th) is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. When it comes to diseases like HIV and AIDS which come with harsh stigmas and assumptions, folks sometimes are afraid to broach the subject. But when you’ve known and lost loved ones suffering from the disease, you understand how important it is to have those candid conversations. Actor Jay Ellis is using his platform to bring awareness to the forefront.
Ellis, who plays Lawrence on Issa Rae’s hit HBO series Insecure, lost a great-uncle to AIDS in the ‘90s and has another family member who has been living with HIV for several decades. “It’s always been something that’s been around my family and been a conversation,” he said in an interview with PEOPLE. “When I found out about it I was 10 years old and I think it wasn’t until I was a little bit older — in high school about to graduate — when my other family member contracted HIV, and I think that was the first time I actually understood what was going on. I was like, oh, now I understand what my great-uncle died from.”
Unfortunately, not every family is as forthcoming with conversations about HIV, AIDS and other STI’s. As a board of trustees member for amfAR, an organization dedicated to ending the global AIDS epidemic, Ellis has been traveling the nation to help educate high school and college students about the disease.
“It’s definitely everywhere, and the conversation is less prevalent in Black communities, and I think it’s stigma,” he says. “There’s this stigma of how you contracted it and what it means to have it and how you can give it to someone else. I think that when we don’t allow ourselves to have these conversations, all based on stigma and fear and not having the proper educational resources behind us, we end up crippling the community and youth because we don’t give them the information that they need to know about living a safe and healthy life.”
His emphasis on reaching the Black community is certainly warranted. According to amFAR, Black Americans account for nearly half of all new HIV infections each year, despite representing only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Black HIV/AIDS patients are also more like to die from the virus than other racial groups. Though the statistics have improved marginally over the years, Ellis says the rate of infection in our community is still “far too high.”
Because continued strides in HIV/AIDS research, Ellis is confident that amfAR will reach its ultimate goal. “I think we’re going to be the generation that sees a cure for sure.”