Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the day retired basketball player turned entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced he had HIV, and thus, would be retiring from the Lakers. For many, and not just sports fanatics, it was a pivotal moment in their lives, akin to Sept. 11th, the OJ verdict, or for our parents, where they were when they heard Malcolm or Martin had been shot.
I was alerted to the significance of the day when Essence Deputy Director Bob Meadows tweeted, “I do remember where I was when Magic Johnson made his announcement. At work. We watched the press conference. I was devastated.”
In 1991, I was 11. I knew who Magic Johnson was, of course, but the significance of his announcement completely missed me. One because I was young; two, because I wasn’t a sports fan; and three, because HIV wasn’t something that everyone was talking about, mostly because they didn’t feel the need to.
There was tremendous ignorance about HIV/AIDS twenty years ago. It was still dubbed a “gay disease” in many circles, and for people who contracted it that escaped that “stigma,” and then you were an assumed drug addict or whore (and that applied to women only then, as it does now). It was only as an adult that I took for granted the idea that HIV doesn’t discriminate. Johnson, a respected figure who was seen as virile and staunchly masculine, was largely responsible for shaping that outlook.
But in 1991, HIV/AIDS was a blip on my radar. I didn’t have Meadows’ reaction of being “devastated” by a celebrity HIV announcement until March of 1995, when Eazy–E died. I was a 15-year-old East Coast suburban kid who listened to NWA mostly on my headphones because there was no way I could blast “Straight Outta Compton,” “100 Miles and Runnin” or even “Express Yourself” in my parents’ house. (Though his verse on “We’re All in the Same Gang” did get some speaker time.) I learned of his death on MTV. I was sitting on a friend’s couch after school and stared at the TV stuck on stupid.
AIDS? He was a celebrity, a gangster rapper from the West Coast nearly twice my age and rapping about a life that in no way mirrored my own. But his name and music had gone from the streets to suburban living rooms (and all the way up to the White House), but his music was my soundtrack and I could rattle off most of his verses (still can). His death hit me hard. That was my “anybody can get it… (gulp) including me” moment.
HIV reached its 30th anniversary this year, and we know what it is, but for various reasons we are still putting ourselves at risk at alarming rates. Black women lead statistics in contracting HIV, mostly through unprotected sex with a male partner. It seems many of us feel invincible when we’re not.
What can we do to get that message across now?
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk