Wednesday, June 15, 2011


“The more we lack the courage and the will to act, the more we condemn to death our brothers and sisters, our children and our grandchildren. When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of a global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?”— Nelson Mandela, Tromso, Norway (11 June 2004)
Zackie Achmat and AIDS activists at AIDS Conference in South Africa, 2000

Thirty years ago, I heard the news on a gerry-rigged short wave radio with its antennae attached the top of my thatched roof. The BBC announcer described a mysterious disease that affected the immune system, which apparently only infected gay men and some Haitian immigrants. The disease was called AIDS. It was 1981. I was in the Peace Corps in West Africa working with women on vegetable gardening. I heard the report again and again that day, a news junky even then. Each time I became more and more alarmed and scared.
Fifteen years later, in a public health clinic in Chicago, I sat across from a social worker. She passed me a slip of paper with three words on it:  my first name, my last name and underneath in a dot matrix blur: POSITIVE. I stared at it for what seemed like a long time, thinking first that it meant, good news, positive, as opposed to negative, bad. Then, as my mind struggled to accept the diagnosis, I actually had the thought that I was not, Michael McColly.  After all these years, this was not my name. Who was this man? Not me.

But it was.

On Northwestern Campus, Evanston
In 2000, I was back in Africa, marching along with tens of thousands of South Africans, people like me living with HIV, as well as activists and health workers from around the world who were attending the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa. I wore this t-shirt, walking through the streets of Durban, proudly raising my voice with the others, chanting slogans to wake the people of the world to the injustice of drug companies and governments blocking access to the millions in need for treatment. What I remember that day were the throngs of young people, bussed in from around South Africa, from Soweto, from Cape Town, from rural areas where rates of infection were in some places nearly 30 percent.  They were so boisterous, chanting, laughing, arm-in-arm, finally able to be out in the open, unafraid, their heads held high, marching at the front of the protest.

Then as now, millions still have little access to the necessary drugs and care that have kept me and thousands of others free from the ravages of this insidious retrovirus, which infiltrates and copies itself onto healthy T-cells.

Last week, I pulled this t-shirt out of my drawer. (I’d worn it only once since that day at talk I’d given  on AIDS activism, which was the subject of my last book, The After-Death Room.) I decided to wear it for a few days in honor of all of those who have been affected by HIV as well as all of those unsung healers, care-givers, health workers, activists, scientists, and artists who’ve given so much to keep the world aware of this disease.  I wore it to readings, while teaching, while walking through campus, while walking through the streets of Chicago, and through my own neighborhood. It was my mini march of memory and protest.  Everyone wears t-shirts to support causes or proclaim affiliations or make jokes or call attention to something. But when I put on this shirt with HIV POSITIVE in bold purple, I felt that old anxiety of fifteen years before, an anxiety that I’m reminded millions feel every day, terrified for not only their health but of others finding out. People are still jailed, beaten, and murdered for living with HIV.  Two men boldly asked me why I was wearing it. A few smiled. But most still rushed by, one young man on Michigan Ave, blurted, as if I might not have ears, “Eeww, look: HIV!”

HIV and AIDS still threatens the lives of some 30 plus million people. Most of those who live with HIV don't know they have the disease, as they are too afraid to find out or have little access to health care. Most of the people with HIV are poor, young, female, and vulnerable to other diseases and the world's injustices.  The losses attributed to this disease are incalculable. The fears are still palpable and destructive. Yet, this disease has also awakened the world that we share this planet, and the health of each individual affects us all.  Whether it is HIV, TB, war, toxic chemicals, greed, racism, hatred or hypocrisy, we all suffer. But we all triumph when even one of us turns toward the fight and marches on.  I am alive because of many before me, from all over the world, who did not back down.