By Hayat Mohamed, BlackVoices.com
In 1995, Maria Davis was a successful New York hip hop promoter (featured prominently on Jay-Z's first album 'Reasonable Doubt') when her world was turned upside down. An HIV test she had taken as part of an application for a life insurance policy came back positive. She had unknowingly contracted the disease from her soon-to-be husband, and three years later she was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.
That same year, in 1998, Davis became an activist to help others learn about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Davis represents a group that has been disproportionately affected by the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. and abroad.
According to the CDC, African-American and Hispanic women account for 80 percent of AIDS cases in the U.S., even though they represent less than a quarter of all American women. Nearly 70% of these women contracted the disease through heterosexual relations. Davis hopes to inspire others to find out their HIV status and learn safe-sex practices through her non-profit organization, Can't Be Silenced.
In honor of World AIDS Day, for which Davis is a national spokesperson, she shared her story with Black Voices.
How did you contract the disease?
I contracted HIV through a heterosexual relationship. I had fallen in love and thought I was moving out of the country to the Caribbean. I had been there several times. I was sick of the men here in America and I thought that in Jamaica, I would find a man that was different. I got caught up in a beautiful island with its warm and accepting people. I deceived myself. I thought that if I had somebody else away from here that the relationship would be different. I had been seeing this man for quite some time and I really believed I was going to marry him. When I discovered I was HIV positive I never contacted him after that again. We never discussed it.
How did you discover that you had HIV?
In 1995, I wanted to get a life insurance policy they require that you take an HIV test. I had previously had an HIV test a year before and it was negative. On October 1st I applied for the life insurance policy and then I got tested on October 16th. The life insurance company sent me a letter telling me I was HIV positive.
My first reaction was disbelief. In 1995 everyone was under the impression that only gay men were contracting the disease. So as an African-American woman I was thinking, "This is a lie," and that's what I basically kept telling myself. I still have the actual letter from the insurance company. I wrote on the letter to myself, "God has another plan for me," and he did -- just not the plan I thought!
How much did you know about HIV prior to contracting the virus?
I knew very little but now it's different, I'm very knowledgeable. I could tell you different strains of HIV and the importance of T-Cells and the viral load and how STDs are a leeway into HIV; now I have so much education. However, unfortunately you can't turn back the hands of time and I'm sure if I knew then what I know now, I probably would not have contracted HIV. Also, if my mother was more open and willing to educate me about sex then things might have been different. I think that's another one of the most problematic issues in the African-American community. We're having sex but we're afraid to talk about sex; especially talk about it with our children.
When did you publicly tell the world you had AIDS?
October 1, 2000 is when I publicly announced to the world that I had AIDS. My story was in the book, Souls of My Sisters. We had a book signing in Englewood NJ. I'll never forget that day. A lot of my colleagues were there. The minute I announced it, I wanted to turn back . I asked myself "Do I know what I'm really doing? Do I really want to announce it to the world?" Because once it comes out of your mouth publicly, whether you tell one or two people, by time you get home that night there's probably hundreds of people who know. Everybody's going to call everybody. Although the book came out a month prior, people reading it is one thing but hearing it is another. When it came out of your mouth everybody knew that it was definitely true. Before I spoke publicly, people were talking and whispering but they didn't really know. Some people were saying I was strung out on cocaine, you had all these different rumors, but no one actually heard me say I was an AIDS survivor until October 2000.
What do feel is the best method of prevention for HIV and AIDS?
Education is essential but we also need it to be more than just the word. We want people to really practice, not only hear the word but to heed to the word. You'll hear "Oh it's crazy that young people in Africa are infected." No it's crazy that here in the U.S. where we have grown folks, executives in companies with good jobs with bachelors and masters still living out here carelessly because they think it can't happen to them because of their money and their prestige. HIV doesn't care about any of that.
What is your biggest message you'd like to get across about HIV and AIDS?
Everybody is infected with HIV or AIDS unless you've been tested. I ask people, have you been tested and when they say no I tell them, "Ok you have AIDS then." If you haven't been tested, then how do you know? I don't care if you've been sexually active just once, you need to make sure you get tested. My real call to action is the youth. We have too many young people getting infected with HIV and it's all of our responsibilities. Look at the numbers; we are only 12% of the population but we're half of the HIV infections and then you have the African-American women who make up 67% of those infected and the young people that are damn near 70% of the new infections.
What will you be doing for World AIDS day and how can people get involved with you and your organization?
For the whole week of World AIDS Day I will be speaking at colleges around the country. On the first I'll be at St. Mary's College in Hartford, Connecticut, on December 2nd I'm at Virginia Tech and then I'll be at Morgan State University on the 4th. My organization Can't Be Silenced is based in New York City. People can e-mail me at DavisMaria@msn.com or they can call me at (212) 866-1562. I work with the organization Life Beat and they're always looking for volunteers. I also work with a group called Friends In Deed. They're actually always looking for volunteers.