He makes the sign of the cross on his chest and casts his eyes heavenward.
The crowd roars with laughter and applause.
“Just not AIDS, God. Don’t let me get sick and die.”
In the inevitable section of sex jokes every black comedian delivers, O’Neal, in his stand-up routine Elephant In the Room, admits to never wanting to use a condom mainly because he feels too old. (He was 40 at the time.) He goes on to joke that men will risk sickness and even death to keep from putting one on.
And, besides, he says: “Ladies ... protection is your responsibility.”
It would be funnier than it is if, sadly, (black) men didn’t actually feel that way and if — still more sadly — it wasn’t some unspoken covenant between black men and women.
O’Neal’s jokes about “going in raw” immediately made me think of AIDS among blacks and how fucking a man without a condom for women is like having sex with the barrel of a loaded gun up her vagina.
Real talk, as the kids say.
How is this still even on the table in 2012?
Why hasn’t unprotected sex among blacks — the population with the highest HIV numbers — been more closely associated with self-esteem, because you must not love yourself if you let someone push up unprotected.
Well maybe God can help us.
God and the NAACP.
Eighteen months ago the NAACP organized more than 250 pan-denominational pastors during an 11-month tour to get the pastors’ help advising and then writing The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative, a pastoral brief and 61-page activity manual meant to help clergy in the nation’s 21,000 identified black churches to curb the still astounding cases of HIV infection among blacks.
The manual was unveiled in July during the NAACP’s annual convention, the one where Gov. Mitt Romney told the assembled throngs of blacks that they were “looking at their next president.”
But what he was looking at, unbeknownst to him I am certain, was a room filled with statistics.
According to numbers used by the NAACP:
Blacks comprise nearly one half of all new HIV infections but we are less likely to get treatment and more likely to die from HIV than any other race.
In 2009, black men comprised 11 percent of the U.S. male population but accounted for 42 percent of new HIV infections among U.S. men. At the same time, black women comprised 12 percent of the U.S. female population but accounted for 64 percent of new HIV infections among U.S. women.
One in 15 black men 18 years old or older are incarcerated.
One in 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV in his lifetime.
The Social Justice Imperative advises pastors to preach about HIV in their sermons, to connect their congregations with community action or social service groups serving people with HIV and to openly promote safe sex and access to condoms and organize church-based HIV screening drives.
To do any or all of this, pastors will have to break through their own piousness and the piety of their congregations to admit they are: 1) having sex, 2) having unprotected sex, 3) having unprotected sex with partners who have multiple partners who might be same-sex or having unprotected sex with a partner who also might be a drug user.
So, this manual helps pastors help their congregants.
But pastors have to know it’s out there. Then they’ll have to have the Godly courage to read it and implement its tools in the pulpit.
And they’re gonna need it because there are a lot of taboo subjects alive but unspoken in every denomination of the black church. Some more taboo than others, depending on the denomination. Black Southern Baptists and Pentecostals can go all hellfire-fire-and-brimstone medieval on homosexuality and abomination whereas Missionary Baptists can sometimes be more welcoming, depending on the tenor of the congregation and the moxie of the preacher.
Not that all HIV and AIDS infections emanate from the homosexual community, but in the myopic minds of the black churchgoer, they do; therefore, homosexuality remains the Last Great Taboo in the black church despite the fact that out or flamboyant gay men are safe in that church so long as they stay in their (stereotypical) lanes as choir members, choir directors or musicians or they’re prominently seen with a respectable woman.
This includes pastors, some of whom are living double lives.
This paradigm, of course, leaves out lesbians in the black church, but they’re there, of course. It also omits the conversation about our men who’ve returned from prison where they’ve engaged in same-sex activities, though they may not identify as gay.
In addition to rehabilitation, education, job training and love, those men need AIDS tests.
And after awhile, so do the women they’ve come home to.
All of this means pastors in the black church need to turn away, for a time, anyway, from their flavor-of-the-month sermons on wealth-building and prosperity and turn directly to this manual and study it like they’re back in seminary.
Then they could turn their attention to the other social and health ills plaguing us like hypertension, mental illness, sickle cell, illiteracy, teen and unwed pregnancy, homelessness, the disproportionate numbers of us who are unemployed and those with foreclosed mortgages.
I love that the NAACP is taking a stance on HIV among blacks, engaging the black church and has produced an actionable text with an outcome-based plan. After all, the last time the NAACP and the black church joined forces, they created a little something called the civil rights movement.
I would love for Patrice O’Neal to riff on the notion of taking sex and HIV directly to the black pulpit because he was fearless and could joke mercilessly about anything.
But he died from a diabetes-related stroke last November.
And maybe black pastors can preach about that, too.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: firstname.lastname@example.org