When it comes to HIV/AIDS, Black Americans have two choices: either gear up and take on AIDS or be taken out by one of the greatest moral and health challenges of our time. I want us as a people to choose life today.
I know that unless we are forced to overcome our discomfort with talking about sexuality and deal honestly with this disease, we're not going to have much of a community in 50 years.
Look what AIDS has already done. Because of our inaction, the epidemic has chipped away at lives too young to lose. African Americans are 12.3 percent of the population, but 61 percent of people under the age of 25 who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS between 2001 and 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
AIDS, which is both treatable and preventable, is now the top national cause of death for African-American women ages 25-34 and is among the top three causes of death for black men 25-54.
What matters now and what matters most is that we must move beyond the fear of HIV/AIDS to action. We need to get educated; we need to be tested so that we can courageously kill the disease before the disease kills us.
I will never forget the day I first saw the face of HIV/AIDS. It was the morning that Rae Lewis came to me wearing it. She was a young neighbor girl who had grown up like a member of my own family, a playmate and friend to my children. She told me that she had HIV and that it was moving fast toward AIDS. That was more than two decades ago. She is fighting back and today Rae Lewis-Thornton is an HIV/AIDS activist.
Because of Rae, AIDS was not some abstract campaign issue for me during my run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Another close family friend also made AIDS a reality for me. His name was Keith Barrow— Keith died of AIDS complications.
That was a critical time for me politically, but it was also a turning point in my commitment to focusing attention on the issue of HIV/AIDS. I was running for office, but I was also staying in AIDS hospices. I had to come to grips with this devastating disease at a time when the right wing was preaching about AIDS as a sin, not a disease, and when parents were kicking family members out when they found out they had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The first step is to overcome fear of the disease. I did. Second is to take a 30-second antibody test, and the next is the antigen test, which gives you a true status of whether or not you are infected. I took the tests and I know my status. If players in the NBA and the NFL would use 30 seconds to get tested by swabbing their cheeks on television, it would send a powerful message.
We must use every platform we can for mass education. African-Americans and all Americans have to get beyond the foolishness of not teaching health and sex education. There are so many ways to get the virus so all that we really need to know is if you do have it, you can get help.
People don't worry about how you caught cancer. They don't ask 'Did you catch it by eating meat?' 'Did you catch it because you were living a little too close to electric power lines?' People aren't questioning how you caught cancer. If someone has cancer, you say, 'Is it operable?'
This disease is bigger than all of us, but I'm comforted in knowing that God is in control. But we must also come together and we must act. Combating AIDS takes early detection, good medicine, and changing our behavior and lifestyle. Do your part so that people can live.
Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.