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Talking Is Greater Than Silence: Candice Wiggins On the Fight Against AIDS In Black Communities

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Action is Greater Than Apathy
(Twitter: @GreaterThanAids)

If you visited the Greater Than Aids website on World AIDS Day yesterday to check out the PSA that Minnesota Lynx guard Candice Wiggins was in, you might have noticed that five of the links on the "Get Involved" page focus on HIV/AIDS in the African diaspora, including four specifically targeting African-Americans.

If you missed World AIDS Day yesterday, there is a separate National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day coming up in February 2011 that will definitely give more attention to the specific matter of AIDS in black communities.

And although AIDS has become a worldwide epidemic, there's good reason for the heavy emphasis on one racial sub-group of the millions infected.

As documented by journalist Jacob Levenson in his 2004 book The Secret Epidemic, there's a strong argument that silence about the spreading disease among black clergy, politicians, and members of the LGBT community has contributed to a rapid increase of AIDS in black communities to the point where some have now declaring it a "black disease".

While The Secret Epidemic draws upon the personal accounts of four individuals and epidemiological statistics to establish this point about AIDS becoming a black crisis, Minnesota Lynx guard Candice Wiggins doesn't need a 320 page book to understand the significance of speaking out about the HIV/AIDS epidemic - as many WNBA fans are well aware, Wiggins lost her father - Alan Wiggins - to AIDS before she really even got to know him.

"The reason I feel so empowered about it is my family," Wiggins said during an interview with Swish Appeal yesterday on World AIDS Day 2010. "They were the only ones who kind of allowed me to understand the significance of my dad and how I could kind of see the person and my family's name in a way that we could turn around all the negativity."

And as exhausting as it might seem to continue discussing such a personal matter publicly, continuing to talk about it is as much of a personal journey as it is a public cause for Wiggins.

"It's crazy - I'm more interested, I think, I'm more curious about my dad than anyone else is," Wiggins said. "I guarantee there is not a question in the world that I haven't been asked already. So when people ask me questions, I'm like, 'Oh, let's ask together because I have the same because I didn't know him.' So it's incredible to me that people are so interested in knowing about him or hearing about him from me because I am equally interested in his life because I didn't know him."

Due to the stigma about HIV/AIDS that existed when Alan Wiggins passed in 1991 and persists almost 20 years later, Wiggins knew little about her father and less about the disease itself. So speaking out about it is as much about making sure that other families don't have to deal with the epidemic under a shroud of secrecy as it as about her personal motives to grapple with the disease that affected her life.

"It's the same thing with anything, especially HIV awareness and just this whole epidemic - it's going to be a team effort," Wiggins said. "That's why I think the message of the NBA PSA hits home so well because it's not about one person - it's about all of us together."

So although there is obviously a personal element driving her desire to participate in efforts like the Greater Than AIDS initiative (click here for the NBA/WNBA PSA) along with NBA players LA Lakers forward Pau Gasol, Atlanta Hawks forward Al Horford, and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, Wiggins is constantly working to learn more about the broader impact of the epidemic. And part of that is its role specifically in the black community.

AIDS in the black community

Comedian Dave Chappelle once joked that mainstream U.S. society didn't believe black people were having problems with police brutality in the early 90's until it made the front pages of the mainstream media. As there is often some kernel of truth in every joke, despite people making claims about the prevalence of AIDS in the black community for years it hasn't been accepted until recently.

After the research caught up with people's suspicions, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported that AIDS was a "black disease" in 2008 and TIME Magazine reported that 4% of black Americans were infected with the disease in March 2009, which is well above epidemic level.

Reverend Irene Monroe put those numbers in perspective and suggests that one factor is bigger than others.

Bay Windows - New England's largest GLBT newspaper
In other words, if black America were its own country, standing on its own like Haiti or Nigeria, black Americans would rate 16th with the epidemic in the world. And the epidemic is heavily concentrated in urban enclaves like Detroit, New York, Newark, Washington, D.C., and the Deep South.

As Levenson documents in his book, there are multiple factors influencing the increased rate of AIDS in the black community - including access to health care, religion and socioeconomic status - but the research now shows that homophobia might be one of the chief contributors to AIDS in the black community.

However, whether it's confronting barriers of homophobia or religion, Wiggins sees education as the key to moving forward as a nation.

"I don't necessarily think they have to work against each other," Wiggins said when asked about overcoming the challenges posed by homophobia and religion among black communities. "There are so many groups reaching out that every community has someone there that they can go to - it's not like you're shunned anymore. So I just care about human beings, I care about humanity.

"And I'm very religious - I'm very strong in my religious values - but at the same time I care about human beings and I think that the way through it is education, education about what is going on. I think if you have knowledge there's power in that and then whatever you believe in is only going to add to that."

Wiggins has also seen the new movie The Other City, produced by Washington Mystics owner and former BET CEO Sheila Johnson. The issue is not new theme for Johnson - she previously produced A Powerful Voice, a movie about three women who empower girls through education in face of the worldwide epidemic. So perhaps it's fitting that Wiggins sees D.C. as a place to begin educating black people about AIDS.

"The Other City is a documentary produced by Dr. Sheila Johnson and I saw that and went to a screening of it," Wiggins said. "It was very, very powerful because it kind of showed that the rate of HIV infection rates in Washington, D.C. are astounding. They're like some of the rates are comparable to African countries. So it's actually not only in the African American community, but really, really predominantly rampant in Washington, DC."

The epidemic in our nation's capital

TIME reported last year that 75% of D.C. residents who had contracted AIDS were black and the Center for American Progress reports more staggering numbers for the nation's capital this year. 

Fact Sheet: The AIDS Crisis in the United States

  • HIV-AIDS has reached an epidemic rate of infection in Washington, D.C., with 3 percent of D.C. residents older than 12 living with HIV or AIDS.
  • Approximately 16,513 D.C. residents in 2008 were aware that they had HIV or AIDS through testing—a 9 percent increase from 2007.

With D.C. being the epicenter of a nationwide "black epidemic", Wiggins sees that as the place to begin confronting the crisis. As part of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. - founded in D.C. by 22 African-American women in 1913 - the astounding numbers in the nation's capital have added significance to Wiggins.

"To me, it's like crazy that it's our nation's capital," said Wiggins. "So I really think that D.C. is a place where we really need to go and stop the epidemic from growing."

Studying for the future

While taking classes to complete her degree at Stanford University this quarter, Wiggins is still finding time to continue speaking out about AIDS with the many organizations she's partnered with in honor of her father. And although there might have been some debate about the responsibility of athletes to take a stand on major social matters in the wake of Arizona's immigration bill SB 1070, Wiggins embraces the responsibility to use her platform as means to bring greater attention to the issue of AIDS in the U.S., both for black people and the population at large.

"I think it's a natural responsibility for me," Wiggins said when asked about whether she believes athletes have a responsibility to become advocates. "It's a great responsibility and I don't want anybody else to have it because I am passionate, I know what I'm doing, I know I can help, and it's a great thing."

Nevertheless, even with her broad perspective on the matter of AIDS, the inspiration for her efforts still come back to her family and particularly her mother who always knew her daughter would help to alleviate the negativity surrounding her late-husband's death.

"You know, moms of a Stanford graduate," Wiggins said with a chuckle. "She knew I was going to go to Stanford when I was 10. She knew that I was going to change our story. She knew all this stuff when I was a kid and she's absolutely the one who prepared me for this. And I'm not shocked today - I'm not anything except very, very, very, very, very happy, very poised, and very determined because of my mom."

And through her efforts and the work of others, Wiggins hopes that one day she'll be able to speak only with the people - friends and teammates - who knew her father as a person, not necessarily just as an AIDS patient.

"That's the whole dream in all of this - to show the change in society because it wasn't anything that anyone wanted to talk about, including myself," said Wiggins when asked if any of her father's former teammates or friends had reached out to her and shared stories about her father. "No one really wants to talk about AIDS or him dying and drugs and sort of the monsters that [made] it really kind of a scary story almost and definitely not a story for kids.

"But now I'm in a position where I've grown up and I've faced it - I know exactly what it is. So I'm glad that you asked that question because I might just reach out and get some really good insight."

Not that the end of this fight is upon us, but that at once seems like a reasonably attainable cultural goal and a coveted reward for a daughter who wishes she knew the father she's fighting for.

Organizations Candice Wiggins has worked with:

Greater Than Aids

Until There's A Cure

The Children Affected By AIDS Foundation

Make-A-Wish Foundation