He was, Precious Jackson said, a very fine black man. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall with an almond-milk complexion, dreamy dark eyes and a deep voice. During their nearly two years together in Los Angeles, he was the sunshine of her life, even though he had a habit of landing in jail and refused to use a condom when they made love.
“I didn’t ask him any questions,” Jackson said in a recent interview. “I didn’t ask him about his sexual history. I asked him if he had been tested, and he said one test came back positive but another one came back negative. I was excited to have this man in my life, because I felt I needed this man to validate who I was.”
The man is now Jackson’s ex-lover, but the two are forever attached by the AIDS virus she contracted from him, becoming, in the process, a part of the nation’s fastest-growing group of people with HIV—black women.
That development, epidemiologists say, is attributable to socioeconomic and demographic conditions specific to many African American communities. Black neighborhoods, they say, are more likely to be plagued by joblessness, poverty, drug use and a high ratio of women to men, a significant portion of whom cycle in and out of a prison system where the rate of HIV infection is estimated to be as much as 10 times higher than in the general population.
In 2003, the rate of new AIDS cases for black women was 20 times that of white women and five times greater than the infection rate for Latinas, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black and Hispanic women accounted for 77 percent of all new AIDS infections in 1994. Nine years later, the rate was 85 percent, according to the agency.
That same year, black and Hispanic women made up 83 percent of reported AIDS diagnoses among women, although they represent only 25 percent of all women, according to Fraser-Howze’s New York-based commission. AIDS is among the three top causes of death for black women ages 35 to 44.
The man seemed as honest as he was charming. He told her about his crack-cocaine habit, and about his frequent arrests. Looking back, she now wonders if he picked up another habit in jail, where men have sex with other men, by consent and by force. She wonders if he was one of the many African American men who hide their sexual orientation from others in the homophobic black community, a conspiracy of silence called the “down low.”
In 1998, Jackson’s boyfriend was arrested for drug possession and taken to Los Angeles County Jail, where he underwent a routine HIV test for inmates entering the system. A short while later, a letter was delivered to Jackson from jail “telling me he tested positive and that I should get checked out.”
Her positive result arrived in May 1998. “I was 26. I was shocked. I was stunned,” said Jackson, who is now an AIDS activist working for a Los Angeles treatment center called Women Alive. “A lot of emotions went through me. I was sad. I was angry at myself because I got caught up. ‘Caught up’ meaning I was so into keeping this man at all costs.”