Best known for her role as a stuck-up, lovesick woman at a predominantly black college in the 1980s sitcom “A Different World,” actress Jasmine Guy now speaks at college campuses about the threat of AIDS and the need for women to take charge of their sexual relationships.
Guy lost 50 friends to AIDS over a 10-year span starting in the mid-1980s, when she played Whitley Gilbert-Wayne on the popular NBC show. “It just seemed like every couple of weeks someone was sick or dying,” Guy said in a telephone interview about the deaths of friends in the entertainment industry. “It seemed like it was some kind of plague. You just couldn’t hide from it.”
Guy, 43, is one of the contributors to the book “Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community.” Her essay notes that black men are seven times as likely to contract HIV as white men, and black women are 19 times as likely to be infected as white women. “The stories I hear from young women trying to protect themselves from HIV are that it is all around them, through intravenous drug use, promiscuity, ‘down-low’ lifestyles and the back-and-forth incarceration of the male population,” Guy writes in her essay. “We as women must reclaim our responsibilities as the wives, sisters and mothers of our families.”
During its six-season run from 1987 to 1993, as a spin-off of “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World” was one of the first series in American network television to air episodes focusing on HIV/AIDS. Guy says black women learn at an early age to defer to the men in their lives and can find it hard to demand that their sexual partners use condoms and engage in safe sexual practices. She tries to change that mind-set during her talks with young women on college campuses.
“There are many degrees of what is happening now to young black women,” Guy said. “I think that what I’ve learned in talking to young girls is they’ve really surrendered the right to take care of themselves.”