Sometimes life moves along briskly enough to remind us that resiliency and forgiveness live here too. One crucial benefit of keeping track of dates and milestones is that remembrance often takes us to a space where we felt that hopelessness and anger would be lifelong friends, only to realize they were more like annoying acquaintances around to show us a few things and to be jettisoned when the lesson is received.

November 7, 1991. Twenty years and two days ago.

Arguably the most recognizable face in sports, not to mention a household staple in the African-American community, confessed to the world that he was afflicted with…HIV?

No. Can’t be true. Nahhhhhh. Only gay men and drug users and miscreants get that. Not Magic. No way.

And thus Earvin “Magic” Johnson, basketball extraordinaire, catalyzed a national dialogue, with every emotion from despair to torpor to suspicion being tossed around like a Twitter meme. HIV (and by association, AIDS) would never been perceived in the same fashion again. And now, 20 years of more research, more cases, more access to information later, there is still a vague cloud surrounding this disease.

Is it man-made? Monkey serum? Sign that God hates gay people? The questions that surround this issue outweighs common sentiment of how to rid ourselves of this houseguest that we’re not exactly sure “who” let it in. Or how it got in.

But this much we do know: It is a problem.

After the press conference, Magic retired. Friends were questioned about his sexual habits, leading many to openly suspect homosexual behavior. Magic flatly denied those rumors. But that wasn’t enough. So he went on The Arsenio Hall Show and professed his “innocence”. And the crowd gave him a rousing applause.

A pat on the back for not being gay. Nevermind that he still had the disease, but God forbid he got it because he played both sides of the fence. Coming up in a milieu that provides great incentives for pursuing the opposite sex, I can certainly understand the sentiment of many in that audience. It stemmed less from bigotry and malice and more from ignorance and confusion.

However, looking back on that moment reveals a population segment not having its best moment. For the conversation of HIV/AIDS victims became divided, implying that one group deserved less attention than others. The gay community had been confronted with this disease for years with little to no damns given, and here was a grand moment to shed light on the matter. Then a superstar makes a statement to the crude reaction of an audience, effectively bursting the balloon.

I often wonder exactly how much that division clouds our approach to an epidemic that, statistically speaking, currently affects my race more than any other. To Magic’s defense, it’s not certain he actively sought applause and could have been just out to tell a simple truth. To Magic’s credit, he has worked hard at traveling the world to serve as a pedagogue on this subject for all victims.

In 1991, HIV/AIDS was the second leading cause of the death among men 25-44. Yet, nobody gave a thought that it could happen to a rich, married and handsome athlete. Magic Johnson was the anti-HIV candidate. And then our illusions were torn asunder.

His disclosure sparked a spike in testing. Awareness rose for sure, but so did disdain for the “original” victims. To assume homosexual promiscuity is a greater cause for the spread of HIV/AIDS than heterosexual promiscuity misses the point completely. Though incidences of this retrovirus is higher within gay pockets, it’s fallacious to assume that many victims assume a “one or other” stand. Also, blood transfusion and drug usage play major agents in the virus spread.

How much does the sentiment of ignorance and confusion expressed by those in Hall’s audience aid (no pun) the increase of a “silent killer”?

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  • African Mami

    Great article! HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. It pounces on any and everybody. While education is key, continued awareness programs will ensure that those who do not have access to education systems e.g. because of poverty etc are also included and not left out.

    I am one of those that buy into the conspiracy theory-that HIV is man-made and its sole intention was to wipe out the black race. The first cases were in Africa….as highlighted in another thread, we are being used as guinea pigs for new vaccines, so this would not come about as a surprise.

    My people need to stop eating monkeys! Jesus…..

    • Ngozi


      I am a conspiracy theorist and I too believe it is a man made disease to wipe out the black race. I remember there was an article floating around stating that it started in Africa and then spread to Haiti and then to America. I am Haitian and I remember back then the faces of HIV/AIDS were gay men, people who had blood transfusion, people who used needles and Haitians. While Haiti does have the highest rate in HIV/AIDS cases through out the Caribbean, people fail to realize that Haiti was/is a place where people come to have sex with the locals.


  • Gay marriage? I have no objection!
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  • KrissyG

    I think it’s important to consider that the reaction of the Arsenio crowd speaks to the sensibility towards homosexuality throughout a large segment of society AT THE TIME, when many had those attitudes due to religious beliefs. We cannot rewrite history. As those Virginia Slims ads stated: We’ve come a long way.

  • Malcolm X

    @African Mami & Ngozi:

    Aids, indeed, is a MAN-MADE virus.

    Google the following articles on Aids and type in the date along with the subject matter.

    Nov 17, 1986, Time Magazine

    May 11, 1987, London Times