AIDS activist challenges college students to get tested

Rae Lewis-Thornton had a bright future in politics.

She was the national youth director for Jesse Jackson Sr. in both his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. In 1992, she was the advance coordinator for Sen. Carol Moseley Braun’s, D-Illinois, senate race.

Unfortunately, her future in politics dimmed when Lewis-Thornton contracted HIV and became too ill to continue.

Thornton was diagnosed with the virus in 1986 at the age of 23.

Six years later, in 1992, her illness progressed to full-blown AIDS.

Now, Lewis-Thornton campaigns to keep people alive. She has been on ABC’s “Nightline,” in Essence magazine and has won an Emmy award for her Chicago TV series on living with AIDS. On Feb. 7, in observance of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Lewis-Thornton spoke to students at Lee Hall Auditorium about the importance of getting tested.

Nationally, in 2004 blacks accounted for 44 percent of AIDS cases in men and 70 percent of those in women. Black women comprised 1,219 of the 1,741 reported AIDS cases and 1,299 of the 1,942 HIV cases, according to the Leon County Health Department.

Race and ethnicity are not factors that correlate with fundamental determinants of health such as poverty and limited access to quality health care.

“People that are black and brown are dying,” Lewis-Thornton said. “In an era where a person can live through proper treatment and care, everyone should ensure that they know their status. By not getting tested, you’re committing yourself to an early death sentence.”

Lewis-Thornton contracted HIV from having unprotected sex. She was notified after donating blood at a drive she organized in Washington. What she assumed to be a nicety was actually news that would change her life.

“What I thought was a thank-you letter was a letter telling me that something was wrong with the blood that I donated.”

“I don’t blame anybody,” Lewis-Thornton responded after being asked about the man who infected her. “It’s not about forgiving him, it’s about me forgiving me.”

Renee Royster, a senior animal science student from Tallahassee, was one of many who enjoyed Lewis-Thornton’s candid responses. “I liked her ability to be blunt with the audience instead of sugar-coating issues.”

“She was realistically entertaining,” agreed soloist Cherlise Forshee, 20, a junior business administration student from Miami.

As is sometimes true in the political world-appearances in life are often deceiving. Lewis-Thornton defies some of the stereotypes of a person living with AIDS: she is an affluent, heterosexual, well-educated, professional black woman.

“You can not always look at a person and tell,” she said. “You can’t assume that a person would be HIV free just by looking at them not appearing sick or by their education level. There are no HIV symptoms.”

The Northeastern magna cum laude kept her status a secret for seven years before telling friends and family. Her mother, with whom she had a turbulent relationship, was the last to know.

Although race and ethnicity are not risk factors, HIV/AIDS has affected blacks disproportionately. It is the number one killer among African-Americans ages 25 to 44 according to Black Independent Voter Network.

“As a whole, African-Americans haven’t dealt with HIV well. We’ve come a long way, but we’re still in denial,” Lewis-Thornton commented.

“There’s another statistic in this room as sure as I’m alive,” lamented Lewis-Thornton before pleading with students to take advantage of campus-wide testing initiatives. “It’s the most practical decision you will make in life.”

“You can always get basic information about things like condoms,” said Royster, “but not broken down in a way that you can relate.”

Lewis-Thornton spoke to an audience of primarily women, but the subject matter is universal. “I wish more people heard it,” said Uyal Vloka, 23, a senior pharmacy student.

National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is an effort that increases support, participation in HIV prevention and care and treatment among blacks.

The primary goal of the day is to motivate the black community to get tested, know its HIV status, get educated about the transmission methods of HIV/AIDS, and get treated if they are currently living with HIV or are newly diagnosed.

Although admitting that her health has a lot to do with her level of activism, Lewis-Thornton charged students to get involved. “There is enough work to go around…just do it!”