When Claudia Pryor’s cousin was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s, she was the only family member willing to visit him. As a gay Black man, his family ostracized him.
“I was told as a little girl that Black people were not (gay),” Pryor said.
Even when she went to the hospital to visit him, she couldn’t touch him.
“The nurse put me in essentially a hazmat suit,” she said. “Suddenly, I just couldn’t visit my cousin for the last time like that, so I took it off.
“That was my first big experience with AIDS,” she said. That visit led her to start work in 2001 on a documentary that explores the awareness and attitudes of a group of Black Pittsburgh youth toward HIV. The documentary, “Why Us? Left Behind and Dying,” will be the basis of new curricula aimed at dispelling myths surrounding Blacks with the disease.
In 2006, Blacks accounted for 46 percent of the 1.1 million people in the U.S. living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Homophobia, shame and secrecy stymie African-Americans from dealing with the spread of the disease, Pryor says.
“It’s a Black disease,” but no one wants to hear that, she said.
Pryor set out in the hardest-hit African-American and African communities to discover the myriad reasons for the rampant spread of the disease, backed by a Science Education Partnership Award grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources.
She went to Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse High School, in a Black, low-income neighborhood, where the HIV/AIDS rate reflected the national average, to find her study participants. She found 20 students, none of whom knew if they were HIV-positive, who would give their opinions on HIV/AIDS over an 18-month period as they learned about the subject. The project transformed as the students took on a larger role, becoming interviewers and posing questions to health experts and subjects living with HIV/AIDS. They finished the documentary in 2008.
Working on the documentary affected the students differently; some set out at the end of the study to learn their HIV status. Others, afraid of what the tests would reveal, chose not to get tested.
Now Pryor plans to create high school and college curricula about the subject with the help of Dr. Kathy Kailikole, executive director of STEM development for the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE).
High school students will research HIV/AIDS in their communities, among other things, during the five- to six-week program taught by Upward Bound staff starting in the summer of 2011. The college program, a daylong seminar, will focus on secrecy and shame, science and the distrust of science, and homophobia and the church and community.
The COE – a nonprofit organization – works to provide services for schools that host TRIO programs, which includes many minority-serving institutions like historically black colleges and universities, which will help Pryor reach her target audience.
“Creating college courses is a long-term goal for us,” Kailikole said, and testing out the shorter curriculum is a first step in that process.
Pryor hopes by reaching “as many people as possible,” starting with the youth, she can reverse some of the stigma of the disease.
“If this gets out to enough people, what I hope that the film and the curriculum do is that they sort of blow the discussion of this inside the Black community wide open,” Pryor said. “We need to get rid of the secrecy around it, and therefore we need to get rid of the reasons why it is secret. We need to address the sources of the shame.”