Monday, November 24, 2014
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Master of My Fate, Captain of My Soul

Phil_Wilson
Phil Wilson

In Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Invictus—Latin for “unconquered”—Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) gives a copy of William Ernest Henley’s poem by the same name to Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the South African national rugby team.  The poem provided inspiration to Mandela during his 27 years in prison. Now, the South African President hoped the poem would similarly inspire the Afrikaaner head of the nearly all-white team during its improbable run to win the 1995 World Cup.

The rousing last lines of the poem are “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul”.

I was reminded of these lines as I read the latest in a series  of Washington Post articles detailing the years-long failure of the District of Columbia to address the city’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. The latest article describes in heartbreaking detail how, over much of the past twenty plus years, only a pittance of AIDS funds have been directed to Wards 7 and 8, the predominately Black, low-income areas with the highest burden of HIV/AIDS in the city. The lion’s share of the money went to areas where the need was also significant -- but significantly less.

What’s more, the  level of funding directed towards Wards 7 and 8  was often a joke—grants of $10,000, $20,000 or $50,000.  Not only are these amounts are far too small to make an impact upon the AIDS rates in those communities, they are also too small to run almost any program effectively and sustainably, and so they set up Black organizations in those communities to fail. Indeed, funds were often misspent by organizations that lacked the necessary training and infrastructure—and, yes, sometimes the integrity. There were a few shameful instances of corruption. But the main problem by far was inadequate capacity. In fact, the DC health department itself lacked the capacity to appropriately disburse and monitor the grants.

The bottom line is that the health department in our nation’s capital neglected the disease in low-income Black neighborhoods.  And largely for that reason, the community failed to develop the capacity to adequately respond to the epidemic. No wonder the AIDS rates in many areas of Black Washington are higher than those in some African countries.

“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

Alas, what has happened in Washington is neither new nor unique. For far too long, African Americans in cities large and small, all around the country, chose to remain hands-off about HIV and AIDS. For most of the epidemic, we chose not to be the masters of our fate. We chose, instead, to allow others to determine our destiny by shortchanging us. Let there be no mistake: We can’t curb this epidemic on the cheap, certainly not in communities that struggle not only with AIDS but with a perfect storm of other social and economic problems.

We need to stand up and denounce the way the Black AIDS infrastructure in the United States has been starved to death by the “powers that be”—from the federal government to charitable foundations to AIDS-service organizations. If we allow business as usual, then in many Black communities, the AIDS infrastructure will remain decrepit or nonexistent—a reality that leads many funders, in an invidious form of circular reasoning, to justify their decisions not to invest in those communities.

But we can point out that the very same logic was used to criticize the U.S. government when it began to direct the first PEPFAR dollars into underdeveloped and resource-poor nations in Africa. There was no way that the United States should allow leaders in those countries to become masters of their nations’ fates, some argued. Yet today, PEPFAR is lauded as largely successful, building an AIDS-service infrastructure in those nations, putting antiretroviral medications in the hands of those who needed them, and saving millions of lives.

The time has come for Black America to become the masters of our fate and the captains of our collective soul. Even though health departments have failed in almost every city and town, we do not have to allow previous failures to determine our destiny. We can become masters of our fate by ensuring that the Obama administration makes good on its plan to develop our nation’s first national AIDS strategy, and by demanding that state, local, and private funders put the most resources into communities where the problem is most acute.

As Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for more than a quarter century, yet emerged with a vision and the determination to end apartheid in his nation, so Black America can take charge of our destiny. Collectively, we too, can be invincible. Collectively, we, too, can be masters of our fates and captains of our souls.

Category: Health


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