In 1992, rap group Salt-N-Pepa re-worked their hit single “Let’s Talk About Sex,” for an ABC TV special called “In a New Light.”

The charity single, “Let’s Talk About AIDS,” became a public service announcement for the state of New York’s health department, with proceeds benefiting an organization called the National Minority AIDS Council.
The message: Black and Hispanic Americans needed to start focusing on what had been considered a white, gay man’s disease.

Seventeen years later, African Americans are the group most likely to contract HIV,  and represent the largest group dying of AIDS nationwide. From 2003 to 2007, more black Americans than whites have been diagnosed with AIDS, despite the fact that blacks make up less than 14 percent of the U.S. population.

Total AIDS diagnoses for blacks in the U.S. through 2007 total 426,003, versus 404,465 for whites, and 169,138 for Hispanics. 

Locally, one in 45 blacks in Miami-Dade suffers from HIV or AIDS, versus one in 179 Hispanics and one in 130 whites.

Black women make up 75 percent of female HIV and AIDS patients.  Liberty City is the AIDS capital of the state, with more HIV and AIDS cases than any other neighborhood or city nearby, including the much-larger Miami Beach.  More than 15 percent of the population of Liberty City is infected.

What went wrong? How did our community manage to ignore an epidemic that now represents a leading cause of death for black men, women and even infants?

In short, the conversation we were supposed to have beginning in 1992 hasn’t happened. Our churches and community organizations and leaders have focused on other issues, while many of us have continued to see HIV as a “gay” disease.  The idea that it can’t happen to us is still prevalent,  particularly among young black men and women, even as they are dying from the disease more than any other group. We accept false tales, like the one that says Magic Johnson has been “cured” of HIV.  Or, we look the other way while young men – even teenage boys – operate in two worlds: one with their girlfriends and another as “men having sex with men” (MSM.)

In Miami-Dade, between 40 and 50 percent of those contracting HIV do so from heterosexual sex. Most of those are black women. But one quarter of the HIV and AIDS diagnoses are for men having sex with men, including men who aren’t being honest with their female partners.

Reports of same-sex activity among even high school boys – many of whom don’t consider themselves to be “gay” – that I hear from students and teachers are staggering.

Men and women, including teens, need to start being honest with themselves, with their families, and with each other. The first step in saving our lives and communities is getting tested. Everyone should – and must.

Then, we have to get serious about protecting ourselves, and guarding our own health. It’s no coincidence that while 70 percent of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in Miami-Dade are among men, 75 percent of women who contract HIV are black.

It’s time to “talk about sex,” and AIDS, again in our community.

Sharron Henley is the program manager/director of education initiatives for the Urban League of Greater Miami.