"HIV in the Black Community," featuring Marvelyn Brown
11 a.m., Fri., July 3
Essence Music Festival Empowerment Seminar
Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, 900 Convention Center Blvd., HALL C,
Imagine being an otherwise healthy teenager rushed to the emergency room after chills, shaking and high fever. Imagine doctors scratching their heads after examining you for a series of diseases, from meningitis to cancer. Then imagine being told hours later, at 19 years old, that you are HIV-positive. Tennessee native Marvelyn Brown doesn't have to imagine this — she lived it.
"I was shocked that I had contracted a virus I didn't feel I could get," she says. "I always thought it was a gay white man's disease and not mine."
After a period of denial, Brown used her story as a cautionary tale for others through motivational speeches at universities, churches and conferences nationwide over the past five years. During this time, Brown also penned her autobiography, The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive, and has appeared on TV programs including The Oprah Winfrey Show and CBS' The Early Show. Brown, now 25, also operates a Web site (www.marvelynbrown.com) that contains a frank blog where she lays down the nitty-gritty of daily life with the disease.
For this year's Essence Empowerment Seminar Series, Brown is one of the many authors, leaders, celebrities and music artists who will speak at a daylong conference titled "Living an Authentic Life." Brown's panel, "HIV in the Black Community," will also feature Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, Phill Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute, Donna Richardson-Joyner and Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes.
A former track and basketball star, Brown had never been tested for HIV. Had she not gotten sick, she never would have gotten tested, she says. In her younger years, Brown was unconcerned with the disease, even after having unprotected sex with her then-boyfriend. She doesn't "play the blame game" regarding how she contracted the virus. An estimated 1 million Americans are living with HIV, and blacks and Southerners comprise a disproportionate number of newly diagnosed infections.
"When it comes down to it, if I would have used a condom, I wouldn't be (HIV) positive," she says. "No one can infect you with the virus if you don't allow it. It's a preventable disease."
Brown intends to relay this message during the panel discussion, and encourage seminargoers to get tested. She also hopes to help people move past stigmas about the disease.
"We have to stop looking at people with HIV as though they're monsters, like they're these bad people," she says. "We have to start talking about it, because if we don't it's going to take us."
Other speakers at the 2009 seminar series include CNN political pundit and author Roland S. Martin, Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile and actor, author and activist Bill Cosby. The free series is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and ushers in the nightly 2009 Essence Music Festival, which boasts headliners like Beyoncé, Maxwell, and Frankie Beverly and Maze.