Some 7,500 women were diagnosed with HIV in 2016 and the majority of them — 61 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — were black. HIV is just one of the health challenges, including breast cancer, diabetes and heart disease, that affects black women more often than women of other races.
Thurka Sangaramoorthy, an HIV researcher and anthropologist, uses oral histories to learn more about the lives of black women living with HIV. In the past five years, the associate professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland has conducted ethnographic and oral history interviews with 45 women.
A recent article in the Conversation highlights that work and the stories of women such as Marcella Wright, who participated in one of the earliest treatment programs for HIV.
“If it wasn’t for them, I may not have accepted this situation,” she told Sangaramoorthy. Wright has survived, but her story is one of pain, multiple health problems and disenfranchisement.
She’s not alone. The women Sangaramoorthy interviews tell stories of stigma and survival. “HIV for African-American women has never been a single issue, separate from histories of addiction, trauma and poverty,” she writes. Today, about 140,000 black women live with HIV.
Like other women living with HIV, the women Sangaramoorthy interviewed contracted the virus from intravenous drug use or sex with HIV-positive partners. Mortality rates among people with HIV have been declining for years, thanks to new medications and a better understanding of HIV/AIDS. But late diagnosis and social and health concerns unique to black women in the United States can make it harder for them to manage the disease.
“Many worry about how their health, disability, and eventual death will impact their roles as mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters and wives,” Sangaramoorthy writes in a companion article that explores the disparities facing black women with HIV.
The stories she collects are each unique — and worth hearing.