A Song for Hydeia

In the aftermath of lifelong HIV/AIDS activist Hydeia Broadbent’s death at 39, her legacy remains a lifesaving gift.

“Notes on faith” is theGrio’s inspirationalinterdenominational series featuring Black thought leaders across faiths.

Sing a song for Hydeia Broadbent.

Say her name as a prayer: Hydeia

One who is kind, noble, thoughtful; bent like a reed, yet not broken.

Hydeia Broadbent.

Sister Hydeia.

Like a comet, born into an accelerated lifeline, acquainted with the depths of tear-soaked grief.

It wasn’t her sorrow that was compelling; 

It was her self-possession; a joy all her own.

No visible models before her, she was an exemplary living epistle, 

Keenly aware that she had a voice to tell her story 

Empowered to speak for herself with the knowledge that it is never too early to do so.

Defying any potential robbery of innocence or security

Hydeia’s story taught us that even a little girl — a woman can reclaim it all.

Her resolve taught a generation that even a woman-child’s truth could set us free.

Unbound she was, indeed.

Undeterred by what she saw, felt, experienced, or was told of her condition.

By her witness, we were confronted with the injustice of it all.

The medical apartheid, disease transmission, 

and our perceived ineptitude when confronted with what plagues us.

Hydeia Broadbent, HIV/AIDS, Faith and spirituality, HIV/AIDS activism, HIV/AIDS prevention, theGrio.com
Activist Hydeia Broadbent attends the Red Pump Project Event Raising HIV/AIDS Awareness at the Time-Life Building on March 10, 2015, in New York City. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

The passing of HIV/AIDS activist Hydeia Broadbent at age 39 marks a sobering new chapter for the then-young generation first introduced to her in an emotional exchange with Magic Johnson in 1992. In a 1996 appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Broadbent, who came into the world HIV-positive, was foisted further into the limelight for being among the first generation of children born with HIV/AIDS. When Oprah asked the young Hydeia about the toughest part of living with AIDS, the then-11-year-old’s brief pondering of the question, her bright smile dissolving into tears as she described watching her friends die from the disease, became a jarring moment that made real the many faces impacted by HIV/AIDS.

Reflecting on Broadbent’s life and public appearances, it is her poise as a young girl that one remembers; a poise that would grow along with her activism as a young woman. Alongside Ryan White, a white youth who also made headlines for sharing his courageous story of living with AIDS after contracting the virus through a blood transfusion, Hydeia Broadbent became the face of Black HIV patients, many of whom were innocently born into what was then considered a death sentence.

Activists like Broadbent defied the notion that HIV/AIDS was an affliction stemming from “immorality” — that the virus was transmitted solely through intimate homosexual contact or intravenous drug transmission. Even as a preteen, she bravely and willingly served as a much-needed warning that we were all susceptible to becoming infected while reminding us the virus did not have the final say.

Decades later, her life still challenges us to reflect on whose report we will believe.

We have come a long way from 1996 when it comes to the treatment and life expectancy of that era’s global pandemic. Then, no one could imagine people living for decades with HIV/AIDS. Broadbent was among the first to refute this prognosis, encouraging others by declaring she had to live life, and could not burden herself with worry. From that point until very recently, Broadbent challenged our expectations of life and living.

The life and transition of Hydeia Broadbent should also draw our attention back to the postures of the Black church and our community at large when it comes to this disease, which still disproportionately plagues Black people, Black Americans, and Black women, in particular. In our churches, we have experienced the full spectrum of grief, from denial to anxiety and condemnation to an openness to more information when it comes to preventing and living with HIV/AIDS. Even while one of the more pervasive stigmas is that it was/is a “gay disease,” The testimonies and activism of Hydeia and others expanded the conversation and chiseled away at our fear.

Faith-based organizations continue to grow and expand in addressing HIV/AIDS in our communities. The Black Faith Initiative at Wake Forest School of Divinity is but one example of resources being poured into addressing the stigma of HIV/AIDS. And yet, even as individuals revise their perspectives, finding comparisons between the HIV/AIDs pandemic and the COVID pandemic, and finding a little more compassion as we investigate modes of transmission and eradication, we still have a substantial way to go.

While it is an individual’s prerogative to divulge one’s serostatus, many stay silent due to the still-lingering stigma. Through education and resources that make testing, treatment, and preventative options such as clean needles and condoms readily available, we continue to make progress, as there is evidence all of the above help reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS. In addition to offering us opportunities to perform real interventions as well as confronting addiction as a public health crisis, it is what we owe children like the one Hydeia Broadbent once was; it is a way we can honor her memory and advocacy. As those who remain, let us learn the lessons of those who have demonstrated the power within all of us. Let us say the names and tell the stories of those who loved us more than we knew, so much so that they invited us into their lives to save us.

Sing a song for Hydeia Broadbent.

Bravely and oh so clearly, her vulnerability busted our hearts and minds wide open. 

Adorable, she was a light beam in a realm that told us,

This life path is ugly, inaccurately assigned only to the depraved.

For all we knew, there was no light at the end of this tunnel, until she explained its complexity to us.

We beheld it together, realizing she was undeserving of the load. 

How could this be?

We had to move differently to protect our children, born and unborn.

We could be her.

We are her.

We must save ourselves, as she urged us to.

An oracle, Hydeia nevertheless perceived a chance. 

Recreating her world, again and again. 

Singing a song of deliverance from what physicians, scientists, tests, and intellects reported to her nascent soul.

She refused the report she was born with a childhood death sentence: 

“You are dying. You are dead.” 

And yet, she accepted the reality of her inner, divine knowing.

Hydeia, the face of telling death to behave, was a pioneer of faith. 

“Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 

I am possibility borne.

I am anointed and divine.

I am a creator of worlds. 

I am life, and with every utterance of life, my lifeline is extending. 

I am resurrection, time and time again.

I am love. 

I am a rebuke to death. 

I am glad tidings. 

I am fierce.

I am hope speaking.”

Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones is a faith leader helping people to find their groove in a fast-paced world, as a consultant for various arts and faith organizations and professor of music in contemporary societies at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. She is an award-winning author of Flaming? The Peculiar Theopolitics of Fire and Desire in Black Male Gospel Performance (Oxford University Press). For more information, please visit DrAlisha.com.

Rev. Calvin Taylor Skinner is dedicated to empowering frontline communities in Knoxville, Tenn. and the United Kingdom. He uses faith and policy to address energy justice, criminal justice reform, voter education/mobilization, electoral politics, and global affairs. Along with his wife, Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones, they lead InSight Initiative, a consulting firm focusing on capacity building and live events production.

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