By Bryan C. Williams
Many may have heard the name; many may have not. But a multitude of people may have heard about a young man labeled an HIV monster back in the late ’90s.
I remember the moment so clearly. Myself diagnosed in ’84…when I heard this major story, I was 13 years into my battle of coming to grips with an AIDS diagnosis…had no understanding of how I should live, who I should tell…hell I couldn’t say it to myself out loud in a room by myself.
And there it was, my worst nightmare right there on the TV screen: Nushawn Williams. While my family gathered as usual on many nights watching the news…when the headline “AIDS Monster” screamed at me from the TV, I became paralyzed. I was so scared and confused trying not to move a muscle thinking everyone in the room was staring at me… but how could they know? I had not shared my status is the tightness of my muscles giving me away? By the time the story finished I had a new piece of information, I heard it straight from the voice of authority, Walter Cronkite…no, Barbara Cronkite? Or was it Walter Walters? Or whoever…in an unforgiving time frame of only about 4 minutes seemed like a 6-month trial. Although the story had just broken, I felt like I had witnessed a personal account of the judge, jury, and sentencing. Nothing about what my ears were hearing and my mind couldn’t comprehend said innocent until proven guilty. As I looked in the anchor’s eyes they seem to be saying “Bryan now that you have this nasty dirty disease, you will always be guilty.
In these few minutes, my life was totally broken. I could say in hindsight like at the moment when I witnessed Eric Gardner’s last breath I can’t breathe, and George Floyd’s life being snuffed out of him with the officer’s knee on his neck, these tragedies gave me a visual of the dark void akin to being sentenced to a life sentence with no love or affection or human contact in a dark cell. With no mirrors because I felt like I should be so ashamed that I wouldn’t or couldn’t look myself in the eyes. FOUR minutes would define my mental prison for several years to come they defined who and what I was: I was an AIDS MONSTER.
For years the image of this man entering the courtroom stuck with me. It would be like the movie Groundhog Day, reliving the story in my head over and over. That story impacted my Iife to the point I would think about his situation and would become so frantic that I wanted to just go somewhere and die. Ultimately, I made the choice…….. before they plastered me all over the news as the AIDS MONSTER of Ohio I would not tell anyone, go to prison and die…… I kept thinking even while every word that came out of the broadcaster’s mouth was so negative, “Wow this guy Nushawn has to be one strong individual;” I felt I couldn’t have endured the witch hunt I was witnessing. In a major way that was unbeknown to me at that time, I gained strength from him.
But the image of him stayed with me. For years I would constantly think back to my state of mind. I was lost … even doctors couldn’t help me because the ones I reached out to didn’t have a clue how to treat or deal with someone with (in my head I would always hear them say) this curse from God, but they all seem to end on the same note “You have less than 6 months to live”. You’re going to die, and me being one not to be outdone I would exclaim to each of them “Well you are too, Death has a 100% success rate as they hung up on me, I had no one to talk to. no one to show me how to live…. and I often wondered about this guy, who oddly became someone I looked up to because he was able to endure this horrible nightmare called AIDS. During the early years if you were diagnosed there were not many places to gain strength · from so you had to grasp whatever you could.
Up until this point everyone that I knew, helped take care of during the 80s, laughed with, explored life with, had escaped this never-ending nightmare by slipping away into the hereafter. My vision was, those whom we lost during the earlier years were granted heaven because to live and die with dignity as the “Denver Principles” exclaimed in 1983 fell clearly on deaf ears. They experienced everything but dignity, and the shame and finger-pointing of stigma was the fire of hell. That horrible feeling of knowing I for certain would die this ugly painful embarrassing death. That I too would be talked about in hushed conversations as a “monster.” All it would take is information the size of 1 T-cell. That would grow into this web of tales, imaginary personal accounts, and flat-out insults and lies hmmm then after my groundhog moment every day, the thought would come to me, and often I would say out loud “what’s the real story behind this young man” This guy who I sensed spirit couldn’t be broken.
Never in a million years would I imagine my life today being open about my status and advocating for those living with HIV. He gave me the strength to fight and live in a way that took me a decade to truly understand. He gave me the strength to keep going and to begin to hold my head up just a little. Karma is often kind because that strength he gave me would come to be a strength years later to fight for him. Nushawn contribution to my life from just by walking in the courtroom, head upright, somehow gave me assurance that I too could be strong. The only image that even comes close to the atmosphere as he walked into the courtroom is back in the olden days when people would gather in the heart of the town to watch someone walk to the gallows to be beheaded or death by firing squad and believe me everyone in attendance especially the judge was locked and loaded.
It’s funny how life has a way of giving you what you need. Many may say ‘what is he talking about?’ but this is my walkthrough AIDSDOM and during these 37 years I had to grab strength from any place I could.
About 10 years later I happened to be reading an article that had 3 Black men who had been prosecuted for HIV-related charges. Now that I had acceptance and a wealth of information was known n. about HIV, I was able to read the account of his battle with a different lens. The conclusion I would come to after each article was wow, I understand now how he never got the chance to grow live, and learn.
Well as circumstances and faith would have it – 3 or 4 years later, I’m on social media and this post from Pozitively Dee stopped me cold as Oprah would say this was my ah-ha moment. The kind of epiphany that makes everything clear – ” NuShawn Williams held indefinitely” She had been using social media to cause an urgency around Nashawn’s plight. Although it was her words, I felt they were mine. I think when I reached out to her, I probably screamed through the phone like I had found a sibling of mine, that we were separated as infants. It was from that point I joined forces with Pozitively Dee to form a tight bond as we spearheaded a major push to free Nushawn.
I guess I’m telling my experience because hopefully, I can reach those who have tunnel vision mixed opinions, believe the hype but don’t reflect, that as we learn like infants to navigate this HIV walk, Nashawn’s situation could be any one of us. Like the song says, “if ya don’t know now ya know”….my battle with AIDS… for the religious folks “I was blind now I see” my battle with AIDS. Think of losing your sight and trying to navigate a busy street in traffic…… that’s what my life was like and I’m sure Nushawn’s life was quite similar. And if you’re brutally honest a part of you can be found in Nushawn.
Black lives are being taken every day. We are taking to the streets after each death….. Here is our chance to save a Black life that many people don’t value. Let’s fight for the living like Nushawn and be proactive about Black lives. Let’s stop picking and choosing which “Black lives Matter.”
It’s odd that our community of those living with HIV who have endured so much stigma, lies, fearful reactions, and found solace in each other a bond of understanding, but refuse to show the same compassion for, NuShawn, one of our own (and like it or not he is one of our own). Quite frankly trying to gain acceptance of your status on your own is a task that many can’t survive., But he has survived even when the world as he knew thru him away. Incarcerated growing positively (all puns intended) from teenager to man. Keeping the faith and educating himself in an environment designed not to rehabilitate but to break one spirit… What has evolved is a humble compassionate man who just wants a chance at life. I have heard many who are deep in helping to make the HIV criminal laws better say horrible things about a man who has endured so much based on things they read and assume about him. Sentenced to 12 years at the age of 20 Now a decade and change past his release date and still being held indefinitely because they see his HIV being a weapon. If he had killed someone, he would have been home years ago. It’s like a never-ending lie…Black lives matter… When the system and the atmosphere around us are quick to let us know that our lives don’t matter.
HIV lives Matter. I want to ask you to think at your worse moment in this battle….. because yeah.
You don’t have to tell me. Yep, we have all have those, well let’s just call them skeletons in our closet …well many folks got cemeteries in their closet if you’re honest.
Why must we shame and brutalize our own? Hasn’t Nushawn endured enough? I was raised that right or wrong you fight for family. My HIV community is my family and Nushawn is my brother. Back in my day right or wrong if a group jumped on your family whether you knew who was right or who was wrong and many times you wouldn’t even know what they were fighting about… but I’m not going to let a mob jump on anyone who’s my family. All I’m saying like it or not he is our Family.
Black lives are being taken every day. Folks are taking to the streets after each death… Here is our chance to save a Black life. Let us fight for the living like Nushawn and be proactive about Black lives. Let’s stop picking and choosing which Black lives Matter. Let’s free Nushawn and give him his life back. Support us by joining the Free NuShawn Coalition. For more information on how you can get involved go to www.freenushawn.com
Bryan C. Williams is: Founder of the “DIRT” Advocacy Movement
Founder of The Sankofa Initiative
Founding Steering Committee member and Ambassador of the Global U=U Movement.
Founding Member of the Ohio Health Modernization Movement