Rae Lewis Thornton spent an early morning waxing and replacing the tiles in her kitchen floor. As a single woman living alone, there’s no man around to play “Mr. Fix It,” though she doesn’t require one. She actually started in the early a.m. the night before. It was backbreaking work, but it needed to be done.
“It took awhile, but I got most of it done. I’ve still got some more work to do,” said Thornton.
Striping and waxing tiles seems like any normal activity, but not necessarily for someone fighting a long battle with AIDS. The Chicago native has traveled the world as a lecturer, sharing her personal story of struggling with the disease, and trying to wake up others to get educated and tested.
But through all of her travels, talks and appearances, somebody still has to do those floors. And that, in a unique way, is part of her message. You can live with AIDS.
Thornton was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 at age 23. She kept it secret from friends and family for seven years, until she developed full-blown AIDS. She decided to not only reveal her condition but advocate for awareness, which she’s done for the last 14 years.
She’s cut back on public speaking engagements in recent years. But despite having full-blown AIDS, she doesn’t have a physical mark of the disease on her. Her daily regimen includes countless medication.
In her first-ever book, Amazing Grace: Letters Along my Journey, she tries to let other survivors know that they are not alone and that life does indeed go on.
Articles written about Thornton focus on her as a crusader and not so much as a domestic diva. But it’s a contrast that shows both the extraordinary and the ordinary.
“One of the things that I’ve done is I’ve made my life an open book and people have responded to that open book,” she said.
Thornton, who resides on the South Side, just finished a tour of 15 South and West Side black churches, sponsored in part by a grant from Illinois Department of Public Health.
She was in Austin recently for New Pleasant Valley Church’s AIDS Walk and Health Fair. The black church, she said, has been one of the last places to expect AIDS awareness to come from. But some have stepped up to the plate.
“The black church has been slow, but they’re starting to respond,” said Thornton. “The church is the core of the African-American community and so taking it to them and in their own setting, in a way, has made it more comfortable with them. There’s just this need to address this in the African-American community, and I thought the church would be a good place.”
The black community is among the hardest hit in terms of infections and fatalities. HIV is the number one killer for African Americans between 25 and 44. Of the more than one million HIV-positive Americans, nearly half, 47 percent, are black. And African-American women make up 72 percent of all new cases of women with HIV/AIDS.
Thornton has given countless lectures and talks about her experience. After numerous requests from publishers over the years, she finally sat down to pen her first book.
Amazing Grace: Letters Along my Journey is semi-biographical. She tells her story in her own words. Over the years, other AIDS survivors have reached out to her. She included letters from sufferers, families and friends of those infected with HIV/AIDS.
“One of the things the book does is it lets people know that they aren’t the only ones who had a false image about HIV,” Thornton said, noting that AIDS remains a difficult issue for the black community to grapple with.
“Everybody knows about HIV; it is no longer a mystery. However, in the African-American community, there is this unbelievable denial that this issue has impacted our community.
Thornton thinks the denial stems from cultural and social attitudes by blacks. All of the issues categorized by the disease?”promiscuity, homosexuality, intravenous drug use, unprotected sex?”are historically and socially unacceptable among blacks, she said.
“I try to analyze what this is, our inability to respond to this disease,” she said. “This is unlike African Americans. We deal with issues that face us, and we deal with them head on. But there is some kind of subconscious connection to HIV and what it means and what it stands for. So it is difficult trying to even analyze what has paralyzed us around this issue.”
She said a majority of those infected don’t know that they are. Many find out their HIV status after having full-blown AIDS, Thornton said. The best treatment for HIV, she said, is the earliest treatment.
“If you knew what I knew, you wouldn’t want to have AIDS,” she confessed. “I put on a good front. You know, I make myself pretty, and I do what I got to do when I step out of those doors, but it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do?”physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, [and] socially.”
For more information about Rae Lewis Thornton, visit www.raelewisthornton.org.