Daughter, we are not endangered, but by all accounts, we should be. It is true that there is something hardy coded into us: a kind of eye that can observe the grotesquery of a husband’s flogging without scaling over, without growing dim; a kind of breast that will still produce milk for a mistress’s infant, after it has been forbidden to nurse its own; the kind of womb that manages not to expel a child even as it churns and bumps and wrenches its way through the Middle Passage. But we are not invincible. We are still disproportionately susceptible to ailments that weaken, maim, and kill. Even those of us who live to a ripe old age find themselves accosted, if not by physical ravages, then by bureaucratic ones.
It is no small feat, surviving black womanhood in this country.
But you are not without your powers–and the powers you possess are substantial. This is particularly true, when it comes to HIV/AIDS. Because African American women account for thirty percent of all new cases of HIV/AIDS in this country, and because 85 percent of those cases are the result of heterosexual sex, we can be assured that though few assaults on our bodies are as deadly as this one, there are even fewer that are this preventable.
Today, you are sixteen months old. If all is ideal, the decision to have sex will be entirely yours to make (many, many, many years from now). It will not be thrust upon you by predators. It will not be as the result of a callous boyfriend’s months-long erosion of your self-esteem. And most mercifully of all, it will not be stolen, as it is for so many girls of color abroad, by a man who believes that sex with a virgin will reverse the effects of his own virus.
If all is ideal, you will always retain your autonomy. As your mother, I would be remiss if I did not do everything within my power to ensure this. And so this is what I can tell you about sex: it mystifies. It inspires a wide range of philosophies. It has been known to factor into the collapse of empires. It can create human life; it created you. It is an exchange of bodily fluids, through which a great many infections can be carried. And occasionally, it results in the contraction of HIV which, coupled with other opportunistic infections, has caused the untimely loss of some of the most promising minds this world has ever known.
It is quite likely that you will not remember all of this, under the prom night stars. It may not spring to mind when you have surrendered yourself to a potential lover’s sturdy embrace. You will not recall it as you kiss him, won’t necessarily think of it when you invite him up for coffee. And should you decide to abstain until marriage, your honeymoon suite will not ring with the echoes of my admonitions about AIDS and other infections.
So it is imperative that you do not wait until these moments to broach the subject. And it is equally important that you do not wait for him to. Your health is not his responsibility. Procuring condoms should never cause you shame, nor should vigilance about protecting yourself suggest promiscuity. Any man believes you should be embarrassed about openly discussing any aspect of who you are is not the man that I wish for you, is not the man you should accept for yourself.
It is the rare HIV-positive man who knowingly or spitefully exposes the virus to his partners. What is more common is that he does not know he has it. What is more common is that he is afraid to find out. But it is not your responsibility to allay his fears; his ambivalence about his own health should not become your albatross. What is absolutely imperative is that you can confirm that you will not be exposed to a life-threatening illness, should you decide to sleep with him. Occasionally, your insistence on this evidence will result in a relationship-ending row.
This will be for the best–and if I succeed in adequately preparing you for womanhood, you will know this, even as you watch him leave.
Above all, dear heart, in matters of health, be proactive, be preventive, be aggressive, if need be. Remember the parable of the virgins. Five were wise, and five were foolish. The line between them was thin. The line between them was preparation.