Monday, May 18, 2015

A Year After: Remembering Elisha Henson

When my kids were younger, I often sang to them to put them to sleep. I am not a fan of most lullabies (babies falling out of cradles? Really?), so the songs I usually sang to them were worship songs and/or R&B or pop songs. Often the lyrics had to be modified a bit, but not always. One song that was perfect as is and didn't need modification was "Seasons of Love" from the "Rent" soundtrack. They love that beautiful song that talked about the significance of the passing of one year. I do as well.

With all of the things going on, it completely slipped my mind until just this evening that just a few days ago marked one full year since Elisha Henson was buried. Wow. A whole year.

Although we were located in the same state (Texas), I never had the pleasure of meeting Elisha, but from what I've gleaned from her family she seemed like a pretty unique woman and one I would have liked. She liked motorcycles (now that's cool). She loved her two sons fiercely. She was cared for deeply by her family and friends and was a member of a local church. She lived openly with her diagnosis of HIV.

Elisha's life was ended far too short and in a horrific manner. But rather than focusing on how she died, I think it's more important to focus on two things. One, and most importantly, her memory, which lives on through those who love her. But two, and also important, is what her story has meant and will continue to mean for others. Especially now, as advocates in our state fight against current bills in state legislature that aim to criminalize HIV.

Elisha's death sliced many of us like a knife. So hurtful, so senseless, and so preventable. She should have never have been made to suffer in this manner. Elisha's situation (and that of our other dear Texas sister, Cicely Bolden, whose life was also ended too soon), has served as a rallying cry for advocates across the globe, who publicly grieved her loss, launched state advocacy campaigns, and rallied to create, in her honor, the first ever National Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living With HIV (#EndVAWHIV). 

Elisha's family is a close-knit and loving group of individuals whose bond and whose strength has been evident as they have coped with these life-changing ordeal. They have survived what no one should have to, yet they continue to go on. We owe them a debt of gratitude for permitting us to fight for justice for other women across the globe in their daughter's memory. They will forever be a valuable part of the community of people living with HIV, affected families, friends, and supporters who all wish to see a change in the all-too frequent violence perpetuated against positive women. Please know that we are here, and that Elisha is not forgotten.

With one out of every four HIV positive women experiencing violence at least once in their lifetimes, clearly much needs to be done to change things for the better to prevent more people from having to bury their loved ones. We must, as a society, continue to speak out against stigma and discrimination as a whole, including that which is perpetuated against HIV positive individuals.

This poem was submitted during the National Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living With HIV month as a contribution to a flash blog that was hosted as a virtual event to commemorate the day. This poem, originally published here, honors Elisha. We republish it again today in honor of the 525,600 minutes (one year) that have passed since her burial:

In Memory of Elisha Henson

She was just a few years younger than me,
But she'd had a lifetime more pain than I.
Life can be cruel, and people can be judgmental.
Sometimes the way we choose to cope with pain
Can also create more pain even while it dulls the pain.
We all make mistakes.
We are always growing, learning.
Elisha wasn't perfect.
Neither are you
Neither am I.
But she, like you and I
And IS more than the sum of bad decisions.
More than mistakes - which we are ALL guilty of making,
More than flaws.
She was a daughter,
A sister,
A mother,
An aunt,
A wife,
A friend.
She had interests
She had people who loved her,
People who supported her,
People who prayed for her and rooted for her.
She had a whole life to live.
Those 3 letters - HIV - are NOT what ended her life
Elisha was killed by 4 letters...
Like Cicely was,
And numerous women across the globe.
Remember her name,
Remember her life.
End this hatred.
Stop the violence.
Don't let her death be in vain
Don't let another family bury their Elisha.
End violence against women living with HIV!
Elisha, you will NEVER be forgotten.

Elisha Henson, 1983-2014. Photo credit: Carrel family 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Million Moms March Mother's Day Tribute

Dearest mothers of the Million Moms March,

As I write this I am currently in the air en route to Washington DC. In less than 24 hours, we will join together, arm in arm, hand in hand, to march on our nation's capitol for the inaugural Million Moms March.  For months our volunteer team has logged hundreds of hours of planning, conference calls, meetings, research, emails, and the like as we worked to coordinate this march. It has been a labor of love to make this happen, and now it all comes together. Million Moms March. I will be there, along with hundreds of others, to oppose the glaring injustices present in our justice system. I will be there to honor lives lost and to demonstrate support and solidarity. You will there for those reasons as well, but that is not all. You will be there for a greater reason.

You will be there because you have experienced the greatest loss that I, a fellow mom, can imagine - the untimely death of your child. Not just any death, but a violent, undeserved killing at the hands of the very individuals with whom we entrust our lives, our nation's police officers. And while you were still reeling with shock, sorrow, and pain, you had to endure yet another brutal act of violence: the cruel and deliberate character assassination/victim-blaming on your deceased child before you'd even had a chance to grieve the tremendous loss you've suffered. 

At that moment, you don't know that it will get even worse in the days to come. You have no idea yet that your pain is only going to intensify when it becomes evident that those responsible for killing your child will not be held accountable for their actions. Their egregious, excessive, unwarranted, and plausibly racially-motivated actions will largely go unpunished both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of much of society. The world will go on, with more attention paid to the Kardashians or to Scandal than to the growing numbers of aggressions at the hands of police/vigilantes. Profiling, unlawful stop and search, unnecessary use of force, injury, and deaths, etc., mostly committed against brown and black individuals, disabled individuals, and LGBTQ* persons, continue to occur.

Dearest mothers, I cannot imagine the pain that you are in. Yet you are here. You are enduring your own personal hell, but you are here. You are fighting - through tears, through anger, through shock - for this to stop. For some type of resolution. For reform and change. For future children and adults to avoid having to experience the unthinkable, which you sadly know so well. 

To be with you this weekend, I will be apart from my beloved children. But there's no place I'd rather be right now. Because it disturbs me that this keeps happening. Because I believe that your children - Jordan Baker, Dontre Hamilton, Aiyana Jones, Tamir Rice, David Dehmann, Sean Bell, Mya Hall and others - deserve to be remembered. Because I know that my children's brown faces and/or their disabilities put them at risk for a similar fate. Because I believe our society is capable of better. 

You inspire me. More than you know. I have been dealing with my own personal pain and my own fears, my own personal hell. It cannot compare to yours, as my children continue to draw breath. But it has wounded me. Just as you have been betrayed by a system (in your case, police) that is supposed to serve and protect, my family has been similarly betrayed (by the child welfare system). It has brought me to the depths of my inner soul, to my knees in prayer and in anguish, to a level of emotion I didn't know I was capable of.  As time has passed I have began to pick up the pieces and work toward healing myself. Some days are better than others, but on the whole I think I am getting "there." I don't really know where "there" is exactly, but it's not here. I can feel the change, and it encourages me. I can see now that I am stronger than I thought. 

You incredible ladies have given me a renewed sense of hope and strength. Your stories, your mission, your openness - it touches me. I honor you, a mother, on this upcoming Mother's Day. I draw encouragement from your resilience and your determination. I know that if you can stand, I can stand - and I will. I choose today not to be ruled by fear. I will get through this and my children will get through this. We need to, because we cannot help anyone else if we ourselves are broken. Like others before us who have endured unfathomable hardships, we can - and will get through this. We will survive. We will. But I want more. Today I pledge to do more. Because I want to do more than just survive. 

D@mn it, I want to thrive.