Brown Bag Lecture series. . .
“Of Mind, Body, and Spirit: Mental Health and HIV/AIDS in Black Rural America”
Presented by Professor Valerie Grim, AAADS chair
Oct. 27, 2005
The second Brown Bag Lecture in the fall 2005 series was presented on Oct. 27 by Professor Valerie Grim, chair of the department, on the topic “Of Mind, Body, and Spirit: Mental Health and HIV/AIDS in Black Rural America.” A nationally recognized historian of blacks i n the 20th-century rural South, Grim talked about her research in connection to her manuscript-in-progress on family life in the Mississippi Delta. While there is a certain amount of industry, including large agri-business, in the region, her focus was on the small-scale agricultural and rural black population.
This population, which is largely traditional and religious, suffers from what Grim calls a “deadening silence” on such issues as mental health, spouse and child abuse, homosexuality, and AIDS. She described one family with several members who were “off,” a Southern term for mentally unbalanced in some way. Her study of this family is a part of her pursuit of the meaning of “offness” and the community’s response to it. While the community may state that such a condition is sad but acceptable, it does not fully accept “off” people, but marginalizes them. With homosexuality, however, the community may call gay people “off,” but it goes further and ostracizes them.
In the Delta, where silence is the primary mode of dealing with these issues, there are few services available for people with mental illness or sex-related illness. The church serves as the main source of assistance. But when it is religion and the church condemning and judging people, help for such suffering doesn’t happen. Grim found that the church community was more lenient toward a heterosexual with AIDS than a homosexual with AIDS, regardless of either gender. Families with afflicted members in both categories still felt shame and maintained silence, although the heterosexual AIDS sufferer and her family were allowed sympathy and the gay man with AIDS was shunned.
Grim explained that, at 50-55 percent, the African American population has the largest percentage of all AIDS cases in the United States. There are two constructs for understanding this phenomenon: the culture of shame and the culture of righteousness. While shame has lost power in many areas of human behavior, it remains a strong part of spiritual training in the black church. Righteousness, meanwhile, has evolved into judgment. Furthermore, there is little use of condoms to protect against unwed pregnancy or venereal disease, again because of church condemnation. When mental illness or instances of HIV/AIDS arise, fear of shame and judgment keep people from seeking help or reporting their distress, leading to a problem of underreporting of health issues in the region. Rural population research, said Grim, always lags behind that of urban populations, but it is well known that AIDS exists more in poorer populations, such as the rural South.
Grim is searching for answers as to how black rural populations can reconstruct the dialogue between tradition and crisis-level health issues so that human needs can be served without losing the sanction of the church. There is an effort to connect people with clinics , especially young people, but the prevailing attitudes toward sex, mental health, and other types of “offness” make it difficult.
In conclusion, Grim stated her belief that such health issues should play a role in the discipline of African American studies, as well as in study of the diaspora.