Thirty years ago, a mysterious illness swept the country. Doctors couldn’t find anything to proscribe for the mystery illness because nobody knew what it was. We soon discovered the silent assassin was called HIV/AIDS. Once given a name, people who had contracted the disease were ostracized by many. The disrespect and lack of compassion for those HIV/AIDS patients caused some people to help in finding a cure. One of those people was a veteran actress of stage and screen, .
The Urban Daily caught up with the singer/actress while she was in New York City promoting the “Fight HIV Your Way” contest. During our conversation, Sheryl Lee Ralph shared stories of how she feels about sex education in schools, how the attitude towards HIV/AIDS has changed, and how she approached the sex talk with her children.
TUD:December 1st is World AIDS Day. Didn’t you write an open letter about World AIDS Day recently?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh my goodness, did you actually read it?
Of course! That’s my job.
Oh, wow! Thank you. Now I really give you points. Thank you so much for reading. I appreciate that. You know folks don’t read anymore. You send them information and they haven’t got a clue. People come up and they’re supposed to be working with you and they have no idea what you’ve done. I find it really fascinating. So I really rate you for reading.
Thank you. Why has AIDS awareness become such a big part of your mission in entertainment? Why choose that cause?
It’s so interesting that thirty years ago as an original company member of Dreamgirls on Broadway, I stood witness to what I call “The Ugly Time in America.” I saw my friends literally drop dead. They got sick and they died. There was no dying process, not like the one we’ve become used to. They just got sick and died and it was awful because I saw them die under stigma, shame, and silence. I saw people who could’ve helped turn their backs on AIDS victims and act as if they didn’t know any AIDS victims. I thought, “This is horrible that we, the people who say, ‘We will do unto others as we would have them do unto us,’ found it so easy to ignore our friends and people who suffered.” That’s when I made up my mind to, as a young woman, that we have got to do better.
I remember clearly thirty years ago, people told me to shut up. They told me not to talk about it. They said, “People will not like you.” I couldn’t understand this. I said, “How can we just be quiet in a time like this?!” Now, some thirty years later, people are asking, “Why are you suddenly involved in this?” They just don’t realize I’ve been doing this for a long time. It may have fallen on deaf ears over the past thirty years, but I’ve been doing it for a long time. My Divas Simply Singing is the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the country.
Sheryl Lee Ralph At 2009 Divas Simply Sing
How do you feel the attitude towards HIV/AIDS has changed within those thirty years? There are still a lot of people who are ignorant about it.
To tell you the truth, I’m shocked, as I travel across this country, at how little people know or don’t want to know about HIV/AIDS. There are a lot of people who don’t know that HIV is one thing and AIDS is another. Those people just think it’s one big old alphabet of a disease. Some still want to hold on to the myth that it’s a gay disease of little consequence to the general population. People don’t even want to admit that the number one way to contract HIV/AIDS is through heterosexual sex.
I’m even shocked at the number of people who can’t even say the word ‘sex’ out loud. People act as if others don’t have it. They always say, “Young people are not having a lot of sex.” They always say, “Old people aren’t having a lot of sex.” Trust me, they are having sex. Teenagers are having sex as well as old people. Cialis and Viagra changed everything.
What are your thoughts on sex education in schools? Do you believe that schools should teach abstinence or safe sex?
They should teach everything! It’s school! That is where you give children all of the information. You teach them about safe sex. You teach them about abstinence. There is nothing wrong with having a complete, age appropriate conversation. I cannot believe that my generation may very well have been the last one to have sex education in schools that was truly the complete and total package. I mean what are we doing? Are we in the future, but acting like it’s The Dark Ages? You can’t have lyrics in music where every time you turn on the radio you fee like you’re being sexually abused and turn around and act like people aren’t having sex. Come on!
You integrate things about AIDS awareness into a lot of the work you do like Divas Simply Singing, A lot of people know you as Dee from Moesha. How come there was never a blatant spotlight put on AIDS awareness when you were on the show?
Yes there was! How’d you miss that episode? We talked about everything on that show. We talked about HIV/AIDS, birth control, smoking weed, and we talked about young boys having stiffys in the middle of the night. You missed it.
I must have because the sex episode I remember was when Dee found out about Moesha’s birth control. I’ll have to go watch them again. Anyway, how did you come up with the concept of “Divas Simply Singing” instead of another type of benefit event?
I love that question. Thank you for asking it. I figured if we had a subject that was so important, like HIV/AIDS, what could I do to grab people’s attention. I figured you need a woman with big hair and an even bigger attitude. You need a woman who can wear the lipstick and the lashes to get on the stage and belt out a big song. A woman like that could get on the stage and say,“Look at me!” and have people actually look at them and listen to what they were saying. That’s how I came up with the concept; a light, a mic, and a diva simply singing.
If your folks want to make a donation, they can go to The Diva Foundation’s website and get their doggone t-shirt. Buy a DVD while you’re there. We need the help, baby. Tell them to come on.
No, that was the second or third time. You know I have a way of bringing people together. We are like sisters. We are dysfunctional, but we love each other. I may pull your wig off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you. So I’ve gotten us together on several occasions and we just have the greatest time together. We may cry and fight, but we definitely love each other.
Aren’t you doing a one woman show called Sometimes I Cry.
See that. You really do read! I’ve been performing my one woman show which I perform all around the world. The show happened because ten or twelve years ago, I started hearing so many stories from women surrounding HIV/AIDS. Nobody was telling these stories. It was 2002 and the disease had just taken a turn and I was like, “Whoa!”
I remember specifically, in the summer of 2002, the rate of women infected with HIV/AIDS was beginning to match the rate of men and nobody was talking about it. It was as if it was on nobody else’s radar. I had made up my mind to do something about it. I wanted to bring light to these women’s fight and that’s when I sat down and wrote Sometimes I Cry. It’s all about real women’s real stories surrounding the disease.
As a parent, how did you approach the topic of sex and HIV/AIDS awareness with your children?
I just talked about it. I talked about safe and appropriate sex. I talked about what is the right thing and what is the wrong thing. Don’t let people touch you and you don’t touch anybody else. Your stuff is private and their stuff is private. When the dogs start doing that action, that is how they have puppies. You’ve got to figure out these answers because when kids ask you, you can’t say, “Oh well, we don’t want to have that conversation with you.” Be ready to talk to your children.
I spoke so much about it with my son that when he went away to college, he sent me a picture of him with a condom taped to his forehead and he had typed in, “Uh, what is this for again, Mommy? LOL” You got to have these conversations with your kids and you’ve got to be in a place where your kids feel comfortable enough to come talk to you about these things.
Do find that parents are more uncomfortable talking about sex than their children are?
I know for a fact that mine were. I was a freshman at Rutgers University and I came home and said to my mother, “Why didn’t you talk to me about sex?!” My mother responded in her thick Jamaican accent, “Because I didn’t think you needed to know.” So was I supposed to be pushed out there to learn on my own? You talk to your children first because if you don’t somebody else will and that is not the conversation you want them to have.
I noticed you write a blog for The Huffington Post. Do you write a piece for them every year for World AIDS Day?
Boy, you really do read. I like you. Every year I do something to raise up the memory of my friends because anybody that can help you with your wig, weave, and wardrobe problems deserve to be remembered. In fact, I’ve got a book coming out in March of 2012 published by Simon & Schuster. It’s called “Redefining Diva.” It’s a memoir which gives the reader lessons I’ve learned through the experiences in my life. I talk about HIV/AIDS awareness in there also.
Do you have any suggestions for those who want to become part of HIV/AIDS awareness. How do they mix AIDS education, activism, and the arts?
I’m glad you asked me that because I’m involved in a wonderful project called Fight HIV Your Way. This is a project developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb. It’s another way to add the arts into the good fight against AIDS. The way the contest works is people send in photos or essays of how HIV/AIDS has affected their lives. This year, the prize is to come to New York City and watch a performance of the show, Home, choreographed by Rennie Harris. The show was inspired by the submissions to Fight HIV Your Way. So the best way to mix the arts, activism, and AIDS awarness is to take a picture. Maybe next year, they will be here in New York City. Infected or affected, we each have a story to tell surrounding this disease.