My time at the star-studded Black Aids Institute’s annual Heroes in the Struggle Gala was all that it was promised to be – a poignant night of great food, entertainment and most importantly, activism.
The night was a celebration of the contributions black women have made to the fight against HIV and AIDS, particularly within the black community. The theme—black men honoring black women. There were 6 women to be honored that night: Actress and Empire star Taraji P. Henson, Harry Belafonte’s “art-ivist” daughter Gina Belafonte, actress and Black Aids Institute board member Vanessa Williams, actress and Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox, award-winning recording artist Gina Brown, and lastly the iconic Alfre Woodard. The night, at least on paper, promised to be an unforgettable evening, and it didn’t disappoint.
When I arrived at the 21st Century Fox studio lot in Century City, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. All of us covering the event were stationed on the red carpet. I made friends with the lovely ladies of NAACP Magazine next to me and the next thing I knew, the stars started to pour in. Many familiar faces were in attendance including Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, famed trans male model Laith Ashley De La Cruz (who was also a presenter at the event), Danny Glover, Queen Sugar star Alimi Brown, and Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali. After speaking with many of the celebrities on the carpet, it was very clear that they realized the power that came with their platform and the “responsibility” to do good with it, a sentiment echoed by award-winning singer Yvette Summers. “Everything starting here in Hollywood just ripples throughout the world because everybody’s watching us,” she stated on the carpet; and she wasn’t the only one to feel that responsibility. When I caught up with host and Henson’s Empire co-star Jussie Smollett, he also felt the weight of the significance of what they were doing that night. “[This is so important] because it’s a party with a purpose. It’s not just a gala for us all to get together, put some money in our pocket, go to sleep, and feel good about ourselves. It’s a very real organization with a very real cause.” The importance of that cause was something that honoree Gina Brown felt very strongly about. “We have to come together and talk about [The AIDS Epidemic]. Black people – this epidemic is impacting us. Out of all the women living with HIV, Black women are almost 80 percent.” She stated before going on to explain the importance of including trans women in the HIV/AIDS conversation, and how imperative it was that Cox and others like her are honored and put front and center. “It’s about time we truly include trans people [in the conversation].” She said. “ It means a lot because it’s giving a face. It’s making the trans community visible. For a lot of trans women, they are underground. They can’t be who they are. [We have to] let the trans community know we care.”
After the carpet had ended, we were treated to a lovely outdoor reception complete with hour d’oeuvres and live entertainment by the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles. They entertained us with several numbers, including “Let the Sunshine In” from the Broadway musical Hair. As the song came to a close, a choir member told us that the ceremony would begin shortly and the choir quickly lead the way to the theatre, their voices still ringing out “let the sunshine in”. We followed them down a side street of the Fox back lot and into the theatre where we waited for the night’s presentation to begin. As the lights dimmed, a voice welcomed us to the ceremony and new girl group June’s Diary treated us to a rousing performance of the Black National Anthem. Smollett, the night’s host, thanked us for attending and kicked off the night with a heartfelt yet funny opening monologue. The honoring ceremony that followed was not only beautiful, but also poignant and necessary. Highlights of the night include Taraji P. Henson’s tender speech, as well as a touching performance of the Beatle’s song “Yesterday” by power-house vocalist Ledisi, and a moving video series spotlighting HIV positive women leading the fight against the disease. The whole night was beyond beautiful, powerful, and touching, and most importantly, effective. If their annual Heroes In the Struggle event is any indication, the Black Aids Institute will be giving their all to end the AIDS epidemic with the same devotion that was on display, and that’s something I think we can all feel comforted by.