Emmy Award-Winning AIDS Activist Rae Lewis-Thornton is celebrating 60 Years of Life/40 Years of Advocacy with a tea party, book signing, and discussion of her anticipated memoir “Unprotected.”
In 1994, Lewis-Thornton received national acclaim for her cover story about living with HIV/AIDS in Essence Magazine. Lewis-Thornton has appeared in several magazines and television appearances. She is an author, award-winning blogger, ordained minister, and has a handmade knit and jewelry accessory line, RLT Collection.
Lewis-Thornton’s memoir tells her story of living in a continuous cycle of trauma, rejection, violence, childhood sexual molestation, and her journey from HIV to AIDS. Her memoir is about survival and what happened to her as a child helped to shape the trajectory of her life.
Chicago Defender: Why did you feel it was time to write your memoir?
Rae Lewis-Thornton: The bible says, “To whom much is given, much is required.” My life has always been about ministry and purpose. I have been holding onto the fullness of my story. It was time to release it to the universe so that people could get something from my story. You can only heal when you acknowledge your pain. I felt it was time to tell my story.
Chicago Defender: How did you come up with your book title, “Unprotected?”
Rae Lewis-Thornton: I had a book deal about 15 years ago. The person who wrote the proposal for the book proposed the title “Unprotected.” The title was appropriate because my whole childhood was unprotected. Since you can’t copyright titles, I kept the title and had it all these years. The publishing house and I parted ways. They wanted the book to focus on the little black girl who had a horrible life, had unprotected sex, and got AIDS but made good on life in the end. My story wasn’t about how I ended up with AIDS, but about what happened to me as a child and how that shaped the trajectory of my life.
Chicago Defender: What impact did writing the memoir have on you?
Rae Lewis-Thornton: It was very difficult reliving the trauma. The book reads like a novel. You can hear my voice, which is a strong voice. My editor did an incredible job by allowing my voice to shine, to be able to work with me, and pushing me so that my voice is evident. In order to have the power of my voice, I had to relive every incident and make sense of it and craft it into a part of the story where it has a being from beginning to the end. That was hard reliving my trauma, rapes, beatings, being molested, and being told that I was never going to be anything for most of my life. Reliving that rejection was hard. Some days writing my memoir was harder than others. Thank God for mental health providers. My therapist and psychiatrist were put in place to help me get through it.
There were times I couldn’t write, so I didn’t write. People asked me, “What is taking you so long to write your book.” I told them I just had a breakdown. That’s why it’s taking me so long. I had to process what was done to me. If there was a topic that needed to be unpacked in my head and spirit to get my soul right, I worked through it with therapy and went back to writing my book.
Chicago Defender: In the 80s, many people who were HIV positive kept silent. What drove you to speak out publicly about it?
Rae Lewis-Thornton: I was one of those people living in secret. I was diagnosed in 1987. I believe I was infected in 1983. The HIV antibody test wasn’t developed until 1985. In 1987, I donated blood. I received what I thought was a Thank You letter, which was a letter stating that there was something wrong with the blood that I donated. I went to the Red Cross, and they told me that I was HIV positive. In 1987, there was only one medicine on the market, people were burning other people’s homes, discrimination was rampant, Ryan White had been kicked out of school. It was a very ugly period.
I thought that disclosing my HIV status would interfere with my political career. I was the National Youth Director for Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s campaign in 1984 and1988. I was not trying to let this disease interfere with my career, and I wasn’t sick. I only felt sick when I started taking ATZ in 1989. If I could have died and nobody knew that I had HIV, that would have been fine with me.
In 1993, I transitioned to AIDS. I started telling people who knew and loved me that I had the disease. During that time, the life expectancy for someone with full-blown AIDS was 18-36 months. My T-Cells dropped, and I was losing weight. HIV was ravishing my body. I started telling my friends because I thought I was going to die.
I received a call to speak at a school, which at that time, I didn’t want to because I didn’t see myself as a public speaker, but I accepted the invitation. I spoke to several students, and I noticed that they didn’t leave their seats after I spoke. I asked the teacher why the students were still there, and she said they skipped class to hear you speak.
I came back to the same school to speak again. When I walked into the room, students were lined up against the wall. When I talked to the students, I challenged every stereotype that they thought about HIV/AIDS. The stereotype was gay white men dying from AIDS, and here I am, a pretty black woman with the disease. A young lady came up to me and said, “Ms. Thornton, I know you said you are not a public speaker, but you should not stop because God is using you.” I received several letters from the students. That’s when I knew that this was the direction God wanted to take me with my life.
I started public speaking locally at high schools in Chicago. Six months later, I received the Community Service Award from Today’s Black Woman, where Susan Taylor was the keynote speaker. When I told my story that not only do I have HIV, I have full-blown AIDS, you couldn’t hear a pin drop. As I was walking off the stage, Susan Taylor grabbed my hand and said could she do a story on me. Two weeks later, Taylor called and asked me to be on the front cover of Essence Magazine. Being on the cover of Essence Magazine catapulted me into the national arena.
Chicago Defender: Your friend for many years, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph has been an HIV/AIDS activist for decades. She wrote the foreword of your book. How important is that to you?
Rae Lewis-Thornton: For Sheryl Lee Ralph to write the foreword tells me that my book is incredibly important. People know Sheryl as the original Dream Girls, on the shows Moesha and now Abbott Elementary. The larger community doesn’t know that Sheryl has been an AIDS activist for many years. Her DIVA Simply Singing Variety Show has been around for 31 years fundraising in the fight against HIV/AIDS. I met Sheryl a few decades ago at an NAACP National Convention where we were guest speakers. Sheryl’s willingness to support me on this personal journey has been heartfelt.
Chicago Defender: With you traveling all over the country, speaking and educating about your journey and HIV/AIDS, do you think people, especially the African American community, have listened?
Rae Lewis-Thornton: I think we use to listen. We think HIV is not a big deal. I’m here to tell you HIV is a big deal. I think people were embracing me at one point, but you rarely see the dialogue around HIV that we used to have, which is sad.
African Americans are still disproportionately impacted by this disease. The other important thing is that you can be treated and live a long life. We are starting to learn how to age with HIV. You take someone like me that has had the disease for 38 years. I’m being treated for osteoporosis because HIV destroys the bone. You can live a long life with HIV/AIDS, but it’s a lifetime of management. The best route is prevention. About 38% of newly diagnosed people with HIV are infected by people who don’t know they are infected with HIV. If we get tested, we could reduce the number of HIV. Testing for HIV has dropped, and no one thinks about using a condom. Testing and early diagnosis are critical. There is a lot of work to be done. We are not out of the woods yet.
Chicago Defender: What do you want your readers to learn from your book?
Rae Lewis-Thornton: I want people to see what trauma looks like. I want them to follow my journey. A little black girl who was rejected, beaten, raped, molested, and say, “My God, this is what trauma looks like.” I hope that someone will have an “a ha” moment. I can’t dictate what that “a ha” moment is. Maybe you begin to think about your own life and trauma. Find a neutral place and space to work through it. I always tell people all the time “Little girls with low self-esteem grow up to be women with low self-esteem.” My self-esteem was shot to hell in a handbasket because I didn’t have people that should have protected me. I want my readers to have a glimpse into what trauma looks like. I hope whoever reads this book takes a nugget into their heart to help heal their soul.
I will be promoting my book across the country. I hope that my memoir will create some space for me to be in dialogue with black women about trauma and healing. I’m getting myself emotionally and spiritually prepared to continue to have this dialogue about what trauma looks like and how we heal from it.
Unprotected: A Memoir Book Signing and Discussion will be held on Saturday, May 21, 2022, from 3:00-5:00pm at the Center of Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted. To attend the free event, register here.
Tammy Gibson is an author, re-enactor, and black history traveler. Find her on social media @sankofatravelher.