“People of the world we’ve got a message for you … AIDS is a problem for all of us, race, country; why make a fuss … It doesn’t matter where you came from, once you are infected, you gone … Guard your life if you want to stay alive, there’s no other way, if on this earth you want to stay.”
For anyone else these words might be just another couple of lines to another poem.
But for Louisville senior La’Kita Jones, they are a constant reminder of a friend she once knew — a friend that thought and spoke with the eloquence of a true poet, believing that in death, the miracle of life is conceived.
Tuesday night, Jones stood with a crowd of about 40 people at Nite Class in Downing University Center. She waited with a handful of eager poets who were preparing to read their work in honor of World AIDS Day. The day is officially observed on Dec. 1, but Western chose to celebrate the event Monday and Tuesday.
Instead of pushing her way to the front to be the first to recite her poem, Jones politely ushered people in front of her, making sure each poet got their chance to read.
Every poem was heard except Jones’. There wasn’t enough time for her. But she still felt fulfilled.
Although Jones didn’t get to read her poem, she attended the candlelight vigil for one reason. She was repaying a debt to an old friend — a friend whose life and relationship with Jones was as complex, and yet as simple, as a poem.
Louisville native Awetta Clark was known by her close friends as “Mamma Buns.” And she became a shoulder for Jones to lean and shed tears on after Jones’ father, David, committed suicide 11 years ago, when Jones was just 11-years-old.
“I got shy after my dad died,” Jones said. “I stopped talking to a lot of people and just stayed close to my mom.”
Jones described the reserved and introverted persona she adopted after her father’s death as a “shell.”
It wasn’t long after Jones went into her shell-phase that Clark, a single mother of six, began to pry away at the self-removed youth. “Ms. Wetta,” as Jones often called her, entered into Jones’ life just in time to help remove the shell.
Clark became like a surrogate mother to Jones. She was a minister at Forrest Tabernacle Baptist Church in Louisville and eventually became Jones’ close friend and church mentor.
But on June 21 of this year, Clark died from AIDS at age 46.
Jones said that Clark contracted HIV after the birth of her last child. The virus turned into full-blown AIDS when Jones was in seventh grade. Ten years later, Clark died.
Although Clark was already HIV positive when she met Jones, the young girl was unaware of the illness. But she said their relationship didn’t change after she found out Clark had AIDS.
Jones’ understanding of AIDS allowed her to maintain a friendship with Clark without any fear.
“I was still hugging her and kissing her,” she said.
Clark’s death had a major impact on Jones’ life.
“It was rough,” Jones said. “She was one of the main people pushing me to stay in school, ’cause I wanted to sit out last year. I wanted to take a break and just relax, but she was like, ‘No, stay down there, you’ll finish.’
“And after she died, I was like, ‘I really have to hurry up and finish now, because that’s what she wanted me to do,'” Jones said with tears streaming down.
She was not the only person who needed comfort and counsel after the loss of her friend.
“I really tried to be strong for my sister who was really, really close to her,” Jones said. Jones’ younger sister, Laqueta, is currently dating Clark’s youngest son Makkri, and the couple has a two-month-old son named De’Yone.
“She (Clark) called my sister’s baby her ‘ticket out,'” Jones said about the superstition Clark held while Jones’ sister was pregnant with De’Yone. Clark believed her eventual death and the birth of her grandson were linked.
The day before Clark died she told Jones’ mother that “a life has to die for a new life to come in.”
On Sept. 26 of this year, almost three months after Clark’s death, De’Yone was born.
Clark’s funeral was not performed in the traditional manner. Jones said people were walking around singing, laughing and talking.
“It was a home-going celebration,” Jones said. “That’s how laid back she was. You had to wear blue jeans. She didn’t want anyone dressed up. There were balloons everywhere. And flowers. It was all lit up in the church.”
Jones said there was no eulogy; people got up and spoke about happy memories.
“She (Clark) didn’t want people to get up there and talk about anything sad, or anything that would upset anybody,” Jones said.
World AIDS Day is recognized globally each year on the first day of December. It is the day the world has set aside to simultaneously join hands and attempt to spread messages of education, compassion and hope.
Glasgow sophomore Ashley Scott said celebrating World AIDS Day is a good idea because it promotes awareness.
“I think it can only be beneficial,” Scott said. “People need to be aware of AIDS and what can happen if they get it. And how to prevent transmission.”
“Stigma and Discrimination” was the theme chosen for World AIDS Day 2002.
Louisville junior Dustin Shipp thinks this theme needs to be explored and discussed.
“People shun people with AIDS because they’re afraid,” Shipp said. “If more people knew more about the AIDS disease, they may not be afraid.”
Fear is an emotion that comes to mind for Louisville sophomore Rosie Kapp.
“It’s a very scary disease,” Kapp said. “So many people are getting it these days. You don’t know who has it. It’s probably a constant fear in the minds of many. When you get a partner, you don’t know who they’ve been with before. It’s kind of in the back of your mind.”
Kathryn Steward, Western’s Health Education Coordinator, said the best protection against HIV/AIDS is abstinence first, and then the proper use of condoms. Steward also said that IV drug use also contributes to HIV/AIDS contraction.
Jones agreed to be available to read her poem at the Candlelight Vigil Tuesday night because she feels she still owes something to Clark.
“We always did the (AIDS) walk with her across the bridge (Louisville’s Second Street bridge leading into Indiana),” Jones said. “I am going to keep doing whatever I can so that her death wasn’t in vain.
“Everybody just loved her because she was always trying to help everyone else, even though she was the one who was probably needing the most help.”
Clark’s contributions went far beyond Jones’ family. She helped organize video presentations on HIV/AIDS awareness throughout Louisville’s community, consistently participated in the AIDS walk and was a co-founder of Wings Kitchen Conversation, a Louisville relief program that supplies meals to people living with HIV/AIDS.
The importance of safe sex was a lesson Clark conveyed to Jones.
“She was like, ‘Don’t be like me,’ and ‘This is not the way to die,'” Jones said.
During the last couple of months of Clark’s life she had to take 13 to 17 pills a day.
But no matter how sick Clark got, Jones said she never felt sorry for herself.
“She just stayed happy the whole time, even when we knew she was hurting,” she said. “She never tried to make anyone else feel bad for being healthy.”
Although Clark’s death has been painful for Jones, she has come away with a valuable lesson she offers to the world.
“If they knew it only took a minute to put on a condom rather than watch somebody waste away to nothing, they would do it every time, without even thinking about it,” Jones said. “It would be like breathing.”
And according to the Jones and Clark family belief, as long as someone is breathing, there’s hope for life in the future.
Or at least that’s one interpretation of the first couple lines of Jones’ poem, and the last couple of lines to Clark’s life.
Reach Zach Mills at [email protected]