Twenty-six years ago I wouldn’t have bet two wooden nickels that I’d grow into an Edward R. Murrow Award Winning Journalist who has interviewed the likes of former Presidential candidate Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and international Ambassadors from Croatia, India and Japan. Neither would I have believed I’d go on to write and produce award winning feature stories for Public Radio dealing with same sex marriage, Americas rising high school dropout rates and Black Americas unwillingness to even deal with HIV, which is ravishing our community and infecting young Black men between the ages of 13 and 28 at alarming rates.
“There were many bumps in the road for me, and although I have fallen many times, I never lost hope that God would help me to get back up.”
As I entered high school, a guy by the name of Max Robinson was beating me to the punch. In 1978, Robinson was hired to co-anchor ABC’s World News Tonight. A decade later, his career came to an abrupt halt when he was diagnosed with HIV, and he died of complications from AIDS that same year. To my knowledge, Robinson and I represent a small group of black male journalists who publicly announced that we were infected with HIV. In fact, we may be in a league of our own because of the stigmas attached.
While Robinson’s HIV diagnosis ended his life, early detection and new advances in HIV treatment gave me a second chance to pursue my childhood dream. But like Robinson, who was unfairly disparaged by some as an alcoholic perfectionist even while being lauded as a civil rights activist, I encountered a multitude of adversities during my rise up the ladder of success.
When I was 4 years old, I survived a deadly house fire. I watched my 2-year-old cousin perish in the flames. Between kindergarten and second grade, I was repeatedly sexually abused by my stepfather and forced to watch my mother being beaten by the same man.
I’d grow up to eventually endure a series of abusive relationships from my intimate partners and receive an HIV diagnosis in 1991. At 30, I found myself taking care of my ailing mother who had endured lung cancer, brain cancer and a series of debilitating strokes. I loved her dearly, but the concerns over her health as well as my own left me in a deep depression. To cope, I turned to crack cocaine, spawning a deep addiction I secretly hoped would kill me.
I found my redemption through study, hard work, and the faith in God that has always nursed me, even as a child.
I stayed in the Southern communities within which I was reared and studied radio and television journalism, and soon, at the age of 40, I graduated from Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham.
Then I became a senior news reporter, producer, and anchor for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, a statewide affiliate of National Public Radio.
“Lawayne, people really need to know your story,” said my college adviser, Janice Ralya, urging me to enter an essay contest and peel back the layers of my life so the public knows what it is really like to work through struggle. I entered the contest. The essay received overwhelming support on social media.
“Thank you for giving our family hope,” one person told me after the ceremony. “Thank you for telling my son’s story,” someone else told me. And another person thanked me for telling her daughter’s story, and still another thanked me for telling his friend’s story. Then it hit me: In my essay I revealed struggles shared by so many in the black community, struggles with loss, abuse, addiction, and illness that transcend race, gender and sexuality.
That’s how my memoir, Peeling Back the Layers, began.
Lawayne Childrey is a author, journalist, HIV/AIDS advocate, and national motivational speaker. He is also an advisor to Healthyblackmen.org