Rhaynetta's Cause

Even through her own struggle with the disease, Rhaynetta Cheatham has worked tirelessly to bring AIDS awareness where it's most needed: Miami's black community

She didn't like going to church ("God was somebody you got in touch with when you were old and got arthritis and couldn't run in the streets or hit the bars any more") and she was offended more than anything else when she was chosen to be one of the "icebreakers" in her junior high school; a girl and a boy from each grade were enrolled in the all-white school as a precursor to mandatory integration the following year. Resistance from the white students was so fierce, she recalls, that her mother marched her into the school the first day accompanied by a police contingent. "Oh, Jesus, that made me even more uncomfortable. I didn't need to prove anything to those rednecks. Spitting, screaming, sign toting, 'Go back to Africa.' That teaches you to walk past white people and make yourself invisible, a certain look, the way you carry yourself says, I didn't hear it, it didn't hurt."

By her senior year, Cheatham recounts, she was headed for Jacksonville University, a white private institution. She almost lost her chance when her fellow black high school classmates took part in what she describes as a full-scale riot sparked by the principal's refusal to let a picture of a black Jesus remain as part of a black-history exhibit. "A guidance counselor, a black woman, locked me in the office because she knew how hard it was to get accepted to an all-white private college," Cheatham remembers. "So I didn't get to see my friends with their heads busted open, cops kicking a girl in the ribs, beating a boy with polio. I felt like an Uncle Tom." It was an unsettling, solitary position to be in, not on either side, a position Cheatham says she has grown accustomed to. "I've always been alone," she says.

She stayed at Jacksonville for two years, from 1973 to 1975, then enlisted in the army. "The only reason I went to college is I was expected to go. I didn't want to be there, it was too close to home." The army sent her to Landsthl, Germany, for three years, during which time her mother died. When she came back to Fort Stewart, Georgia, in 1979, she was pregnant with her first child. She says she didn't want to marry the father, a fellow serviceman who remained in Germany.

She had also returned stateside with a taste for cocaine. And when she was discharged in 1983, she was newly married, pregnant, and using heavily.

Cheatham went back to Plant City after her grandmother died and left her a house. When her second child was three months old, she kicked her husband out. She was working in a pharmacy, which at first provided enough money to buy drugs and pay the bills. But the habit grew, and when a man offered drugs for sex, she wasn't about to refuse. She gave birth to a third child. In less than two years, she'd lost the job and the house, and her aunt and the baby sitter took the children. She sold her car for drugs. She learned how to clip a john when his pants were down; she learned how to shave down a Brazil nut and coat it with hemorrhoid cream to make it look like a crack rock. All this in full view of her family -- her little brother now a Church of God preacher -- and whatever former schoolmates still remained in Plant City. "Everybody in town watches 'em take everything out your house, everybody in town has watched you lose weight, turn into a skeleton. What's the secret?" she says. "Then if you get high, you forget."

By 1985 Cheatham was pregnant again, and in jail in Tampa on drug charges. When she went into premature labor, she was taken to Tampa General and handcuffed to a bed. It was there that in the space of less than five minutes a nurse informed her she'd tested positive for HIV and her brother called with the news of the death of their father. Her fourth child, born a few weeks later, was healthy and was put up for adoption. Though her family knew she had the AIDS virus, she says, they wouldn't talk about it.

After more arrests for bad checks and drugs and a six-month stint in prison in 1990, she moved to Miami, where she had a few relatives and where "there were lots of people with AIDS." She was thinking she'd start a new, drug-free life, but she wasn't clean for long. She met a man at the Salvation Army and later moved in with him. He beat her, but she stayed with him for about a year. She got a job cleaning a South Beach hotel, and that evolved into a sort of customized drug-delivery business in which she was able to take a nice cut of the marijuana and coke she'd provide to rich white Beach boys. "My business was very discreet," says Cheatham. "All my street mentality went back to work. Drug addicts are masters of manipulation; they have to be able to convince you of whatever they're saying -- it's like phone sales or a sex line." By the time she gave birth to her fifth child (who was also put up for adoption) in August 1991, she felt at her lowest. In October of that year she entered a six-month residential drug-rehab program. "Having the baby was one catalyst," she admits. "The others were I was old and tired -- shit." She puts a little spin on the last word, to make it clear she was at the end of her rope.

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