ITMT-Warriors in the Black HIV/AIDS Movement: Cleo Manago

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By award-winning journalist Love TaShia Asanti

Cleo Manago is a behavioral health and cultural analyst, writer, educator, media commentator, and Black/African social justice and defense-focused human rights activist. In 1988, he pioneered two groundbreaking organizations—the AmASSI Centers for Black Wellness & Culture and Black Men’s Xchange (BMX) National, to help resolve the myriad challenges faced by Black people, diverse in economic circumstance, educational attainment, sexuality, class, age, and culture.

Cleo Manago also created the Critical Thinking and Cultural Affirmation (or CTCA) methodology, a “racism/oppression trauma, trance-breaking” behavioral intervention. In 2015, the CTCA framework and theory, evaluated as the Men of African American Legacy Empowering Self (MAALES) project, was heralded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) compendium of evidence-based interventions.

LA: Where did you enter the HIV/AIDS movement?

CM: I first heard of a mysterious illness killing white gay men as a young activist in the early 1980s while working in mental health and the music industry. Though not acknowledged by the mainstream or gay media, young Black males were dying too, including my life partner. I was distressed and compelled to do something. Black people had yet to directly recognize same-gender sexuality, and the gay community at large was disconnected from Black SGL people. This put us in grave danger of not only dying in droves but also of being victims of a humiliating, isolating, and shame-filled disease. Our fatalities were being correlated with general pneumonia and cancer. It was a secret SGL Black holocaust.

LA: What did you observe at the height of the epidemic? How did it impact you?

CM: The disease was not called HIV yet. They called it GRID, or gay-related-immune-deficiency. The images of people dying from it were only white, but the disease supposedly came from Africa! This created an artificial distance from AIDS among Black people, while fostering shame because people of African descent were being blamed. Then they blamed it on Haiti. Many still do not recognize that these were racist deceptions.

My background in social services led me to conduct presentations citywide on what would later be called HIV. Following a presentation at UCLA, Morris Pierce, then head of the Watts Health Foundation (WHF) health education department, recruited and hired me to be their bilingual (Spanish/English) Health Educator.

Back then, most AIDS funding came through white gay organizations. WHF acquired a subcontract from APLA (AIDS Project Los Angeles) in Hollywood, the largest AIDS organization in the city. Working on this subcontract, monthly I met with the project officer at APLA. Alarmed by the deadly epidemic, he had given up his lucrative insurance broker business to help fight AIDS.

One day I arrived for our meeting and to my shock, he had been let go. I would find out later that despite the professional sacrifice he made, management felt he was ineffective at his job. This decision exemplified their commitment to saving the lives of their community members and ensuring their people not only survived but thrived during the AIDS crisis.

In contrast, the Black HIV industry, with the impediments of structural and internalized racism, often employed people who did not have professional experience in the health industry. Well-meaning people, some of whom had been hairdressers and dancers, were placed in positions of authority. While many were dedicated workers, not having the proper training to do critical analysis reduced the effectiveness of our response.

LA: What did you do? What did your role become?

CM: I examined the reasons our response had not been as effective as other communities. This analysis led me to prioritize the dismantling of systems that support structural or internalized racism in healthcare and focus on primary prevention. Providing education, promoting images of Black love, and putting qualified Black people in leadership proved to be both healing and empowering.

I also supported destigmatizing HIV and HIV positivity. However, I thought it was strategically problematic that HIV-positive people were being made into faux superstars while HIV-negative people were ignored until contracting HIV. This was the perfect storm for an HIV epidemic and for pharmaceutical profit. The field sorely lacked HIV-negative role models.

In the late 80s, I decided to create an organizational model that previously did not exist. I chose a historically Black community to launch—Inglewood, Calif. There we would offer a culturally affirming health education curriculum that inspired Black people to value Black people. Our model was set to reduce individual and community health threats, unpack oppressive norms around sexualities and race, and instructionally address trauma and self-hate.

We also launched the Black Men’s Xchange for diverse Black men and the AmASSI Center for Black Wellness and Culture for all Black people. AmASSI not only hired Black women—we put them in top executive roles that would allow them to brainstorm their own solutions. At AmASSI, my team and I worked to unite Black people from all backgrounds under the banner of Black Life Matters. This was 25 years before the Black Lives Matter slogan would become a mantra for the modern Black civil rights movement.

LA: What were some of the greatest challenges in doing your work?

CM: Systemic racism and what I’ve come to identify as a toxic fear of irrelevance. This fear of irrelevance has often divided Black people and diluted our work. This experience drove home the importance of the Black community—especially those who work in the HIV/AIDS industry—learning to work together for our greater success and healing. We also must comprehend the slavery-born behaviors that spark division between us.

Despite the challenges faced, AmASSI has been blessed with many valuable resources and multiple commendations. Our strategies—after peer and national review—were touted as best practices. On Monday nights, AmASSI hosted the Royal Family group—an informational gathering and discussion for everybody, regardless of identity. Tuesdays was Black Women’s Xchange (BWX) for SGL women. Wednesdays, MAAT (Men of African Ancestry Tribunal) for heterosexual men. Thursdays, Nia for heterosexual women. Fridays the Black Men’s Xchange (BMX) for SGL men, and on Saturdays, Watu-Wajua (children of the sun in Swahili), for youth. We taught critical thinking and cultural affirmation, Black leadership through parenting for parents and provided free math, English, and Science tutoring. The community responded and still responds exceptionally well to the AmASSI model.

LA: You’ve accomplished incredible things. The first openly SGL person invited by Minister Farrakhan to speak at the Million Man March. Being invited to Morehouse College to dialogue and educate faculty on Black SGL issues. The BMX group had a positive impact on Al Sharpton’s views on sexual and gender minority issues. You also dialogued with the late, great behavior scientist Dr. Francis Cress Welsing. You’ve been a regular on TVONE with award-winning journalist and newscaster Roland Martin. You’ve been a guest on numerous TV shows from BET to C-SPAN and have spoken at landmark conferences. You’ve also organized your own groundbreaking retreats and discussion forums. What’s your perspective on where we are now as a community around HIV/AIDS and ending the epidemic?

CM: In 2016, a CDC report stated that “one in two Black males at sexual risk will be HIV infected.” This conclusion came with no solutions in sight, and there are solutions. CTCA is one of them. Such a report should call us to action. When we as Black people fully recognize our worth, we won’t hesitate to search for and put in motion our own solutions to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

LA: What do you want people to know about you? What myth do you want to correct?

CM: About me? My deeds speak for themselves. I am sincere and easy to figure out if you love Black people. I have never competed with other Black people for success. I am competing with white supremacy and anti-Black self-hate.

Love Ta’Shia Asanti is an award-winning activist, author of seven books and founder of the Healing Racism Academy and the I-Teach Love Institute. More about her work can be found at

More about the work of Dr. Cleo Manago and his organizations can found at and at

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