In the riptide of family bonds generated by each of Georgia’s men, Rae got caught in episodic abuse. By the time she was in seventh grade, she’d been molested by three different people, she says, at which point Georgia married a man “who never raped me, but he’d hem me in corners, push me up against the wall, kiss me, rub his hands all over my body parts, grab my breasts.” When she told her mother, she says, “her explanation was, he wouldn’t want to be with me if I wasn’t a whore. He left in August, and she put me out in October. I had just started my senior year in high school.”
The one upside to that last marriage for Rae was that they’d moved to the suburb of Evanston, which had a good school. She ended up finding a place to live with two of her former stepsisters, commuting an hour and a half each day to class, running to her job at a clothing store, and then hightailing it to her second gig, at McDonald’s.
Sex with the right men, she realized quickly, could make things easier. In and out of relationships for the next few years, “trying to get validated, trying to find love,” she turned her overachieving drive to becoming a sex goddess. Not that she was promiscuous; just choosy. “For me it was the richer and older, the better,” says Rae wryly. “Got to pay rent. And you’re pretty. With long hair. And you’re high yellow. So you get your winter coat. And that’s what I did. You screen very carefully: six-figure income, Giorgio Armani suit, Mercedes required.”
The move to Evanston exposed Rae to a new world of literature and arts and to black history and African-Americans with PhDs. She got into Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, which is where she first heard Jesse Jackson speak. It was at church on Easter Sunday, and she knew right then that she had to get politically involved. On campus she became the queen of activist causes, then quit school after a year to join Jackson’s first presidential campaign, in 1984.
Piggybacking from one political candidate or organization to the next, in 1987 she found herself working for the peace action group SANE in Washington, D.C. That January, there was a train accident, and she organized a blood drive. The Red Cross had started screening for HIV, and after donating, Rae was supposed to call in to make sure everything was okay with her blood, but she threw the number away. “I knew AIDS,” she says. “AIDS was white. AIDS was gay. AIDS was IV drug abuse. It wasn’t me.”
In March she got a letter. It was from the Red Cross; she had to come in. She hopped into a taxi and sat down with a counselor. “The entire meeting took five minutes,” says Rae. “I got up and went back to work. I said to myself, ‘This is one more thing in my life. I can handle HIV. Just don’t ever let me get AIDS.’”