One Tough Cookie: Pressing towards an AIDS Free Generation

Cookie-JohnsonCookie Johnson shares her passion and fight for others behind the AIDS/HIV cause.
By Tiffany E. Browne

Twenty-two years ago Earleatha “Cookie” Johnson began the ultimate crash course; fighting and surviving AIDS/HIV 101. At its beginning, it is a course that took a deer-caught-in-headlights Cookie and transformed her into a fighter for others; especially for women and children living with or who are at risk for contracting the virus. The lessons began when her husband, famed NBA player Earvin “Magic” Johnson told her privately that he had contracted Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). A few days later, on November 7, 1991, the public caught a glimpse of her as she sat dressed in white next to her husband. Her face was expressionless, but a fearless and optimistic Magic took to the podium and made the same announcement to the world.

“I was still in shock,” says Johnson. “I was scared to death that he was going to die, because at that time that’s what you heard or knew; that people were dying from this.”

At the time of the announcement Johnson was two months pregnant with their first child. Naturally she worried about the fate of their unborn son and herself. She was tested and the results were negative. Immediately, the Johnsons spent time with pediatric AIDS/HIV Awareness advocate Elizabeth Glaser, whose own story fueled their inspiration. Glaser had contracted HIV during a blood transfusion that had taken place when she gave birth to her daughter. She had unknowingly passed the virus onto her daughter through her breast milk and when she became pregnant with her second child her unborn son had contracted the virus while in utero.

“We met Elizabeth Glaser in the first week. She instilled the best advice. First, educate yourself as much as possible about the virus. Then educate those around you. Then fight,” says Johnson.

Sadly, Glaser and her daughter lost their battle, but not before leaving room for Johnson and others to keep going with a mission and a message that will hopefully lead towards an AIDS-free generation.

“I loved the time we spent with her. You walked into her house feeling down, but by the time you came out you were ready to go punch something,” laughs Johnson.

Still, the recent Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation honoree, would not lace up her boxing gloves until much later. Though she has always been in the trenches with her husband, serving as a board member of the Magic Johnson Foundation, it was not until an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, that Johnson walked out of the shadows.

“We were on the show for World AIDS Day to discuss the ‘I Stand with Magic’ campaign. There was a twenty-something year old woman in the audience living with HIV. She was asked about the time she found out about her diagnoses. She said when her doctor told her the news her reply was ‘what is that?’ My husband and I looked at each other and I asked her where was she when my husband made his announcement. She responded ‘I was six years old.’ That’s when it hit me. We have a whole new generation that needs to be educated about this,” says Johnson.