Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS

Martin Duberman. New Press (Perseus, dist.), $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-59558-945-3
In this insightful history, gay rights activist and distinguished historian Duberman (Stonewall) attempts to revive AIDS awareness by detailing the early years of the epidemic, particularly the period of 1981–1995. He sets the details within a framework constructed around the experiences of two men: white singer/activist Michael Callen and black poet/cultural worker Essex Hemphill, both of whom lived with AIDS for years and died at age 38. Duberman pulls no punches in capturing the chaos, uncertainty, and ignorance of the era, looking at the sexual culture that allowed the disease to thrive; he also examines the fear and contradictions of the political environment. Through interviews, writings, personal experience, and Hemphill’s poetry, Duberman creates a vivid, complex snapshot of the fractured, conflicted gay community as it responded to the growing problem. It’s a sobering narrative, replete with the sexism, racism, homophobia, and false leads that marked the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Most importantly, it addresses the role of AIDS as a “gay disease” and exposes the differences between the white and black gay communities in their responses. Duberman’s accessible, open, and honest prose reminds us that AIDS is not over; only the sense of urgency has waned. Agent: Frances Goldin, Frances Goldin Literary Agency. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/06/2014
Release date: 03/01/2014
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