Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS [NOOK Book]

Overview

In December 1995, the FDA approved the release of protease inhibitors, the first effective treatment for AIDS. For countless people, the drug offered a reprieve from what had been a death sentence; for others, it was too late. In the United States alone, over 318,000 people had already died from AIDS-related complications—among them the singer Michael Callen and the poet Essex Hemphill.

Meticulously researched and evocatively told, Hold Tight ...
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Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS

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Overview

In December 1995, the FDA approved the release of protease inhibitors, the first effective treatment for AIDS. For countless people, the drug offered a reprieve from what had been a death sentence; for others, it was too late. In the United States alone, over 318,000 people had already died from AIDS-related complications—among them the singer Michael Callen and the poet Essex Hemphill.

Meticulously researched and evocatively told, Hold Tight Gently is the celebrated historian Martin Duberman’s poignant memorial to those lost to AIDS and to two of the great unsung heroes of the early years of the epidemic.
Callen, a white gay Midwesterner who had moved to New York, became a leading figure in the movement to increase awareness of AIDS in the face of willful and homophobic denial under the Reagan administration; Hemphill, an African American gay man, contributed to the black gay and lesbian scene in Washington, D.C., with poetry of searing intensity and introspection.

A profound exploration of the intersection of race, sexuality, class, identity, and the politics of AIDS activism beyond ACT UP, Hold Tight Gently captures both a generation struggling to cope with the deadly disease and the extraordinary refusal of two men to give in to despair.

2015 Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction Finalist

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
02/01/2014
Concerned about the current indifference to the continuing scourge of HIV/AIDS among gay men (especially those of color) in North America, Duberman (history, emeritus, CUNY Graduate Sch.; Stonewall) revisits the early days of the epidemic in this case study of two men: singer and AIDS activist Michael Callen (1955–93) and African American poet Essex Hemphill (1957–95), both of whom died just before the advent of effective drug therapies. The author interweaves their stories—Callen in New York and Los Angeles and Hemphill in Washington, DC—with the now familiar sociopolitical history of the disease: the apathy of the Reagan administration and the initial failure of the public health system to come up with useful treatments. Duberman stresses the undertones of racism toward black and Hispanic victims that still linger today. VERDICT This combination of cautionary tale, history, and dual biography of compelling, if obscure, artist-activists is fluidly written. Its style will hold readers' attention as Duberman keeps the disparate elements together, fulfilling his intent to "shed additional light on our current approach to AIDS by scrutinizing more closely the earlier years (1981–95) of the epidemic…."—Richard J. Violette, Victoria P.L., BC
Publishers Weekly
★ 01/06/2014
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.)
From the Publisher

Praise for Hold Tight Gently:

"A meticulously researched, nuanced, empathic and insightful portrait of two important artistic and political figures who came to prominence in the early years of the AIDS epidemic."
San Francisco Chronicle

"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."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Seldom has a biographer been able to honor the doomed courage of his subjects with such redeeming insightfulness. Martin Duberman's Hold Tight Gently is an unflinching masterpiece."
—David Levering Lewis, university professor emeritus, New York University, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography

"We are always in danger of forgetting the past, and the huge advances we have made against HIV/AIDS often obscure the pain and the politics of the early years of the epidemic. In Hold Tight Gently, Martin Duberman has brilliantly recreated this tumultuous era. Tracing these two lives through poetry and activism, Duberman captures the pain, despair, panic, heroism, and moral bravery that defined the generation of women and men who first faced this modern plague. Daringly imagined and beautifully written, Hold Tight Gently is a major work of modern history that chills us to the bone even as it moves us to tears."
—Michael Bronski, Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality, Harvard University

"A dynamic people's history of AIDS that must be read, debated, critiqued and applauded. Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and other visionaries are revealed as complex individuals who made change but did not benefit from it. Throughout, Duberman confronts the racism at the core of the AIDS movement that became the global crisis of access to treatment. A bold work for a community that wants to understand itself."
—Sarah Schulman, author Israel/Palestine and The Queer International

"Martin Duberman’s work has been a continuing rescue mission to make sure that vital, but forgotten, stories from the past remain alive in our memory. With Hold Tight Gently, he has done it again and magnificently so. Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill come back to life in these pages. Funny and moving, enlightening and thoughtful, inspiring and enraging, this dual biography reveals the heartbreaking losses caused by the epidemic as well as the many ways people fought back. It can teach those who weren't there what that first decade of AIDS was like and remind those of us who were how intense those years were. And all this through the life stories of two compelling individuals."
—John D’Emilio, Professor of Gender and Women's Studies & History at the University of Illinois at Chicago

"Hold Tight Gently is a deeply moving work of largely hidden history. Martin Duberman not only brilliantly chronicles grassroots AIDS organizing in the early days of the epidemic, but the vibrant black lesbian and gay political and cultural movement that flowered during the same period. Through the lives of two remarkable men, Hold Tight Gently illuminates how race and class are inextricably linked to the struggle for sexual freedom and that against all odds people can fight for justice every day. A wonderful and important book."
—Barbara Smith, author of The Truth That Never Hurts and co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press

"Through his probing and insightful chronicle of the lives two very different gay men who were early voices in the fight against AIDS, Martin Duberman has again brought light to shine in a personal way on the role of progressives in LGBT struggles and the importance of addressing how race, class, and gender impact this epidemic and who survives it. Sadly, these perspectives are still urgently needed in today's world where those facing the devastation of AIDS are often invisible to mainstream politics. A poignant and politically potent tribute to those who have died from AIDS and who fought to make a difference even as their lives were cut short."
—Charlotte Bunch, Distinguished Professor in Women's and Gender Studies, Rutgers University

"Hold Tight Gently is an absorbing read. It’s a necessary introduction to the uninitiated, and a profound challenge to the collective amnesia concerning the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, one that shimmers with insights and lessons about race, sexuality, and class. Duberman's take on these seminal figures illuminates their singular and collective triumphs and struggles, and critically how the pandemic profoundly impacted political and social organizing by gays in the eighties and nineties. The biographer renders Hemphill and Callen with respect and grace—just the way they should be."
—Steven G. Fullwood, co-editor of Black Gay Genius

"Marty Duberman's profoundly moving reconsideration of Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill is much needed now, as AIDS continues to ravage so much of our world. This marvelous book, filled with surprising connections, will be read by activists everywhere and empower the future."
—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt

"Duberman’s history, with its battlefield metaphors, is as relevant and heartbreaking today as it was thirty years ago."
Bay Area Reporter

"Insightful. . . . A vivid, complex snapshot." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A powerful book that displays both the malice and the nobility of our species." —Kirkus Reviews

"An important and, unfortunately, still timely book." —Booklist

Praise for The Martin Duberman Reader:
"A provocative collection that is thoughtful in both scope and attention to detail."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This collection not only serves as a wonderful introduction to Duberman’s writing but is also a fitting tribute to a man who has devoted his life to promoting social change.”
Publishers Weekly

Praise for Martin Duberman:
"A deeply moral and reflective man who has engaged the greatest struggles of our times with an unflinching nerve, a wise heart, and a brilliant intellect."
—Jonathan Kozol

"Duberman is an unapologetic, uncategorizable, and non-sectarian radical whose constant questioning of conventional wisdoms—even on the left—has made him one of this country's preeminent participants in the political and cultural wars that have riven public life."
—Doug Ireland

"Martin Duberman is known for his unique combination of talents—as a distinguished historian, a talented writer, and an impassioned advocate of gays and other beleaguered members of the human community."
—Howard Zinn

Kirkus Reviews
2013-12-25
An acclaimed historian and biographer returns with an intimate history of the AIDS crisis and its devastations. Bancroft Prize winner Duberman (Emeritus, History/CUNY Graduate Center; Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, 2012, etc.) employs an effective structure, focusing on two young men (both died of AIDS at age 38), one white (Michael Callen), the other black (Essex Hemphill), and alternating the narratives of their lives, pausing occasionally to sketch the experiences of other young men and to inject accounts of his own memories as a gay man. As the author notes, the amount of material on Callen is more plentiful, but he has unearthed some affecting information about Hemphill as well. Callen was much more aggressive about pursuing sexual experiences (more than 1,000 different partners), and he soon became involved in various musical groups and even managed to produce recordings near the end of his life. He also became an outspoken, sometimes-fiery, advocate for gay rights and for AIDS research. Duberman highlights the disgracefully slow responses of the government and the medical community to the spreading crisis. (The Reagan administration, in particular, comes under heavy attack.) Hemphill was a poet and essayist and wrote a draft of a novel that Duberman examines and analyzes. The author shows the reactions to AIDS in the black community, noting the slow acceptance of gay blacks in black churches, and he charts the various medical responses to the crisis—the fear, the uncertainty and the desperation to try just about anything. The politics, no surprise, are both complicated and unpleasant. Duberman also discusses the effect of AIDS announcements from Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe and other notables. The final sections are hard to read as we witness the declines of two young men we've come to know and admire. A powerful book that displays both the malice and the nobility of our species.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595589651
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 3/18/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,274,982
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

Martin Duberman
Martin Duberman is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the CUNY Graduate School. The author of more than twenty books, including a highly acclaimed biography of Paul Robeson, Duberman has won a Bancroft Prize and been a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in New York City.
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