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Hold Tight Gently : Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Struggle for Survival Hardcover – 17 Apr 2014
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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."
About the Author
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.
Top customer reviews
Duberman's book goes back and forth between the lives of Callen and Hemphill. Both were diagnosed fairly early on with AIDS and both died in the early to mid 1990's; Hemphill survived until shortly before the introduction of the protease inhibitors. Both men were the sons of religious parents and both knew from an early age they were gay. But as a black man, confronting the innate hostility of the larger black community towards gay men, Essex Hemphill had a tougher time than Michael Callen.
Callen was from a small town in Ohio and moved to Boston for college, and then ended up in New York City, where he made his mark as a singer. He was also an AIDS activist and was one of the first gay men who realised the devastation the newly discovered AIDS was making in the gay population. He pushed for "safe sex" in the gay community, and was often at odds with others, in the newly liberated time. Callen also acted as a fund raiser for both community and national AIDS organisations. He also worked with music groups and recorded his last album, "Legacy", shortly before his death in Los Angeles.
Essex Hemphill was born and raised in Washington, DC. He was active as a poet in the black community as a young man until his death. As I wrote above, Hemphill was often at odds in connecting the two major facets of his identity - as a black, gay man. Duberman is particularly good in describing this part of Hemphill's life.
Martin Duberman is unstinting in describing Callen and Hemphill's illnesses, treatments, and deaths. AIDS is not an "easy" illness and both men suffered from its ravages. Duberman has written an important book - combining the times of the gay community with the advent of AIDS, using the lives of Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill, both interesting men who did great things in their relatively short lives.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
that took so many lives leaving behind stunned and bitter survivors. While the gay agenda in recent years has shifted to
gay marriage rights the author fairly questions the lack of a gay community response to the ongoing disease and its continual spread into the gay community. This is a book that asks as many questions as answers them. The decision to tell the story through the lives of two
victims, each from a different social strata, clearly defines the struggles and the horrific fear that decimated at least two generations of gay men from different races, different regions of the country and different socio-economic brackets. The Reagan presidency, Mayor Koch
and Governor Mario Cuomo are not spared. History will judge whether these men could and should have done more to help the victims.
I would highly recommend Hold Me Tightly to anyone who lived through the Aids 1980-95 Nightmare, or who lost someone special to this
disease as well as anyone too young to remember the horror but would like to pay homage to the early pioneers who put on the pressure
to get the "cocktails" out there which has made the disease "manageable". However the author Mr. Duberman would rightly correct me
in making the assumption that AIDS is "manageable". His arguments for this belief are just another reason to read this important and honest
piece of work.
Mr. Duberman covers much of the same territory of Sean Strub's just-published BODY COUNTS although this is not a criticism of this book. Some overlapping is unavoidable. Many of the heroes and villains remain the same: the Elizabeth Taylors, the Mathilde Krims, many of the PWA's and members of ACT UP as opposed to the Pat Buchanans, the Ronald Reagans, The Jerry Falwells. (I was pleased to see Atlanta's own Reverend Joseph Lowery get the credit he rightly deserves for saying that the Civil Rights Act should be amended to protect the rights of lesbians and gay men and dismayed to learn that Callen and the Flirtations who had sung "Mr. Sandman" in the movie "Philadelphia" were eliminated when the soundtrack was produced.)
The author points out that these two men were very different and never met. Mr. Callen, for example, was much more of the type who had few secrets about any aspect of his life. For example, he tells the world how many sex partners he had. By his best calculation, he believed by the time he was 27 that he had "bottomed" for 2,496 men. Or in Mr. Duberman"s words: "He was outspoken and unashamed about his `sluthood.'" (Surely this is way too much information.) Mr. Hemphill, on the other hand, would never have made such a statement. And while it does not speak to their differences, Mr. Hemphill had a dual dilemma: he had to deal with homophobia in the black community and rampant racism in the white gay community as well. Mr. Callen of course only had to confront homophobia.
Mr. Duberman's book is thorough and extremely well-researched with voluminous footnotes. (To his everlasting credit, he does not do what so many biographers these days insist on doing: telling the reader what their subject was thinking when they have no way of knowing that.) Additionally, he had access to a large amount of material-- letters, speeches, diary notes, music-- of Callen's and less from Hemphill although he conducted interviews with many of his close friends and also gained assess to some of his unpublished poems. One of those, expressing Mr. Hemphill's feelings after the death of his friend Joe Beam (whose obit in the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER said that ''he is believed to have died of natural causes'") is not one I will soon forget and worth the price of this book:
There should have been
More letters between us.
In later years it will be difficult to ascertain
The full meaning of our relations.
Most of us will not be here
To bear witness.
There should have been
more letters hastily written
or carefully typed,
or short, cryptic messages.
Volumes of letters
should have gathered
over time, but we leave
hastily scrawled postcards,
and in rare instances
evidence that some of us
were more than brothers,
we were intimate,
HOLD TIGHT GENTLY is another sad reminder of all those we have lost, not only the extremely gifted but the rest of us, the ordinary as well. Those of us who remain will never forget them.
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