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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 March 2014
American author Martin Duberman has written an excellent book,"Hold Tight Gently", looking at those first years of the AIDS crisis here in the United States. He uses two young men - Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill - examining how the disease affected the larger gay community. The book's title is taken from a book, "Brother to Brother", published in 1991. It is a collection of writing by Black gay writers, including poet Essex Hemphill. (The book is back in print and is available on Amazon).

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.
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