HOLD TIGHT GENTLY by Martin Duberman


Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS
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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.

Pub Date: March 11th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-59558-945-3
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: New Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2014


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