“Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial, and the AIDS Epidemic in the South” by Andrew J. Skerritt— Not Whistling Dixie

Skerritt, Andrew J. “Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial, and the AIDS Epidemic in the South”, Lawrence Hill Books, 2011.

Not Whistling Dixie

Amos Lassen

Having been raised and now living in the South and as one of the lucky gay men who got past the AIDS epidemic, Andrew Skerritt’s book beckoned me to read it. So often we hear how the South is not as advanced as the North and how the education level is below others but did we ever stop to think that it could be because the stereotype of the South has caused it to be forgotten. The United States certainly seems to have forgotten about AIDS in the South and the Center for Disease Control is in Atlanta which I am certain is in the South.

Skerritt here looks at a small town in South Carolina where “people are dying because of ignorance and a shame that leads to silence”. Using this town as a microcosm of the national tragedy, we see how the disease literally ate the black community of the town. We meet Carolyn whose behavior changed when she became HIV positive and she acted rebelliously. There is also Girard, a bank executive, Nita, another young woman and many others whose lives were changed by the disease. The Black community was by and large poor and until the civil rights movement had struggled with racism. Once they had freedom, however, there were new problems—drugs, sex, poverty and AIDS.

The author’s thesis is that Southern conservatism, white privilege and oppression of blacks is what led to the high death toll as the blacks were driven to take up the taboos that others would not touch.

There was a bit of a wakeup call and it was by those involved in religion and had the ability to love and forgive and they were able to inspire action. This shows the power of people at a time of crisis.

It is not easy to read about needless death but those of us who lived through the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s know that. Naturally we react with a desire to help when we read of the devastation brought by AIDS to the rural South. Someone needs to hang his head in shame that this was allowed to happen and we must be sure that it will never happen again.

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