“Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS” by Martin Duberman—- A Memorial to Those We Lost

hold tight gently

Duberman, Martin. “Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS”, New Press, 2014.

A Memorial to Those We Lost

Amos Lassen

It was not until December, 1995 that the FDA approved the use of protease inhibitors that were the first effective treatment for AIDS. For many, the drug was a reprieve from the death sentence but for others it came too late. In this country alone, more than 318,000 had already died from complications from AIDS and among them were Michael Callen, a singer and AIDS activist and Essex Hemphill, a poet.

Callen was from the Midwest. He moved to New York and became one of the leading figures in the movement to increase awareness about AIDS and he fought as others were hateful and homophobic. It was the time of the presidency of Ronald Reagan where the word AIDS was not spoken aloud in the government. Hemphill was an African American gay man in Washington, D.C. who regularly contributed to the black gay and lesbian scene through his poetry. Martin Duberman is an eminent historian who has shared his life with us through his numerous writings and now he now gives us an exploration “of race, sexuality, class, identity and the politics of AIDS activism beyond ACT UP”. In this new book we read of the generation that fought and struggled to deal with AIDS and to stay alive. This is also the story of Callen and Hemphill who refused to give in to despair.

Duberman is not only a brilliant writer but also an activist and with this book he takes us back to the years from 1981-1995, the early years of the AIDS epidemic when we lost so many as others fought to live. Using the personalities of Callen and Hemphill, he builds his human story. Both Callen and Hemphill died when they were 38 years old. There were deaths that did not have to be and they were caused as much by ignorance, chaos and uncertainty. Duberman looks at the sexual culture in which AIDS thrived and he also writes of the fear that was felt in this county and the political contradictions that went along with it.

Based upon interviews, personal recollections and Hemphill’s poetry, he gives us a look at the gay community then that was broken and conflicted as it faced what seemed to be certain death. This was a sobering time and sexism, racism, homophobia and false and incorrect leads were everywhere. Duberman focuses on AIDS as a gay disease and shows the differences in the white and black communities in the ways they responded to the epidemic. Here is a book about two men who were doomed and a society that was afraid that it would join them.

As a graduate student in history I was always told that if we do not study the past, we can expect to repeat it. There is great danger in forgetting what was even though we have made tremendous advances against HIV/AIDS which tend to hide the politics and the pain that was. By tracing the lives of Callen and Hemphill, we once again see “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).

Racism was certainly a part of the epidemic and it was complex personalities like Callen, Hemphill and others who brought about the changes but gained nothing from them as their lives needlessly ended. If we, the members of the gay community, want to understand what happened here is a place to start. What makes this book so important is that it can teach those who were not there what it was like during the first ten years of AIDS and for those who were there, it reminds us of the intensity of the period. Unlike other studies of the epidemic, this is a very personal look. Duberman brings back the sensitivity to the issue by using the lives of the two activists and personally I can only hope that the new generations will become empowered because of them.

Here are several blurbs about the book:


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