Writing a biography is hard work. American historian, biographer, playwright, and gay rights activist Martin Duberman knows this and has written several biographies including James Russell Lowell (a National Book Award finalist), Charles Francis Adams, Sr. (Bancroft Prize winner), Paul Robeson, and Howard Zinn, among other works. This time Duberman focuses his lens on two activists of note, in Hold Tight Gently; Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill and The Battlefield of AIDS (New Press, 2014).
Tuesday, June 3, 2014, Duberman will be reading from his new work at the Schomburg Center, followed by a Q&A with the author and reception. Below Duberman talks the inspiration for the book, and his why he chose these two 1980s public figures to help tell a story about the devastating impact of AIDS particularly on the gay community.
Martin Duberman: The biographical approach to history has always been the form most congenial to me, and after deciding that I wanted to write about the AIDS epidemic, I initially thought I’d tell the story through the lives of some half dozen or so individuals. I wasn’t far into the research, though, when I realized that the lives of two men, Michael Callen, singer and activist, and Essex Hemphill, poet and cultural worker,
epitomized much of the AIDS narrative I was most interested in exploring—meaning, above all, the very different ways the epidemic impinged on the white gay and black gay communities. It helped that I’d known both men somewhat and had deeply admired both.
The two never met and had little in common. Callen was a white mid-westerner who came to New York City after college to pursue a singing career. Hemphill was an African American gay man who grew up in Washington, D.C. and knew early that he wanted to become a writer, and specifically a poet. Both were diagnosed as HIV-positive early in the epidemic. In the half dozen years before the foundation of ACT-UP in 1987, Mike was at the forefront of the self-empowerment movement (about which little has previously been written). Essex—who always considered race, not sexual orientation his “primary emergency”—mostly steered clear of the white-dominated activist movement and devoted his energy instead to playing a key role in the black gay male and lesbian cultural flowering of the 1980s, now widely referred to as the “second Harlem Renaissance.”
Their different paths and personalities exemplify the story of AIDS in the years preceding the discovery of protease inhibitors. Both men died of the disease, both at age 38.
Please RSVP for the event.
Photo Credit: Martin Duberman by Raymond Adams.