The History Boys?

by David Waggoner


Martin Duberman is a great man whose collected works of history, fiction, nonfiction, and biography have influenced thousands of writers, probably more than any other post-Stonewall thinker on the planet. But his intellectual rigor is not, and never shall be, the sole reason to read him. His take on the AIDS crisis puts him in the pantheon of living writers—Tony Kushner, Larry Kramer, Mark Doty, Felice Picano, Sarah Schulman, to name but a few who have appeared over the years in A&U—whose eyewitness accounts of the Plague Years have invigorated writers in both the halls of academia and social sciences, as well as popular culture, movies, and music. Their unblinking witness to the tragic events over the past thirty-five years have spurned many in this country, including myself, to seek ways to preserve and protect the legacy that is the culture of AIDS.

Organizations like Visual AIDS in New York City and the NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt and popular forms of entertainment such as this year’s Dallas Buyers Club have continued the documentary nature of AIDS culture. Artists and writers, archivists and historians, find innovative ways to document the holocaust that is AIDS in this country.

Mr. Duberman continues in this tradition of remembrance in his latest biography, Hold Tight Gently (which we excerpt in this issue). The lively retelling of two artistic lives from the early days of AIDS—Essex Hemphill and Michael Callen—reminded me of how much history has been lived, fought over, and has also been forgotten by today’s mainstream media. The genius of this dual biography is that it brings together several generations of AIDS history into one book. Altough I never met Essex, I was introduced to many of his colleagues when I was in the initial planning stages of launching A&U in 1989. As such, poets as dissimilar as Assotto Saint and Mark Doty were some of the earliest contributors to the poetry pages of the magazine. Their contributions of “elegiac poetry” are a direct result of the trailblazing verse of Essex Hemphill. As for Michael Callen, I remember fondly our meeting at his New York City apartment in the late eighties where he handed me a tape of his “activist music” called Living in Wartime, which was performed in Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart. As a member of the a cappella group The Flirtations, Michael’s activism was also a large part of his artistry. In his interview with A&U’s Lester Strong, Duberman reminds us that all pandemics are provincial in their beginnings: “I remember a trip to Fire Island very early in the epidemic to visit Larry Mass [co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, or GMHC] and Vito Russo [author of The Celluloid Closet] was staying there for a weekend, and he was up in arms that the gay community literally had their heads in the sand about AIDS, not mobilizing themselves, not raising money, not doing anything.” Such is the nature of denial. But after denial sometimes there is an epiphany. Enlightenment happens and then empowerment. Within a short period of time the LGBT community and its allies mobilized and the rest is history.

I’m also reminded that some histories were rarely, or never, told. Women were affected by the early epidemic, yet their individual stories are still overshadowed. As A&U marks National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day this March, we offer a diverse group of movers and shakers. In Gallery, Alina Oswald leads a discussion with three artists—Allyson Mitchell, Jessica Whitbread, and L.J. Roberts—whose work interrupts the stigma around women and HIV/AIDS. In “Sisters of Change,” Chip Alfred interviews five members of Positive Women’s Network–USA, all of whom share their advocate perspectives on everything from trauma recovery to access to healthcare. Writer Jermane Graham interviews Dominque Drakeford, an up-and-coming entrepreneur who seeks to stay on message about AIDS. This issue also features an in-depth discussion with longtime AIDS researchers, women who have been working on the science of our health for nearly three decades. As these women, and everyone else we feature in A&U month after month, prove, it’s never too late to make history.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U.