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Martin Duberman: Reading and signing for Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS

May 21, 2014 @ 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM

From award-winning historian and activist Martin Duberman comes a poignant dual biography of two men central to activism in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill were both diagnosed with AIDS and raised awareness of the epidemic prior to the nation at large becoming aware of the disease’s existence. The year 1995 saw the release of protease inhibitors, the first effective treatment for AIDS, but it was also the year Essex Hemphill, an African American poet and performance artist, died from complications related to the disease. Michael Callen, a singer, songwriter and pioneering AIDS activist from the Midwest, had already passed away two years earlier.

Duberman documents each man’s life and work while providing readers a rare glimpse into how the United States, both at large and from within the LGBTQ community, approached the AIDS epidemic as it was unfolding. Hold Tight Gently closely examines the earlier years before U.S. culture was made more fully aware of disease; Duberman poignantly and respectfully utilizes Callen and Hemphill’s stories to explore how their disparate communities responded to the crisis in unique ways.

Hold Tight Gently is more than a moving dual biography of two unsung heroes of the pre-ACT UP period; it is essential to understanding the disease’s history and impact amidst a reality that many ignored or denied.


Photo by Raymond Adams
Photo by Raymond Adams

Martin Duberman is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the CUNY Graduate Center. The author of more than twenty books, including a highly acclaimed biography of Paul Robeson, Duberman has won a Bancroft Prize and been a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in New York City.


Praise for Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS (The New Press, 2014)

Seldom has a biographer been able to honor the doomed courage of his subjects with such redeeming insightfulness. Martin Duberman’s Hold Tight Gently is an unflinching masterpiece.
—David Levering Lewis, university professor, emeritus, New York University, and Pulitzer Prize winner for biography

We are always in danger of forgetting the past, and the huge advances we have made against HIV/AIDS often obscure the pain and the politics of the early years of the epidemic. InHold Tight Gently, Martin Duberman has brilliantly re-created this tumultuous era. Tracing these two lives through poetry and activism, Duberman captures 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, Professor of Practice in Activism and Media Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Harvard University

A dynamic people’s history of AIDS that must be read, debated, critiqued, and applauded. Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and other visionaries are revealed as complex individuals who made change but did not benefit from it. Throughout, Duberman confronts the racism at the core of the AIDS movement that became the global crisis of access to treatment. A bold work for a community that wants to understand itself.
—Sarah Schulman, author ofIsrael/Palestine and the Queer International

Martin Duberman’s work has been a continuing rescue mission to make sure that vital, but forgotten, stories from the past remain alive in our memory. With Hold Tight Gently, he has done it again and magnificently so. Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill come back to life in these pages. Funny and moving, enlightening and thoughtful, inspiring and enraging, this dual biography reveals the heartbreaking losses caused by the epidemic as well as the many ways people fought back. 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 and history, University of Illinois at Chicago

Hold Tight Gently is a deeply moving work of largely hidden history. Martin Duberman brilliantly chronicles not only grassroots AIDS organizing in the early days of the epidemic but also 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 of 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 how the pandemic profoundly impacted political and social organizing by gays in the ’80s and ’90s. 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

Martin 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


cover story for A&U

starred PW review

excerpt on




May 21, 2014
7:00 PM - 9:00 PM