Through the powerful story of one African American community ravaged by HIV/AIDS, Ashamed to Die reveals America’s struggle to combat the disease in the rural South
CHICAGO: Largely because the United States has failed to adequately address the threat of HIV and AIDS in Southern communities, the regional and cultural shame associated with AIDS persists—and coupled with the lack of education, funding and infectious disease clinics in the South, the stigma prevents victims from seeking immediate medical assistance. Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial, and the AIDS Epidemic in the South (Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press, November 2011) by Andrew J. Skerritt reveals the hard truths and ongoing complexities of battling the disease in America, despite the spread of AIDS awareness and medical focusing on the African American Pegram family in Clover, South Carolina, Skerritt documents how one woman—Tricia Ann, a sister, aunt, wife, mother and pastor—cares for Carolyn, her drug-addicted and AIDS-infected sister, and Carolyn’s young son. Relying on her faith, Tricia Ann enters into a fight to save others dying of AIDS in her rural Southern neighborhood, but often ends up presiding over funerals instead—funerals where the cause of death is rarely admitted. Skerritt traces the impoverished family’s history and depicts how taboos about love, race and sexuality—combined with Southern conservatism, white privilege and black oppression—continue to create an unacceptable death toll into the 21st century.
As Skerritt explores crucial realities of a story that is all too common in the rural South—poverty, lack of education, the politics of AIDS funding, the need for support from churches and non-profit organizations and the urban-vs.-rural/north-vs.-south tensions that threaten to derail the fight to stop the spread of this illness—he also delves into the South’s history of sexually transmitted diseases, including the region’s cyclical epidemics of syphilis, and traces individuals’ difficulties in acquiring treatment.
Ashamed to Die offers hope as well, featuring anecdotes, insights and heroism of those who have worked to promote AIDS awareness and treatment in the South: Dr. Michael Watson, who instituted one of the first public STD screening programs in South Carolina; Chris Blanton, who served as York County AIDS ombudsman; Linda Ashley, a health department social worker who went on to be founder and director of the Christopher Clinic, one of the first privately run, non-profit, full-service HIV and AIDS care providers in South Carolina; and Dr. Phil Lackey and Dr. Craig Charles, who dedicated their lives to studying infectious diseases and worked with rural AIDS patients.
The Pegram family’s chronicle of fighting for the survival of relatives and neighbors highlights the obstacles African Americans in the South face in the battle against AIDS. With Ashamed to Die, Andrew Skerrittoffers a powerful call to action for AIDS education, awareness, acceptance and equality on a local and governmental level as we continue to work toward a cure.
Andrew J. Skerritt is a longtime journalist who has contributed to publications all over the country, including the St. Petersburg Times, Asbury Park Press, Journal (NY) News, Charlotte NC Observer, Rock Hill Herald,Rochester Democrat, Tallahassee Democrat and theRoot.com. A native of London, England, he grew up on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. He holds a bachelor’s in journalism from Howard University and a master of liberal arts from Winthrop University. He is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Caribbean-American Journalists. He teaches journalism at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida.