By Terry Plumb
“Ashamed to Die,” by Andrew J. Skerritt, Lawrence Hill Books; 320s.; $24.95.
Written by an experienced writer and reporter, turned journalism teacher, “Ashamed to Die” reads like fiction. Were it only so.
Andrew “Drew” Skerritt, who worked as a reporter and columnist for The Herald for several years before joining The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in 2003, gives a vivid account of how AIDS and HIV, its precursor, laid waste to individual lives and families in black neighborhoods, especially in Clover and nearby York County, over the past two decades.
Skerritt’s reporting on the health crisis won awards from both the S.C. Press Association and the S.C. HIV/AIDs Council in 2002. He helped bring an alarming problem to the public’s attention and, without doubt, bolstered local and state public health officials in their fight for adequate funding for programs to treat and prevent the spread of those horrific diseases.
The episodic nature of daily journalism too often prevents talented journalists from telling the story that they would like. Rarely does a reporter, even a columnist, get more than a few inches to explain subjects that involved complex issues or to explain how they play out in the lives of ordinary people.
In revisiting issues and individuals he encountered while functioning, in effect, as The Herald’s AIDs reporter, Skerritt has produced a serious and most readable account of how one of the nation’s most sensational heath threats played out in the rural South over the past 20 years.
In 2000, as the author explains, he became fascinated with a young African-American female pastor who was reaching out beyond her immediate community to alert people to the ravages being wreaked among young black adults, gays in particular.
Skerritt not only forged a relationship with the Rev. Patricia “Tricia” Ann Starr of the True Word of God Fire Baptized Holiness Church, but he also got to know her family and members of her congregation.
Central to his tale is the minister’s younger sister, Carolyn, a lovely young woman and mother who seemed to make the wrong choice every step in her tragic life: Drugs, promiscuity, petty crime, etc. Skerritt makes no excuses for Carolyn or any of other of the AIDs victims he introduces us to, nor does he spare society for the larger context of benign neglect, poverty and ignorance in which they founder.
Years after health agencies across America knew how HIV/AIDs was spread and had adopted effective preventive and treatment measures, much of the South either was ignoring the problem or assuming that it was confined to the gay community in cities like San Francisco and New York.
The black church community may have its head deepest in the sand. Skerritt explains how animosity towards homosexuals kept many black AIDs victims from confronting their own condition, much less from seeking support from their families. Too many waited too late to seek help and died too soon as a result.
In a time when the label “hero” is bestowed almost exclusively on people who wear a uniform, Skerritt introduces us to physicians, other health professionals and social workers who made heroic efforts to stem the epidemic.
By putting a face on such people and the patients they care for, Skerritt is to be commended. More than that, in “Ashamed to Die,” he has given readers a gripping story they will not soon forget.
Terry Plumb is the retired editor of The Herald. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Skerritt will appear at the Winthrop University Bookstore, in the DiGiorgio Center, at 4 p.m. Friday, for a reading from “Ashamed to Die,” followed by book signing until 6 p.m. The public is invited.