Gerald Ensley of the Tallahassee Democrat writes about Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South
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 email@example.com
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.
Authors Andrew Skerritt, Michael Beckford and Yolanda Hodge show off their new books at Books A Million Book Signing on Nov. 5, 2011. Books are available online at amazon.com and locally at Champions Chicken & Waffles, 310 Polk Drive Tallahassee, FL 32301
Listen to my interview with Roland Martin on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.
If You Missed It | Black America Web
3 days ago … ROLAND MARTIN talks to ANDREW SKERRITT… Monday, October 31, 2011. Today’s LITTLE KNOWN BLACK HISTORY FACT is about retired …
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2011
Ashamed to Die (BOOK REVIEW)
Silence, Denial, and the AIDS Epidemic in the South
by Andrew J. Skerritt
Lawrence Hill Books
320 pages, Illustrated
Book Review by Kam Williams
“HIV/AIDS remains a significant public health and social justice crisis in the United States, and the South in particular is heavily burdened… Poverty, poor education, and limited community resources conspire against people who live in the rural South…
Even as America has dispatched billions to fight this disease overseas, our small rural communities remain vulnerable to the sinister threat of HIV/AIDS. The enemy isn’t just the physical illness. It’s ignorance; it’s the guilt and shame-inducing silence that kills our young…
HIV/AIDS is more than a disease—it is a symptom of the larger problems of social inequalities and racial/ethnic health disparities… It’s time to end the silence and to provoke an eruption of empathy, compassion and community action to alter the sad trajectory of AIDS in our small towns.”
Excerpted from Chapter One (page 11)
When the AIDS epidemic exploded about 30 years ago, it initially ravaged the gay community. But the number of homosexuals infected dropped dramatically due to a combination of safe sex education and medical breakthroughs.
Simultaneously, however, the AIDS rate among blacks has continued to skyrocket to the point where two-thirds of the new female cases in the country are African-American, meaning a sister is 15 times as likely to become HIV+ as a white woman. And these statistics are even worse in the South where eight of the states with the highest infection rates are located.
But Andrew Skerritt didn’t need help from the CDC to appreciate the toll the plague is taking on black folks in the region. For the London-born, professor of journalism at Florida A&M University could observe how such factors as denial, shame, racism and poverty had collaborated to prevent AIDS patients from receiving proper treatment.
In Ashamed to Die, he chronicles that societal failing as witnessed in the Clover, South Carolina, a typical tiny town where talk about AIDS is considered taboo. Consequently, many of the infected remain in denial and undiagnosed, especially since, “the health department couldn’t force a person to be tested even if a contact gave them names of people exposed tom AIDS.”
Nonetheless, symptoms of the lethal illness eventually do appear, as the body becomes susceptible to a variety of opportunistic infections. Sadly, the author found that “Caring for people with AIDS is the kind of thankless work few are willing or even equipped to do.”
And in the case of Dr. Robert Ball, he ended up broke and “a pariah in his own community,” when he was abandoned by his regular patients because he allowed those with AIDS to share the same waiting room and office. And not only did the 42 year-old physician eventually lose his practice, but his wife and his home, too.
Still, his plight pales in comparison to that of those dealing with the debilitating ailment on a day-to-day basis. “Those dying of AIDS long for comfort, someone to hold their hands,” since “no one wants to die alone,” Skerritt concludes.
Apparently, no one wants to die forgotten either. For, in fascinating fashion, he proceeds to put a face on the disease by devoting individual chapters to the life stories of several ill-fated patients and devoted caretakers.
A sobering manifesto practically begging African-Americans to acknowledge the omnipresence of an escalating plague decimating the community.