The new paper edition of The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America (Anchor, $14) will, let's hope, gain a larger audience than the original cloth printing. What Jacob Levenson says is already known, vaguely, from newscasts and special TV hour-long shows, but for the American public, it has yet to sink in thoroughly that AIDS has become primarily an African-American disease, constituting 50 percent of all new HIV cases and becoming one of the top three causes of death for young black men and women.
Even those white Americans who have "gotten" the story so far may be completely unaware of just how bad the situation has become in the rural South and, further afield, with families who once lived there. It's almost as though we're reading the story of the Great Migration, Part II: the children's story of growing up and becoming crackheads (and prostitutes, in the case of most women who use the drug) in once-promised lands like Oakland, one of Levenson's focii; or, closer to home, disappearing out of fear that their sexuality will be discovered and condemned by the network comprised of family, church, and communitythe network from which they have always drawn their very identitiesto places like Atlanta slums. Just as many never leave home and contract the disease from dirty needles. After all, Mississsippi's three major industries now are crack, casinos and catfish, and the poor counties surrounding Mobile, another of Levenson's focii, don't seem far behind.
Written with the sweep and ease of Nicholas Lemann's The Great Migration, Levenson's book segues back and forth between biographical narratives and obviously painstaking research. The chapters set near Mobile could be set just as easily near many hamlets close to Nashville, in isolated places where superstitions still abound and mutate. (One example: if an infected woman gives her boyfriend her supply of AZT, he won't catch the disease.) Nearly all of the reported cases of AIDS in such areas are heterosexual. Most of them are women, and nearly all lack the education, the strong sense of community, the absence of shame, and the suspicion of the white medical establishment that mobilized the white gays in New York and San Francisco during the early days of AIDS. Locally and nationally, very few want to acknowledge the existence of African-Americans infected with HIV or AIDS, much less offer helpwhich involves breaking more barriers in our race-obsessed culture, by blacks and whites alike, than most of our capacities for action can manage. Which is the major reason, Levenson argues convincingly, the epidemic continues to grow.
♦ Whenever I encounter those little books of Southern humor, usually compendia edited by one or another well-known popular (i.e., not too "literary") writers, I understand the way Florence King says she feels about a major subset of Southern literature in general: nothing happens for 400 pages except the characters sit on porches and rockin chairs, not to music. The most compelling voices in the new compendium The Quotable South (Hill Street Press, $10.95) have obviously been off Ms. King's porch for a good while. Perhaps leaning too heavily on the Oxford American for its quotations, the book covers little-known facts (e.g., Duncan Hines was a Southerner); weather (are you aware that a hailstorm can cause a turtle encased in ice hurtle from the sky?), politics, alcohol, food, food, and more food, especially barbeque and what a friend of mine calls the king of fruits. Or, as author John Simpkins puts it, "If we black folks can salvage something as unpalatable as the 'n' word, then surely we can salvage the watermelon."
Here authors such as Denise Giardina rassle (as we say) with the increasingly thorny question of the legacy we have been left by the Fugitives: How could a group of men whose politics, founded on white male supremacy, have been so goddamn right about so many things? To put it another way, as the inimitable Wendell Berry does, "The twelve [Fugitive/Agrarian] Southerners were correct, and virtually alone at the time, in their insistence on the importance of the localä.[T]he reduction of the farm population...has been a joint project of industrial liberals and industrial conservatives." Every time I drive down the hideous wired grid known as Hillsboro Pike, I think about acerbic Oxford American columnist Hal Crowther's remark that "it's strange that anti-corporate, anti-materialistic, pro-environment opinions are never described as conservative anymore."
John Shelton Reed puts another spin on one of the book's most topical issues when he says that every time he looks at Atlanta he sees what a quarter of a million Confederate soldiers died to prevent." And yet Harry Crews, who perhaps deserves an entire book of his own quotations, counters with almost palpable disgust that "everybody likes to rhapsodize about how beautiful the rural life is. The rural life, as I knew and experienced it in childhood, is, without exception, dreadful. It makes a man brutal to animals, to himself. It makes him callous and unfeeling."
In The Quotable South, the gorgeous quotes gleaned from "literary" writers like Crews keep good company with the suicidal poet Joe Bolton, singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, R.E.M., and the late Larry Brown. Not to mention Bear Bryant, Bill Clinton, and Martin Luther Kingwhose views on religion, among other things, are startlingly similar.