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Jacob Levenson's account of AIDS and Black America.

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Jacob Levenson's account of AIDS and Black America.

Picture of Jeff  Kelly Lowenstein

This post discusses Jacob Levenson's book, The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein's Blog
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jacob Levenson has explored how the HIV/AIDS virus spread among black America as well as the reasons why meaningful support has been slow in forthcoming in The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America.

Levenson is a former student of master teacher Samuel G. Freedman, the Columbia University professor considered by many to be the top long-form narrative journalism educator in the country, and the work bears the imprint of having been in Freedman’s class.

The Secret Epidemic is rich in individual characters who illustrate the book’s broader points, sections that provide background and context, and a narrative arc that begins and end with the same family.

Levenson argues that many factors have contributed to the rapid spread of the virus among black communities. He talks at length about the incease in crack cocaine and heroin use during the ’80s and the role sharing needles played in the virus’ making inroads in the communities.

Post World War II housing policies, often known as urban renewal, that led to residents of poor communities of color living in extremely close proximity to each other, get attention, too. To his credit, Levenson also talks about the spread of the virus in more rural southern black communities, where the housing policy part of his analysis does not apply as much as in urban centers.

Levenson also takes political and scientific leaders to task for their ignorance about, and indifference to, the virus’ growth in black communities.

The black church, with its repeated pronouncements about homosexuality and often tepid embrace of all members of the community, comes in for scrutiny, as does the role of individuals’ behavior, even though the public health community was less willing to directly confront the potentially controversial issue of why it was so difficult to change black people’s sexual behavior.

Close to three quarters of the way through the book, Levenson summarizes the reasons in the following section:

“The causes of the AIDS epidemic in black America cannot and should not be reduced to urban renewal, public housing policy, the fires that devastated the Bronx, or contagious housing destruction. The set of forces that fueled the spread of the virus through the African American population clearly also included such complex factors as the nuances of black sexuality, the architecture of the drug wars, gaps in the CDC’s prevention and surveillance plan, the crack and heroin scourges, the contours of black church culture and the aftermath of the great southern black migrations.”

This quote encapsulates the value and limitations of the work.

On the one hand, the list of reasons is extensive provides insight into the multi-faceted nature of the virus’ growth. On the other hand, though, the items on the list, their relative importance and their linkages are not explored in particular depth. As a result, The Secret Epidemic does little more than surface issues, which, while a contribution in itself, does not truly offer an analysis or argument about its subject.

The individual stories suffer from much of the same problem.

While engaging enough on their own right-Levenson displays some powers of description, scene setting and attention to detail throughout the book-they don’t connect meaningfully with the myriad of reasons Levenson offers to explain the epidemic.

The book has some minor factual errors-the University of San Francisco men’s basketball team is listed as winning the national championship in 1959 and 1960 when they actually won in 1955 and 1956-and Levenson operates on an unfortunately narrow and inaccurate racial axis. In his final sentence, for instance, he writes about whether “member of both races” are willing to make the changes necessary to stop the epidemic as well as social conditions in urban and rural America.

While the question is a valid one, his omission of all other racial or ethnic groups-enter here Latinos and Asians, for starters-seems to be a glaring one as both groups have been hard hit by the virus and deal with many of the same issues Levenson describes black America contending with on a daily basis.

As a result, The Secret Epidemic, while perhaps an important first step in chronicling the rise of HIV and AIDS in the black community, is just that-an initial look. Readers looking to get a basic orientation to the issue may feel rewarded; those looking for a more exhaustive or comprehensive look may well be disappointed.