Thursday, 9 December 2010

American History Y and Z

I am currently a little bit obsessed with the history of the United States. I've used this blog before to quote from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. If you want a good overview of American history then there is no better source.

This time, though, I want to refer to a couple of more specific histories. The first is Randy Shilt's And the band played on, a history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. It's a thick tome but it reads like a thriller; I heartily recommend it. The tale starts in the late 1970s when a handful of Europeans and Americans started to fall ill and die in mysterious ways. (Some of) the medical fraternity really started to pay attention in the early 1980s when it became clear that gay American men were dying in greater numbers (and in the most bizarre and hideous ways - one guy died of a disease previously only found in sheep, many men went blind or suffered very distressing brain damage as the disease killed them).

However the AIDS epidemic is a tale of two tragedies. First is the horror of the disease. Second, and just as deadly, is the horror of prejudice and bigotry. For a long time it was just gay men that were dying. Then they were joined by Haitians and intravenous drug users. None of these groups count for diddley in the grand American system. So no one paid any attention - no media, no government officials, no one with any power to do anything...

Reagan assumed office as AIDS reared its ugly head, and his administration refused even the most basic funding to combat the disease. (He was spending all his money funding death squads in El Salvador, but that's a story to be told in a different history, thanks Noam Chomsky.) Indeed it was May 31, 1987 (near the end of his second term) before he even spoke the word "AIDS" in public". When he spoke, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died. The disease had spread to 113 countries, with more than 50,000 cases.

The media were just as bad. With a few very heroic exemptions (Shilts himself, for instance) the media virtually ignored the epidemic. The impression one receives on reading this account is that this silence not only killed people in the 1980s but it is klling people now. If scientists had received funding, and the people had received education, then AIDS could have been stopped in its tracks. As it is, HIV has infected millions of people around the globe and it is killing them. The first world finally woke up to the tragedy (after respectable heterosexuals started dying, initially through blood transfusions) and AIDS is now somewhat manageable with modern drugs... but not in Africa.

And now for another tragedy. I'm two thirds of the way through Dee Brown's Bury my heart at wounded knee; I'm reading it in stages as it is one of the most harrowing books I've ever read. It tells the story of the "conquering" of the American West by the white man; and it tells the story from the perspective of the original inhabitants. As Brown himself puts it:
Americans who have always looked westward when reading about this period should read this book facing eastward.

This book is not a tale of two tragedies, it is a tale of many. Or, perhaps, it's the tale of one tragedy repeated over and over and over. Native Americans living their traditional lives encounter the white man, first as an oddity, then as an irritation, then as a threat, and finally as an inexorable and appallingly destructive force. There are many tales of great heroism, as tribes people give their lives to protect their family, their country, and their way of life. But you read this book with ashes in your mouth - for the story always ends the same.

Sitting Bull

The book contains photos of many of the main protagonists and I find myself repeatedly drawn to look at their faces. These are heroes, heroes the like of which we may never see again. Their experience as humans could not be more different from my own yet, although I cannot imagine what it would have been like to live my whole life on the prairie, I am immediately drawn to the nobility and purity of their fight. They knew things about life, and love, and land, that white people may never know. That they were defeated in battle is all the more tragic, for the winners are now inevitably and completely defeating themselves...

No comments: