Recently, while doing some fact checking, I picked up my copy of Randy Shilt’s And the Band Played On. I needed to refresh my memory on a few points of history regarding the emergence of AIDS. As usually happens when I pick up Shilts’ book, I found myself reading well beyond the bits I needed for my research. No matter how many times I have read this book, it always manages to seize my attention and make me want to read it again.
Shilts’ very readable journalistic effort remains essential reading for understanding the perfect storm of cultural dysfunctional that was the response to AIDS and how so many acted so badly when best behavior was most needful. Progressing through adolescence against the backdrop of the rising specter of the HIV virus, I find And the Band Played On to be endlessly fascinating, and as a professor who has often covered HIV/AIDS in the college classroom, I always turn to Shilts for guidance and content.
While I have heard students voice the ignorance and easy prejudice that has always haunted the individual response to the AIDS pandemic, much like the easy prejudice that appears to be rising in regard to immigrants, I am nonetheless routinely heartened by the earnest outrage students voice in response to the film. Students most often respond with disgust to the cultural, nay the political, economic, and poorly moralized response to the medical reality of HIV and with an admirably powerful empathy toward the HIV infected individual. This is why I sometimes find teaching ironically self-serving, for students often inspire the professor more than the professor inspires them. This oddly inverts the professorial goal. Alas, this is a good conundrum for the current humanistic health of our culture, and it portends well for a more productively humane culture in our future.
For, yes, indeed, “When doctors start acting like businessmen, who can the people turn to for doctors?” This question animates the film and provides a rationale for the endlessly needful lessons we can take from remembering the early days of the AIDS epidemic. For yes again, while they–meaning the dominant powers that run the most trusted institutions for our personal health and welfare (namely the blood banks in this case) had reason and recourse to act protectively on our behalf, they DID NOT act. If this fact peaks your interest, then please, read and view on, for this is a powerfully productive cultural rabbit hole to dive into. Hence, my commitment–as it fits the class–to bring Shilts and such into my courses. If not us now, then who will teach these facts to the next generation?
The movie version of And the Band Played On is half the book, but it can helpfully serve as an outline for absorbing the vast complexity of this book that details the response—and painful lack of such—to the emergence of the HIV virus—this is truly a history we should not forget lest we find ourselves living and dying within it again. This is the point Shilts ends his prologue with: “The story of politics, people, and the AIDS epidemic is, ultimately, a tale of courage as well as cowardice, compassion as well as bigotry, inspiration as well as veniality, and redemption as well as despair. It is a tale that bears telling, so that it will never happen again, to any people, anywhere” (xxiii).
Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On is a touchstone book for our efforts to remember, and reading it performs a significant act of resistance to the cultural tendencies that moralized a virus. Let us not forget the most potent lesson of the AIDS era: