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Posts Tagged ‘American History’

originally in The Huffington Post

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 when hard-won advancements in research and pharmaceuticals made AIDS a virus that people lived with rather than a disease that people died from.

It was an epidemic of massive proportions. As France writes:

“When the calendar turned to 1991, 100,000 Americans were dead from AIDS, twice as many as had perished in Vietnam.”

The book chronicles the scientific developments, the entwined politics, and medical breakthroughs in the AIDS epidemic. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a chronic infectious condition that is caused by the underlying human immunodeficiency virus known as HIV. The book also chronicles the human toll which is staggering.flags

I came out in 1981 and while the devastation France writes about was not my world, it was very close to my experience.

In my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012), I write about how volunteering at an AIDS hospice helped me to care for my mother when she became terminally ill:

“The only caregiving I had done at that point was tending to an old cat and reading poetry to the patients at an AIDS hospice, called Betak, that was in our neighborhood. A friend of ours, who was a harpist, had started a volunteer arts program for the patients. She played the harp, [my partner] Barbara came and brought her drum sometimes, and I read poetry. These were poor people—mostly African American men—who were in the advanced stages of AIDS and close to death. The experience let me see how fast the disease could move.”

In those days, the women’s community (what we then called the lesbian and feminist community) was mostly separate from the gay male community. Understandably, gay men and lesbians had our differences. But there was infighting in every group. Rebellion was in the air, and sometimes we took our hostilities out on each other.

Still, gay men and lesbians were also allies and friends (something that is reflected in France’s writing).

I’ll always remember the time my partner and I took a bus to Washington D.C. with the guys from ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an international activist group that is still in existence) from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to protest for reproductive rights. The women then went to protest with ACT-UP at AIDS-related protests. Remember the die-ins in the streets?

One thing that lesbians and gay men had in common was that we lived in a world that was hostile to us. At that time, many gay men and lesbians were in the closet because we were vilified by society and in danger of losing our employment, families, housing and, in more than a few instances, our lives.

AIDS activism necessitated coming out of the closet. Hate crimes against us skyrocketed.

There is much in this book that I did not know, even though I lived through the era. In 1986, in protest of the Bowers v. Hardwick ruling of the US Supreme Court (which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy – a decision that was overturned in 2003), about 1,000 angry people protested in a small park across from the legendary Stonewall Inn in New York City, where the modern gay rights movement was born after a series of riots that started after a routine police raid of the bar.

At that same time, Ronald Reagan (then president) and the President of France François Mitterrand were celebrating the anniversary of the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

“’Did you hear that Lady Liberty has AIDS?” the comedian [Bob Hope] cracked to the three hundred guests. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.’”

“There was a scattering of groans. Mitterand and his wife looked appalled. But not the Reagans. The first lady, a year after the death of her friend Rock Hudson, the brunt of this joke, smiled affectionately. The president threw his head back and roared.”

How to Survive A Plague is told in stories, including the author’s own story. This is apt because the gay rights movement was full of stories and — because of the epidemic — most of those stories were cut short.

Almost every June, my partner and I would be part of the New York Pride Parade and every year we would pause for an official moment to honor our dead. The silence was cavernous.

This silence extended to entire communities. A gay male friend, amazed when his test came back negative, told me that most of his address book was crossed out. He would walk around the “gayborhood” in Center City Philadelphia surrounded by the haunting places where his friends used to live.

And we were all so young then.

When I turned the last page of How To Survive A Plague, I concluded that this is a very well-done book about a history that is important in its own right. The plague years also represent an important part of the American experience. And an understanding of this history is imperative to the future of the LGBT movement

 

 

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Note: The following is a talk I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration Sunday morning July 17 2016.  You can see most of the talk on YouTube be clicking here.

 

When I was a pre-teen, my mother gave me a book called Courageous Women, which was a young adult reader about women’s suffrage.

The book reminded me that not all people have always had the right to vote. The fifteenth amendment, passed in 1870 gave black men the right to vote.   A half century later, in 1920, the nineteenth amendment was ratified, giving all women the right to vote.

The passage of both amendments involved long, hard and violent struggles.

Frederick Douglas, a social reformer, orator, writer, statesman and former slave was a leading abolitionist.

Susan B. Anthony was a social reformer and feminist and one of the women who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.

There were many black women who also played pivotal roles in women’s suffrage. Anna Julia Cooper was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a commemorative postage stamp in 2009.anna

She was known for her statement: “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence or special patronage; then and there the whole black race enters with me.”

Only propertied white men had the vote until 1856 the year that it was determined that all white men could vote regardless of whether they owned property or not.

When as an adult, later in life, I became a Unitarian Universalist, I discovered a religion that embodies civic duty in all of its principles, perhaps especially in the second principle “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;” and also in the sixth principle “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

As Rev. Emily Gage, reflects on the Unitarian Universalist Assembly website, “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations points us toward something beyond inherent worth and dignity. It points us to the larger community. It gets at collective responsibility. It reminds us that treating people as human beings is not simply something we do one-on-one, but something that has systemic implications and can inform our entire cultural way of being.

“Compassion is something that we can easily act on individually. We can demonstrate openness, give people respect, and treat people with kindness on our own. But we need one another to achieve equity and justice.”

The larger community and collective responsibility. That’s what I learned about in my childhood book Courageous Women.

My mother was born in 1919 — a year before women won the right to vote. Perhaps having older parents gave me a different sense of history as well as an enhanced understanding that history is important.

In 1972, when I was thirteen, Shirley Chisholm ran for national office.  I paid attention.  Here was history in the making.  She was paving the way for African American people and women of all races to be presidential candidates.

Shirley Chisholm 1I grew up to have a close friend who not only voted for Shirley Chisholm but was a delegate. And it is not surprising that Chisholm made an appearance in my writing — Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage. It is fiction but definitely autobiographical when I wrote of my character:

“Five years ago Grace was watching the nightly news when Walter Cronkite announced that Shirley Chisholm, an African American congresswoman from New York, was running for the Democratic nomination for president against the incumbent Richard Milhous Nixon. Grace was just thirteen in 1972, but she remembered thinking things would be different.  She didn’t think she’d ever run for president.  But if Shirley Chisholm could, maybe girls could do anything.”

I voted as soon as I was able too. When I moved to Germantown in my early twenties, I was proud to stand in line with my neighbors — most of them African American men and women.  We were doing what was demanded of us.  Voting is not just a right. It is a responsibility.

Around that time, I came out as a lesbian. One of my favorite T-shirts was a black shirt with a pink triangle on it with black letters on the triangle that read:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This widely-known poem was written by Pastor Martin Niemellör about the cowardice of German intellectuals in Nazi Germany.

My T-shirt was lost in some long ago Laundromat but its sentiment stayed with me.

I could have done without the rocks being hurled through our bedroom window or the numerous instances of workplace harassment, but being a lesbian has given me some firsthand knowledge of oppression. For one thing, it may in fact be natural to respond to hatred with hatred — but it is not healthy, necessary, or productive.  I have not evolved to the point where as it says in The New Testament in Matthew, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

But I do think there might be something to that.

I also learned that we have more in common than we may think and it is very important for us to stick together. Civic duty and collective responsibility is certainly a big part of that.

Ecclesiastes in The Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Old Testament states in part:

“1  To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5  a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing   ….”

Now it is up to us. It is our time.

We have one vote, one voice. Think about your one vote and the difference it can make.

It’s time to be counted.

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My partner and I, over breakfast, were discussing what a leap year is. The only consensus that we were able to come to was that time is an artificial construct. For this reason, Black History Month and Women’s History Month, etc., are also artificial constructs. It is helpful to bring our respective histories to the forefront.

I explored my family history, overlapping with the labor movement and Philadelphia history in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books). My life with my partner who worked for, now retired from, the U.S. Postal Service is also a big part of Tea Leaves as well as my relationship with my mother, especially as I cared for her in the final months of her life. Close to thirty years ago I went with my partner to her African American co-worker’s church on “men’s day.” As I wrote, the end result was that this co-worker liked me so much “she’d stopped praying for Barbara.” That is how change is made — when we enter each other’s lives.

We all live in a world where the history of the many is larger than the history of the few (that of privileged straight white men). And the fact is that the history of privileged straight white men is also impacted by the history of the many. By many I mean those of us all races, those of who identify as queer, the more than half the population that is female, as well as the rest of the many. All of our lives touch.

When I first heard of Foresaken (NewSouth Books) by Ross Howell, Jr., I was intrigued. The novel is about a sixteen year old black girl who actually lived in Hampton, Virginia, who one day retaliated against her overbearing white woman employer in her home and murdered her. The story is told from the point of view of an eighteen year old white male newspaper reporter. The protagonist, Charlie, has gone through connecting with people on a human level, befriending blacks as well as whites. This historic novel is a compelling read, and as I turned the pages, I found myself drawn into a prism where the reasons for the girl’s crime — pent-up rage — unfolds as the protagonist talks to her elderly lawyer, a former slave who is now blind.

Foresaken is a novel where the toll that societal and institutional racism takes on whites (while less oppressive and vastly different than the effects of institutional racism against black people), specifically on white people who dared to speak up on behalf of the humanity of black people, is taken into account. As the author writes:

“I felt I would never meet another man like Mr. Fields. He had been a slave. Now he was free. He once had sight. Now he was blind. Was I feeling what he felt when he heard the whip on his mother’s back? I flicked the cigarette into the street. I sat down on the curb. I was so angry that it was hard to breathe. Who does Jim Crow leave free?”

Another historical novel explores the true story of a seamstress slave from Norfolk, Virginia. The Treason of Mary Louvestre is written by My Haley (Koehlerbooks), the widow of Alex Haley. My collaborated on his groundbreaking book of African American history, Roots, and the subsequent miniseries released in 1977. As it says on the book jacket, “Now My has returned to her own roots as an author with The Treason of Mary Louvestre.”

My deftly brings the reader into Mary’s world as the plot unfolds and Mary copies the plans for the CSS Virginia (a confederate warship) and enters a world where she must take a long journey and face certain death as a spy.

Mary Louvestre is an important historical figure and a strong woman character, some might say a feminist hero.

Raised like “the daughter” of white slave owners, Mary sees the writing on the wall — if they fall on financial hard times or die, she will be sold as a slave. This is the turning point for her. She can stay and let others decide her fate or she can leave and influence history:

“What a fool she had been! …. Not only had she trusted that someday she was to be free, that she would transcend being a Negro slave, she had convinced herself she’d have financial control over her life, real power over her future.

In reality, she was special only as a special pet of her owners. They didn’t physically beat her. Nor did they board her on slave row. She didn’t eat from a peck of rice and throwaway saltfish. Yet, she still felt insignificant.

Her life testified to other Negroes that, if they worked from dusk to dawn every day of their lives to “serve the South” and “make their master’s proud,” they got to keep on doing it for the rest of their lives. That was their prize. Regarded as second-class no matter how hard they tried was the message that she had received. It was galling — and so unfair.”

We all face turning points in our lives. It might be to accept ourselves or to realize how society perceives us. Sometimes that turning point is the realization that we are all connected. Always, it is powerful.

This review was previously in The Huffington Post.

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