Review: Stonewall, Martin Duberman

Review: Stonewall, Martin DubermanStonewall by Martin Duberman
ISBN: 0525936025
on May 1st 1993
Genres: Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

On June 28th, 1969, the Stonewall, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, was raided. But instead of the routine compliance expected by the police, patrons and a growing crowd decided to fight back. The five days of rioting that ensued changed forever the face of gay and lesbian life. This book tells the story of what happened at Stonewall, recreating those nights in detail through the lives of six people who were drawn into the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Their stories combine into a portrait of the repression that led up to the riots, which culminates when they triumphantly participate in the first gay rights march of 1970.

I wanted to read this book after watching the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Sylvia Rivera, Marsha’s longtime friend and a fellow Stonewall veteran, is one of the six gay rights pioneers profiled in Stonewall, alongside Jim Fouratt, Yvonne Flowers, Karla Jay, Craig Rodwell, and Foster Gunnison, Jr. While not all six were present at Stonewall the night of June 28, 1969, each contributed in their way to the burgeoning Gay Rights Movement in the wake of Stonewall. The book is structured as a profile of each of these six people’s lives leading up to Stonewall, their participation (if any) in the events at Stonewall, and their lives post-Stonewall.

If you watch The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, it’s difficult not to become fascinated by Sylvia Rivera. As a trans woman of color, she landed on the streets of New York at the age of eleven and had a difficult life, often homeless and combatting drug and alcohol problems along with the dangers of living on the street and hustling for money. And yet, her commitment to the Gay Rights Movement is real and heartfelt. Jim Fouratt has claimed that Sylvia was not at Stonewall the first night, but other participants (including Sylvia herself) claim she was. Some have even claimed that Sylvia threw the first bottle or Molotov cocktail, though Sylvia herself denies these accounts. I imagine the scene was chaotic enough that it’s hard to tell who exactly did what and where they were. In any case, Sylvia threw herself into the work of the Gay Rights Movement, founding STAR House (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Marsha. STAR House took in transgender kids, offering them food and shelter. Sylvia advocated for the poor and marginalized in society. At the time of her death, she was directing a food pantry at her church.

Transgender people have been sidelined in the Gay Rights Movement. In 1973, Sylvia left the movement after leaders in the movement attempted to silence her at the annual celebration of gay pride that grew out of Stonewall and has become the annual Pride Parade.

I learned a great deal from this book. I didn’t know anything at all about the Mattachine Society, and none of the figures, aside from Sylvia Rivera, was familiar to me before reading the book. Jim Fouratt was not only an early leader of the Gay Liberation Front but also a friend of Abbie Hoffman’s and one of the Yippies. He later became a music journalist. Karla Jay is a writer and college professor emerita. Craig Rodwell founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop (which finally closed its doors in 2009, unable to compete (like so many bookstores) with online outfits. Two figures who are still somewhat enigmatic to me are Foster Gunnison and Yvonne Flowers. Gunnison was a founding member of NACHO (North American Conference of Homophile Organizations) and died shortly after Stonewall was published. He was more conservative than the others profiled and wasn’t involved in Stonewall, though (uncharacteristically for him) approved of what happened there. Yvonne Flowers participated in the first Christopher Street Liberation Day parade (which I think later became the annual Pride Parade) and was friends with Audre Lorde. Neither she nor Gunnison has a Wikipedia entry, and I couldn’t find much available information without doing some real digging online, though it’s there. I also didn’t realize how difficult it was for lesbians and transgender individuals to be involved in the early movement. I’m not sure why I thought it would be otherwise, but one might think if you are marginalized in some way yourself, it makes you more open to empathy for other marginalized groups. Not so much. White males dominated the early movement to the extent that many women and transgender people felt shut out.

Stonewall was published in 1993, and the information may be quite dated. Jim Fouratt and Harry Beard, a Stonewall waiter, both claimed that the catalyst for the uprising came when a lesbian dressed in men’s clothing was cuffed, complained the handcuffs were too tight and was then hit with a nightstick. Craig Rodwell insisted that “There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just… a flash of group—of mass—anger” (197). Duberman quotes collective eyewitnesses who “skeptically ask why, if [the lesbian] did exist, she has never stepped forward to claim the credit” (197). However, Stormé DeLarverie has, in fact, claimed to be that person, and several other witnesses have supported her claim. I’m not sure when DeLarverie identified herself, but Duberman didn’t identify her at all in the book, so it stands to reason he didn’t know about her claims when he wrote the book.

I liked the structure of following the six individuals, and the six chosen represent a diversity of experiences and backgrounds, so it’s nice to see that balance. As much as I appreciate the balance of perspectives, it comes at the cost of focusing on individuals who were not involved at Stonewall itself, though it’s hard to deny their importance in the Gay Rights Movement.

The February motif for the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge is to read a book with one word in the title, which is one of the reasons I read Stonewall this month. I obtained this book from my local library.

four-stars

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s newest book We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of essays written over the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Most were published in The Atlantic, where Coates has been making waves as “America’s best writer on race,” an assessment he admits makes him “retch” (117). He doesn’t explicitly say so, but I suppose it’s partly the fact that so many white people turn to him as the authority, the purveyor of “the black perspective.” I wonder if he feels like, as a character in The Freedom Writers claims, “the Rosetta Stone of black people.” He asks, “Why do white people like what I write?” (118). He admits that this “voice inside” him, this question, would “eventually overshadow the work, or maybe it would just feel like it did” (118). I would argue he is one of the most lucid and persuasive writers of his generation, and perhaps because of it, he has attracted an audience he didn’t necessarily believe he would attract. It’s clear he is confused by this attention, but one need only read the pages of We Were Eight Years in Power to understand why the attention confuses him. He is accustomed to a white America that does not listen to the complete story of itself. It believes its own myths. He has a gift for laying those myths bare and reminding us to consider what we would prefer to forget.

Coates writes a preface to each essay, except for the last, “The First White President,” which serves as an epilogue. In his prefaces, he discusses where his mind was at the time of writing the essay, what his process was like, and how he views the work now. It’s as much about writing as it is about issues of race in the time of America’s first black president.

The title comes from Thomas Miller, an African American congressman who served South Carolina during the South’s period of Reconstruction:

We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity. (xiii)

Coates saw parallels between Miller’s disbelieving appeal and Barack Obama’s legacy as the first black president. Certainly, Coates seems to capture our times in ways that few writers can. The prefaces to each essay are the writer at the height of his critical powers, both of his own work and of the current historical moment.

Of the collected essays, I agree with Coates’s assessment regarding “The Case for Reparations”: “I thought I was at my best when I could combine the reporting and the essay. ‘The Case for Reparations’ is, for that reason, the best piece in this volume to my mind” (288). I had been meaning to read that essay for years and even carried a printout of the article as it appeared in The Atlantic in my school bag for a long time, but I did not actually read it until I read this book. It’s a powerhouse of research and writing. However, all of the essays made me think and challenged what I understood to be true from my perspective as a white woman. If I have one quibble with the book, it’s that I think Coates does not consider sexism at all when he deconstructs Donald Trump’s election win in “The First White President.” He seems to ascribe Hillary Clinton’s defeat entirely to racist backlash against Barack Obama, as she would have cemented his legacy. While it’s true that Obama supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and it’s probably true that racism played a large part in her defeat as voters heard Trump’s promises to undo all that Obama had done, it’s impossible to say that racism is entirely to blame. Had Hillary Clinton been a man with all the same qualifications she possesses, I think she’d be president now. She did win the popular vote, and I believe that she would also have won the electoral vote if she were a man. None of that is to say that Coates’s analysis doesn’t bear thinking about. Perhaps many people haven’t thought hard enough about just how much of a role racism played in that election since the two major party candidates are both white. This quibble does not mean I felt the book needed to lose any stars in my rating, however. Coates has a brilliant mind.

I found it interesting to read about Coates’s struggles as a writer, and I want to share this selection from an interview he gave about writing and the writing process.

via ytCropper

As a writer myself, I found it incredibly heartening to hear such a gifted writer discuss his struggles with the craft.

If you are concerned about social justice issues and racism in our current moment and across the broad swathe of American history, you need to read this book. It’s a book I wish all Americans would read and think about.

Rating: ★★★★★