Friday, June 19, 2015

Booknote: The Right Side of History

Adrian Brooks, The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism. Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-62778-123-7.

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: Essays, history, biography, LGTBQI
Format: Trade paperback
Source: Provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Find it in a library near you (via WorldCat). 

If you wish to purchase it, you can get it via Amazon, or via Barnes and Noble, or go to the publisher at Cleis Press.

From the book publisher's press release, to help provide a basic description:

"Harvey Milk delivering a version of his impassioned Hope Speech. Bayard Rustin advising Martin Luther King Jr. Long distance swimmer Diana Nyad finishing her incredible swim from Cuba to Florida. The AIDS quilt. Edie Windsor's victory, which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. In this book, The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQ Activism, author Adrian Brooks tells the history of the nation’s clash over civil rights with amazing stories about some of the most recognizable gay rights heroes and heroines."

Cleis Press is running a virtual book tour for this book during National Pride Month in June, and I was happy when I got the invite to join in for this book. I wanted to read this for a couple of reasons. One, I enjoy reading history books, especially on topics I may need to learn more about. This book certainly fit that bill. Two, June is National LGBT Pride Month, so what better time of the year to read a book on the history of LGBTQI activism? The timing worked out for me. Overall, this was a good book I enjoyed.

The book is a collection of various essays, interviews, and other writings. The author tells in his acknowledgements how he went about approaching various people to contribute selections for the book. One thing I missed was some kind of small introductory paragraph at the start of the selections. I think for folks who may not be as familiar with the queer history presented, a small paragraph about the selection's author, the significance of the selection, and a little context would have made for a better reading and learning experience. This may be a small detail; I would hope if this book is revised and/or updated down the road that they consider this.

The book is not an academic book. I noticed it does lack a formal bibliography or list of cited works at the end. Yet, you do get sources. The essays and selections do contain endnotes, and you can find sources that can serve as suggestions for further reading in those endnotes. You can also learn more about the contributors in the "About" pages at the end; this section often lists additional works by the contributors for those who wish to read further.

Now, I said this is not an academic book, however, I think it would make a very good selection for academic libraries. The book can serve as a reader for students seeking to learn more about LGBTQI history and activism. If they are writing a paper on some topic related to this, the book can serve as a starting point due to its accessibility and ease of reading. I also think this book could make a good textbook selection for any classes on LGBTQI studies and/or other diversity studies courses, especially at the introductory level. I can tell you that I will be ordering a copy for our library here.

The book is not a sequential history. The main structure is a division between activism before Stonewall and activism after Stonewall. Other that, the events are mostly chronological, but the path still snakes around a bit. This reflects how the history of LGBTQI activism in the United States is often one that takes various paths and loops, moves forward but may backtrack and regroup, and even leaps around. As the author writers in the foreword:

"The Right Side of History abandons the grand, synthetic master narrative for a sequential series of revealing close-ups: snapshots of some of the countless personalities that shaped America, even as America did her level best not to acknowledge them or their queerness" (xii). 

The book covers a time frame from the 1920s through the 50s, 60s, 70s and on to today. Though the chapters are short, you do get some very substantial lessons. There is a lot of learning going on here. For me, for example, I learned for the first time about Henry Gerber, an activist in 1920s Chicago, and his Society for Human Rights, which is a precursor to LGBTQI advocacy groups that exist today. I found tragic how in the end his own people essentially denied him, but he did lay the foundation for much of the movement as it exists today. That is just one example. Another example for me was learning about Bayard Rustin. I had no this black gay man played such a great role at the right hand of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heck, I don't recall his name being mentioned at all when I participated in the college's Civil Rights Tour last summer, and that experience was a serious immersion into the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I am not sure if that omission intentional or not. Goes to show why books like this are necessary. The chapter on Rustin presents him as a complex man who did have his flaws. This is a strength of the book: presenting these heroes not as larger than life but as common folks who rose to fight injustice and make things right. Sadly, Rustin was mostly forgotten and dismissed here; it may explain a bit why I did not hear about him during the tour. On a side note, much of the movement was made up of Christians, and many Christians (not all, but a lot of them) aggressively disapprove or outright hate LGBTQI people. In fact, as the chapter on Rustin details, many simply did not want him there with Dr. King. Rustin may have been dismissed after King died, but he went on to be active in other causes. He is, deservedly so, being rediscovered once more. In fact, a big reason this book is so important is precisely because it allows us to rediscover history that may have been dismissed or forgotten.

This book presents an American history that is often forgotten, denied, buried, and erased. It is a history that should be read, understood, and studied if we are going to get to the day when we all get judged by the content of our character. This book should be required reading along books like Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States, books that give you the view of the people and groups who have been marginalized or made invisible and yet had such a strong role in building the great nation that is the United States.

Additionally, the book is definitely an easy way to learn this part of American history, and it can also serve as validation and inspiration for the LGBTQI community. The short chapters may inspire you to seek out more information about the books and events presented. I know there are some things I want to learn about, Bayard Rustin being one of those topics. The book is a popular reader to make this important and yet often forgotten history accessible. It succeeds in that regard. I will add that for public libraries, this is certainly a very good selection. For academic libraries, I would add to my statement above that academic libraries who get this title may want to complement with related titles like more scholarly LGBTQI history or biography books.

Overall, this was a book that I really liked, and it is one that I can recommend to people who wish to learn more on this topic. I would add that if you ever get teens at your library looking for LGBTQI information for inspiration, so on, that this would be a good book to put in their hands. The book has some small issues, which I have mentioned, but in the end, I do recommend it enthusiastically.

I am rating it a strong 4 out of 5 stars.

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Some additional reading notes from the book I wanted to remember:

The advocacy for free love and acceptance is not a new idea. Victoria Hull, the first woman to run for President of the United States, in 1872, said,

"I have an unalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere. And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but as a community, to see I am protected in it. I trust that I am fully understood, for I mean just that" (xvi). 

Those remain so relevant today.

Rustin's biographer, John D'Emilio, said this of Bayard Rustin:

"Rustin displayed courage under circumstances that are terrifying to contemplate. His life reminds us that the most important stories from the past are often those that have been forgotten and that from obscure origins can emerge individuals with the power to change the world" (36). 

I think that quote also summarizes much of what this book does and does so well.

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This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:


Adrian Brooks said...

Thank you very much for your kind review of my book, THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY.
I am very grateful to you.

Adrian Brooks

Angel Rivera said...

Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Brooks. Always thrilled when an author stops by. I definitely learned a lot from your book, and it made me feel a need to read more about some of the subjects it presents. Thank you.

Best, and keep on blogging.

Adrian Brooks said...