Wednesday, February 22, 2017

When We Rise

Book Review and Political Commentary
('s really a book review, but the last election has made everything a political commentary. This piece first appeared as a column in the February 21, 2017 edition of Between The Lines).

I first read an advance copy of Cleve Jones’ memoir, When We Rise: My Life In The Movement early last fall. At the time our president was Barack Obama and we had every reason to believe that Hillary Clinton would be our next president. In that context my reaction to the book was that it was one of the best memoirs I’d read, and one of the best books of the year. Cleve Jones presents his life in an unvarnished manner. The purpose of the memoir was not self-aggrandizement, but rather to share one person’s story within the movement.

I note Jones’ use of the term “the movement”. When We Rise is not strictly about gay liberation (or the later more inclusive movement for LGBT rights). Cleve Jones sees, writes, and lives a collective movement of liberation. The women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the LGBT movement, the labor movement, and all other liberation movements are spoken of collectively as simply, “The Movement”.

Cleve Jones was at the epicenter of much of the modern post-stonewall gay liberation movement on the West Coast. He was friends with Gilbert Baker, creator of the rainbow flag. He was a protege of Harvey Milk, and was the person who first came upon Milk’s body after the assassination. He was the creator of the Names Project, aka the AIDS Quilt, the largest ongoing piece of community folk art in the world.

Jones tells us of the roots of his passion for the movement in the one-page preface. The movement saved his life. He tells of his childhood in Arizona. As early as the age of 14 he was marching for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. He worked for the women’s movement. And yet, it wasn’t until a Life magazine article on the Gay Liberation Movement that he saw his own life in the movement he had already identified and identified with. In typical fashion he undercuts the moment from too much altruism. He has a fascination for the pictures of “handsome long-haired young men marching with fists in the air through the streets of Greenwich Village, Los Angeles, and San Francisco” which accompanied the article.

He pinpoints this moment, after a childhood of not fitting in, as a turning point, “I am pretty sure this is the exact moment I stopped planning to kill myself”.

When We Rise is a powerful personal memoir and important piece of LGBT history. For that reason alone I thought of this book as an important addition to the literature.

I read it again after it’s publication in late November after the devastating election. In this new context I read the book as not only a great memoir, but as an important call to action. Jones lived intersectionality as a youth, but learned intersectionality from Harvey Milk. It is no accident that the title of the book is When WE Rise, not When I Rise.

Starting February 27th ABC is presenting a seven part series, When We Rise. The series was previewed two weeks ago by Chris Azzopardi’s interview with director Dustin Lance Black at The series is partially inspired by the book. It is not a retelling of only Cleve Jones’ story, but of many of the people who were a part of the gay and lesbian movement of the 60’s and 70’s. In that interview, Dustin Lance Black echoes many of the sentiments of the book. This response sums it up:

“The reason I designed this show the way I designed it was because four years ago, I was concerned that social justice movements were becoming incredibly myopic and self-interested, forgetting that we need to work together if we're gonna get anywhere. Not understanding the intersections of our movements, losing sight of where those intersections are, and certainly forgetting the great power that we can gain by working together. So, I was worried. We were becoming divided, and it's why I insisted when designing the show that I find real people who came from other movements, not just the LGBT movement - people who came from the women's movement, the black civil rights movement, the peace movement, and the series eventually touches on immigration and healthcare.”

In the aftermath of the election, and especially since the inauguration, we are seeing millions of people standing up for all the colors of the rainbow. Gay people are marching in support of Planned Parenthood. White people are standing up for #BlackLivesMatter. Christians are standing up for their Muslim brothers and sisters.

In order to get elected, the 45th President had to waken an ugly sleeping giant. In the process he also awakened men and women of good will who believe in the promise of America. Both the book and the series speak to these people, and put light on the good things which happen When We Rise.

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