Telling a Whole History

**Prelude: I know we’re out of LGBT Pride Month (June) and the 43rd commemoration of the Stonewall riots is about two weeks old, but I think the issues raised in this post are still relevant and one of the biggest mistakes marginalized groups make is limiting our discussion of our history to its “proper” month, day, or season.**

“By institutionalizing memory, resisting the onset of oblivion, recalling the memory of tragedy that for long years remained hidden or unrecognized and by assigning its proper place in the human conscience, we respond to our duty to remember.” UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura

This quote begins an essay written by the Reverend Irene Monroe wherein she recounts her memories of the night and early morning hours of June 27-28, 1969 when police raided the Stonewall bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Stonewall is commemorated as the trigger of the LGBT rights movement in the U.S. and every June (and throughout the summer) through Pride celebrations across the nation and world. In the excerpt published in the Huffingpost’s Gay Voices column, Rev. Monroe recounts the intersection of race and sexuality that likely triggered the police raid at the Stonewall and the history of Black queers in New York City. Monroe summarizes the gentrification that pushed Black queers out of lower Manhattan in the early 20th century north to Harlem and the politics of respectability that informed the homophobia that pushed Black queers to the margins of social and cultural life after the Harlem Renaissance period of the 1920s through 1940s. Monroe remembers for us that Black and Latino patrons heavily frequented the Stonewall and that there was a family on her block in Brooklyn that had a son who they knew also frequented the Village on the weekends. When word came that the police, mostly White, had raided the bar and were beating on drag queens, mostly Black and Latino, Monroe’s Black neighborhood community was up in arms and ready to join the fight. The recognition that one of their own was likely being victimized propelled this crowd, ranging in ages from Monroe’s preteen years to middle-aged parents to make their way from Brooklyn to the unknown territory of lower Manhattan. They recognized that their struggles against police brutality as Black people were linked to the fight against police brutality experienced by gays and lesbians – and moreover, they realized that those communities were not mutually exclusive.

Monroe titles her essay “Dis-membering Stonewall” to shed light on the whitewashing of Stonewall that has taken place in the 43 years since those three days in June 1969. Although non-Whites are clearly present in many of the pictures from those nights in New York, Blacks and Latinos have been virtually absent in the historical canon of the origins of LGBT civil rights movement beginning with the Stonewall Riots. Monroe talks about remembering the same way that I did in my last blog post (Don’t Forget Me), as putting the pieces back together again. Instead of putting the pieces back together, Monroe argues that we’ve pulled the pieces apart, dismembering queer history by separating from that history the critical role that queer people of color (QPOC) played in it.

How does this dismembering happen? As someone who has always been fascinated by history and is about to embark later this summer on a historical research project, I find history to be profoundly relevant for navigating and understanding our present. I deeply believe in the West African Sankofa principle that teaches the importance of remembering one’s history as you move into the future. As philosopher George Santayana has said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What do we have to do in order to wholly remember the past, to re-member it with all its parts? I think drawing on varied historical sources is helpful and important: relying on the written record leads to a history dominated by the voices of those with the privilege of being able to write or have their words recorded in print, of having those papers preserved, and cultural traditions that value the written word. Oral history is fundamentally important and must be sought out, particularly to include the voices of marginalized groups. Stories are passed down and across orally for various reasons: to protect the storytellers and listeners, to transmit the emotional content, musical elements, and community ethos of the events and people in the stories. Oral history is multidimensional, but a White-middle-class history that privileges the written narrative told from the perspective of one or just a few is more likely to be one-dimensional.

What are the consequences of dismembering and what do we do about it? Well, in short, the consequences of dis-membering history is that we are left with a history that is inauthentic and incomplete; a history that is not capable of helping us grow beyond our past, let alone prevent us from repeating it. The example of Stonewall is a powerful one in this regard. The dis-membering of QPOC voices from Stonewall’s history has helped to foment the supposed divide between people of color and working class folks and a LGBT community that has been represented as largely White and middle-class. Consequently, efforts to bridge across these communities have become increasingly popular and organizations that bridge the gap, like the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) play a critical role in helping us to re-member. Also important are efforts to tell history in different forms, including film projects like Before Stonewall that highlight the voices of QPOC, and the writing and sharing of oral histories like Monroe’s that democratize the telling and retelling of history through social media outlets.

Re-membering our history involves faith that these stories matter, hope that they will help lead us to a better future, and shows our love for the courage, bravery, and commitment of the elders that paved the way for us. Let us strive to re-member, to understand the importance of a whole-history that can pull a community together when the forces of injustice threaten to tear it apart.

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