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'We Were ACT UP': New Book Celebrates Unsung Heroes of AIDS Crisis

'Let the Record Show' by Sarah Schulman gives the ACT UP New York movement its proper place in history.

Let the Record Show is a stunning achievement. In this meticulously crafted history of ACT UP New York, Sarah Schulman invites readers “to imagine ourselves as potentially effective activists and supporters no matter who we are.” Offering this history to activists today as a handbook of lessons learned from ACT UP’s successes and failures, Schulman illustrates how social movements of the past inform those of the present and how we all have the power to move beyond bearing witness to acting up to help those in need.

Let the Record Show is, Schulman says, a history — not the history — of ACT UP from the movement’s origins in 1987 to its split in 1992. The direct challenge to history in both discipline and method is explicit and intentional. The book’s organization is not chronological; rather, it unfolds as a series of snapshots that coalesce around major themes and tropes that Schulman identified from three sources: the 188 interviews that she and filmmaker Jim Hubbard conducted for the ACT UP Oral History Project; her own participation in ACT UP from 1988 to 1992; and her decades of activist experiences and research. This tapestry of snapshots is intended, Schulman explains, to “replicate the simultaneity of response” of the movement’s most consequential actions, from its first big victory at its national mobilization at the Food and Drug Administration in October 1988 (which won access to experimental medications), to confronting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1990 to demand changing the definition of AIDS to include women.

'Let the Record Show' by Sarah Schulman gives the ACT UP New York movement its proper place in history.

Thwarting the notion of linear history as a singular narrative written by one authorial voice, Schulman grounds Let the Record Show in ACT UP members’ personal stories that are messy and conflicting and effectively undermine the idea of history as truth by demonstrating how storytellers are unreliable narrators. Schulman deliberately concludes many chapters with “the voice of a dissenter,” she says, to further highlight how there is no singular truth to history. This also functions as a rejection of history-distorting nostalgia. “The book is structured horizontally,” she notes.

Instead of telling people’s stories for them, she positioned herself to “let people describe themselves, what they think they did, and to facilitate people telling their story.” This nonhierarchical structure serves to replicate the breadth and diversity of the movement. The bookends, which focus on ACT UP’s Latino committees and caucus, exemplify this intention. In one of the book’s most moving passages, Chilean-born César Carrasco names the dozens of Latinos in ACT UP — names that take up space. Names that illustrate that they were always there. “We were ACT UP,” he says. “We were not a sidekick…. We were heavily involved in basically every single action.”

Here is where Schulman’s personal experience not only in ACT UP but in the reproductive rights movement allows her to make connections and understand ideological nuance in ways not accessible to traditional historians who examine events from a distance. She delves into the significance of women’s roles in the movement — as educators leading teach-ins about direct action and civil disobedience, as lawyers offering free counsel so that ACT UP demonstrators could be arrested en masse and move quickly through the criminal justice system at no cost, as insurance experts who taught people how to gain access to the health care system. And she shows how the reproductive rights movement “was the most influential movement” on ACT UP because it was a “multi-issue movement” centering on “the concept of consent.”

This book’s achievement is largely due to Schulman’s unique vantage point built on experience and expertise as well as an unyielding commitment to her LGBTQ+, feminist, and HIV communities. Her vast career as a teacher, activist, writer, and historian provides glimpses into how Let the Record Show has been four decades in the making. This book is Schulman’s seventh book of nonfiction and fifth with significant AIDS content, and the foundations of many of these ideas can be traced to her earlier works.

Her first nonfiction book, My American History, for example, is a compendium of her journalism and writing that locates AIDS activism existing prior to the creation of ACT UP. Schulman’s analysis of the corporate media’s commodification of the LGBTQ+ community and distortion of the history of the AIDS crisis in Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America (1998) also figures as groundwork for Let the Record Show as a historical corrective to the mainstream culture’s reduction of AIDS activism to five white guys saving the day.

In fact, at ACT UP’s height, between 500 and 700 people attended the Monday meetings. Schulman emphasizes that “140 people were named in this book” as part of her intention to show that ACT UP was much larger and more diverse than portrayed in works like Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America and David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague, which not only reduced the movement’s success to white male heroism but claimed, like Andrew Sullivan’s 1996 New York Times Magazine story, that AIDS was over.

Indeed, as Schulman writes in the introduction to The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012), it’s because the history of AIDS has been “banalized,” “homogenized,” and “gentrified” that she decided to “find a way to change this distortion of AIDS history,” which has erased people, erased a movement, and erased a history of suffering and trauma that has rendered any form of accountability inconsequential. In many ways, Let the Record Show is “a mirror to Conflict Is Not Abuse,” her 2016 book that examined the complexity of human interactions, Schulman observes.

More than a history, Let the Record Show is an activist handbook that documents how a movement’s theory of change emerges from practice as well as an archive of both personal accounts and collective feelings. By punctuating the book with “moments of remembrance,” Schulman aims to recapture “the landscape of disappearance and apparition” that saturated the collective experience of a movement “shadowed by loss.”

Traversing this landscape, the reader cannot help but feel the desperation to remain alive and the frustration with a government completely indifferent to the pain and suffering of its citizens. The enormity of not just the loss of life but how that loss affected the capacity of the movement and the vitality of the community more broadly is shocking.

It is no wonder that a major theme threaded through the book is that of endurance, of enduring. The expanse and generosity given in Let the Record Show — the integrity of giving people a platform to tell their own story and to showing the messiness and complexity of the truth — reflects the commitment not only of Schulman but of the hundreds of people in the ACT UP movement.

Tags: Exclusives, Books, HIV

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