Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hidden histories

This week's New Yorker magazine boasts a nicely curated letters section, I thought.

The first, from Patricia Lambert of Santa Barbara, CA describes the correspondent's mothers, in reference to the magazine "cover of two brides walking hand in hand across the Brooklyn Bridge" (25 Jul 2011). Ms. Lambert writes, "The image reminded me of my parents, who were closeted gay women in the nineteen-fifties. They were both teachers, and bravely raised me, their daughter, in our happy but very secretive household."

The next, from Nathaniel Smith of West Chester, PA, reminds readers of an often-forgotten Ur-moment in the twentieth-century's Civil Rights movement, a reminder occasioned by Calvin Trillin's piece about the very well-known Freedom Ride of 1961. The Freedom Ride of 1947 preceded by 14 years the one that is now a staple of civics lessons. It was organized by Bayard Rustin and George Houser. As Mr. Smith summarizes in his letter:

In Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946), the Supreme Court found segregation on public interstate buses unconstitutional. In order to test the ruling, CORE organized a Journey of Reconciliation fourteen years before the more famous 1961 ride. Bayard Rustin and George Houser organized and co-led that first Freedom Ride. After various forms of harassment, the 1947 riders were arrested and imprisoned; Rustin published his gripping and influential account as “Twenty-two Days on a Chain Gang.” He then went on to become a close adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., and he helped organize the 1963 I Have a Dream march, in Washington, D.C.
You might already know that Bayard Rustin was gay. That didn't go down easily in the times and communities in which he first dedicated his life to social justice, and that unfortunate fact relegated him to a back-office role in the Civil Rights movement. In Wikipedia's summary:

Rustin was a gay man who had been arrested for homosexual behavior early in his life. Because homosexuality was criminalized through the 1960s and stigmatized through the 1970s, Rustin's sexuality was criticized by some fellow pacifists and civil-rights leaders. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Rustin was attacked as a "pervert" or "immoral influence" by political opponents, both segregationists and Black power militants. To avoid such attacks, Rustin served only rarely as a public spokesperson. He usually acted as an influential adviser to civil-rights leaders. In the 1970s, he became a public advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian causes.
The remarkable thread that ties these letters together is not, in my mind, that they both concern queer history in the United States. The link that occurred to me is nicely, if obliquely, encapsulated in a Talk of the Town piece a few pages later in the same issue of The New Yorker, one titled Roosevelt's Room by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Paul Goldberger. Goldberger writes about the long-gestating memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt currently under construction on the eponymous Roosevelt Island in New York City's East River. In his article, William vanden Heuvel paraphrases the former president's inaugural address of 1937. From the record of Roosevelt's address maintained by Yale University:

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
In remembering and recounting history, it's easy to lose sight of those who have or are "too little" in the currencies of wealth, power, or celebrity. It's just those "little" people whose lives and work animate, drive, staff, and -- in the aggregate -- effect historical currents; yet who are overshadowed by a very few players who come to dramatize the messy business of What Happens when it comes time to recording historical accounts.

A key role of fiction in the multifaceted account of human culture is to open a window into the lives of such "little" people, who are, of course, not "little" at all. Not the Martin Luther King, Jr's, but the Bayard Rustins. Not celebrities like Ellen Degeneres or political leaders like Harvey Milk, but the anonymous mothers of Patricia Lambert, who lived their brave and secretive lives with pioneering integrity, well ahead of equally brave women and men whose lives have and will come to animate the historical record of twentieth-century social progress for those who love outside the mainstream.

What are you doing to change the world? Are you on history's radar? Are you keeping your novelist friends fully informed?

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Bayard Rustin, August 1963.

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