New Works in the Field

‘A sprawling, complicated chronicle’ of ACT UP New York: A review of Schulman’s Let the Record Show

Editors’ Note: Dan Royles reviews Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act Up New York, 1987-1993. This version of the review has been revised to reflect a response from Schulman.

Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 is a sprawling, complicated chronicle of the New York City chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). In the group’s own language, it was (and is) a “diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” Although ACT UP is still around, with chapters in New York, Philadelphia, Paris, and elsewhere, the group’s heyday was in the years covered by Let the Record Show. It was then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that ACT UP New York used emotionally compelling demonstrations to demand a radical shift in the country’s AIDS politics, created influential AIDS media, and shaped the ways that people with HIV and AIDS were diagnosed, treated, and talked about, both in the United States and around the world.

Let the Record Show draws on close to two hundred oral history interviews that Schulman and filmmaker Jim Hubbard conducted between 2001 and 2018, transcripts of which are available online as part of the ACT UP Oral History Project. Schulman supplements these interviews with her own research and recollections of her time in ACT UP New York. Interspersed throughout are key documents for the history of AIDS activism, including flyers, eulogies, and the Denver Principles, the manifesto for people with AIDS developed in 1983 at the Fifth Annual Gay and Lesbian Health Conference.

Let the Record Show comes in part as a response to, and in part as a contribution to, an increase in representations of AIDS and AIDS activist history over the last fifteen years, which Alexandra Juhasz and Theodore Kerr have termed the “AIDS crisis revisitation.” Among these works, few have loomed larger than How to Survive a Plague, David France’s widely hailed, award-winning 2012 documentary. (France subsequently published a book by the same title, to similar acclaim.) How to Survive a Plague told the story of a particular group within ACT UP New York: the Treatment and Data (T&D) Committee, which comprised primarily white gay men from privileged backgrounds, focused on speeding up the research and development of drugs to treat HIV and AIDS, and which split off from ACT UP in 1992 to form the Treatment Action Group.

As Schulman makes clear, the T&D Committee was an important part of the ACT UP New York story, and “the split” was an inflection point in the group’s history. However, it was not the whole story—far from it. In addition to the fight for pharmaceutical drug access, ACT UP New York fought to expand the Centers for Disease Control’s definition of AIDS to include opportunistic infections commonly seen in women with the disease, for access to clean needles for injection drug users, to seed AIDS activism in Puerto Rico, and to help Haitian refugees with HIV resettle in New York City. Seeing this larger history of ACT UP New York is important, she argues, because it shows that ACT UP New York “did not only come from the trajectory of gay male history” but drew on a series of movements, including the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. Their influence mattered in terms of what ACT UP New York was able to achieve. As Schulman writes, “movements that are dominated by men and white people” rarely “achieve transformational victories that improve the lives of women, people of color, and poor people.” In this way, the ACT UP New York story “stands in contrast to the history of white gay rights politics, which has led to race- and class-based reconciliation with the state.” Schulman takes care to emphasize that while ACT UP New York may have been predominantly made up of white gay men, it wasn’t exclusively so.

That said, the body of interviews from which Let the Record Show draws don’t necessarily reflect the full diversity of ACT UP New York. This is in no way a criticism of the ACT UP Oral History Project. In fact, understanding why this is the case highlights why this book is so important. As might be expected, many former ACT UP New York members have passed away, but this is disproportionately true for women and people of color (and women of color especially) with HIV who were active in the group. As a result, many of their stories are only captured secondhand, through interviews with members who worked closely with them. Very often these same departed members were deeply involved in fights around the ways that racism and sexism magnified the impact of the epidemic on people already made vulnerable by those same forces. Recognizing their contributions to the movement and the tragedy of their early passing helps us to see how both the history of AIDS activism and the ways that we tell that history are shaped by ongoing inequality.

Let the Record Show is a massive book: including the preface, two appendices, and a timeline, it runs to nearly 700 pages. The book is divided thematically, as Schulman maintains that “a chronological history would be impossible and inaccurate.” It’s easy to see why. At its peak, ACT UP drew hundreds of people to its weekly meetings, many of whom worked and socialized in smaller committees and affinity groups. These smaller units worked together on campaigns, planned demonstrations, raised money, produced graphics, distributed clean needles, advocated for realistic sex education, and created queer nightlife spaces that were safe sex-positive and antiracist, among many other activities. In other words, ACT UP New York contained multitudes.

Some of the stories that Schulman covers in Let the Record Show, such as the controversial demonstration and “die-in” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the campaign to expand the CDC’s definition of AIDS, will be familiar to viewers of United in Anger, the 2012 documentary that she and Hubbard produced from the ACT UP Oral History Project. Other stories will be new even to those well versed in ACT UP New York’s history. HistPhil readers may be particularly interested in the ways that the group raised money through merchandise sales, an art auction, and direct mail fundraising appeals. These were generally very successful and, in important ways, shaped how people with AIDS and ACT UP allies alike were represented, both in the streets and in popular media. The sales of ACT UP New York t-shirts not only helped to fund the organization, but also “united a look, a membership, [and] a commitment.” Later on, direct-mail fundraising efforts on the group’s behalf led indirectly to the creation of POZ magazine and, Schulman argues, “the creation of the AIDS consumer.” But just as interesting—and important—is the effect that a large windfall could have on the group. In Schulman’s words (paraphrasing member Patrick Moore), the massive proceeds “from the art auction was the worst possible thing that could have happened to ACT UP,” since it inflamed tensions over how to spend the money.

This is just one example of the ways that Let the Record Show makes an invaluable contribution to histories of AIDS and AIDS activism, as well as to the scholarship of social movements more broadly. But Schulman is not only concerned with contributing to the history of progressive activism. She also draws out explicit lessons for present-day and future movements in an introduction that “summarizes ACT UP’s primary tactics and sources so that contemporary activists can have a stand-alone handbook of general principles and takeaway ideas.” Here she emphasizes the group’s commitment to non-violent direct action and “a kind of radical democracy” to explain how ACT UP New York was able to—and how other groups might still—bring together a diverse coalition of people to make meaningful change. Ultimately, she argues, it was ACT UP New York’s multitudes that made the group so successful.

But telling the history of such a large, diverse group, in which so many people were passionately involved, is necessarily a messy enterprise. As Schulman writes, “most people had generalized ideas of ACT UP based on the small groups that they interacted with, the issues that attracted them, and the precise activities that they participated in.” In other words, any one member of ACT UP New York had only a partial view of the group as a whole, which is why Schulman brings together so many interviews to produce a larger narrative that is as complete as possible. Hence, in almost every chapter (the exception is one that examines the experience of Patricia Navarro, the mother of artist and ACT UP New York member Ray Navarro, who herself joined the group) readers encounter multiple viewpoints. These are organized under subheadings with the name of the activist from whose interview they are drawn. Some of the material is quoted directly, but a significant portion of it is summarized in Schulman’s voice. In a way, this makes sense. In addition to being a participant in this history, Schulman conducted all but two of the interviews used in the book and has spent decades actively reflecting on ACT UP New York’s story and its wider significance. If anyone can offer such a sweeping, authoritative account of the group’s history, it’s likely her.

At the same time, her interventions make Let the Record Show a complicated contribution to our understanding of that history. Like all primary sources, oral histories need to be treated with care, in particular because human memory can be faulty, and individual perspectives are, again, partial. Indeed, Schulman recognizes this when it comes to her narrators’ recollections, although not so much when it comes to her own. She tells us in the book’s preface, “When interviewees disagree about events, I sometimes side with one version or the other, or present multiple perspectives based on my own experience at the time, or what I came to learn, cumulatively, through the interview process over many years,” but because the book does not use citations for Schulman’s own recollections or research it’s hard to tell when she makes such judgments. And in at least one case, her intervention shapes the larger story in a way that matters.

When she comes to the story of the T&D Committee’s split from ACT UP New York, Schulman offers a brief quoted passage from Mark Harrington, one of the key players in the committee. In it, he recalls a six-month moratorium, proposed by an unnamed member of the larger group, on meetings with the National Institutes of Health. This would have seriously hampered the work being done by the T&D Committee, and he remembers it as one of the developments that pushed them to break from the larger body. Schulman then offers her own corrective not only to Harrington’s account, but to others’ as well: “Like Mark, most of the people I interviewed about the split mistakenly remembered ‘The Moratorium’ as a halt on all meetings between ACT UP and the government. But, actually, by the time it came to the floor [of ACT UP New York’s weekly Monday night meeting] for a vote, it was a halt on meetings about women without group approval.” She goes on to reflect that “as often happens, reality is too complex, and a false but easier to remember version of a moratorium proposal as punitive and sprawling has substituted for the historical reality.”

Oral historians handle conflicting narratives in a number of ways. We might use additional sources to corroborate testimony. When we do so, we make clear to readers that the oral narrative departs from the documentary record. If we have no way to validate one story over another, we often make that apparent to the reader. In either case, we might think whether such discrepancies are meaningful, and whether they tell us something important about the narrators. In any case, we recognize that human memory is mutable, and proceed accordingly.

It’s entirely possible that some contemporaneous source verifies Schulman’s memory. The problem here is that we have no way of knowing whether this is the case. After all, “most” of Schulman’s narrators recall a key event leading to the split between the T&D Committee and ACT UP New York differently than she does. If such a source exists, then it would be extremely useful for readers to know what evidence Schulman is using to craft this claim, as well as others. Reality is indeed complex, and some memories are false, but we’re left to take it on faith that Schulman’s are not.

In the book’s preface, Schulman allows that she is “not a trained historian, and this is not a cumulative, documented history beyond the testimonies of the people who created it.” That may be true, but in eliciting, curating, and weighing in on those testimonies, Schulman has created something greater than the sum of their parts. And whether or not Schulman meant for this book to be an authoritative history of ACT UP New York, she writes with authority about that history. To be sure, Let the Record Show makes an important contribution to an ongoing conversation about the history of ACT UP New York. It would be stronger still if Schulman offered more insight into how she knows what she knows, beyond the limits of her own recollection.

[Note: After this review was published, Sarah Schulman pointed out on Twitter that Maxine Wolfe, who was heavily involved in ACT UP New York and especially in the group’s Women’s Caucus, recalled the moratorium as being specifically about women. This is indeed captured in a lengthy quote from Wolfe’s interview in the same chapter, and I apologize for incorrectly suggesting otherwise. Nevertheless, it remains unclear why she presents Wolfe’s account as “historical reality” and the accounts of “most of the people [she] interviewed” as “false.” This is, again, one of the cases in which she sides with one version of events over another, but it remains unclear as to whether other sources corroborate this choice. –DR]

Nevertheless, Let the Record Show is a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to understand how a queer movement like ACT UP New York took to the streets to save lives in the middle of a viral pandemic. As we continue to grapple with covid-19, and face assaults from conservative lawmakers on the rights and visibility of queer people, this story offers us lessons on how to press forward. Without a doubt, future scholars of ACT UP New York and the larger AIDS activist movement will have to contend with this book and will benefit from the body of interviews on which it is based. Thankfully, there is also a rich archival collection of ACT UP New York materials at the New York Public Library, not to mention numerous collections around the country that document the work of other ACT UP chapters. These await researchers who can build on—and perhaps challenge—what we know about AIDS activist history. Like any account of the past, Let the Record Show is not the final word on its subject, and that’s a good thing.

-Dan Royles

Dan Royles is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University in Miami. His first book, To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle against HIV/AIDS, was published in 2020 by University of North Carolina Press. He also runs the African American AIDS History Project, a digital archive of responses to HIV/AIDS in Black America.

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