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America continues to find itself in the midst of social and political upheaval. The era of Jim Crow and racial persecution are reminders of a not too distant past. The young generation of today will have their own causes to fight and believe in and some of them will resemble the monumental effort behind the push for racial equality that culminated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. James Baldwin (1924-1987) served as an unofficial historian, transforming what he witnessed into the books he left us with that examine the ills of society and human nature. Race and sexuality have been the focus of several of his works based in part of his own ethnic makeup and homosexuality. In the classic Giovanni’s Room, he addressed the inner conflict faced by those who struggle with bisexuality. In this book, he once again touches on that topic and love in general while supplementing the main topics with the complicated and tragic concept of human nature.
The story begins in Harlem, New York as we are introduced to a musician named Rufus Scott. He has just met a recent transplant to New York City from Georgia named Leona. Sparks fly between the two and Rufus invites her to an after party at the apartment of a friend. It is there that they come intimate and that encounter sets into motion a chain of events that affects nearly every single character in the book. Rufus’ best friend in Vivaldo, a young Italian from Brooklyn. He is involved with an older woman named Jane, who has a drinking problem but somehow manages to function and continue painting. At first, Rufus and Leona are on the path to love but reality quickly sets in. You see, Rufus is a Black American and Leona, a white woman from the South. And this is before laws against interracial marriage were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Their trials and tribulations are heartbreaking and Rufus struggles with Leona and himself all the way to the end. Incredibly, the two of them only take up a third of book, the rest is devoted to Rufus’ friends and former flame, who all converge to add unexpected twist and turns to each other’s lives.
Readers beware, this book is not for the faint at heart. The language at times is crass and the speech blunt. But Baldwin did not write this for an afternoon special, this is an unfiltered look into the relationships between friends and lovers of both sexes. Rufus’ younger sister Ida, eventually falls for his friend Vivaldo and in some way, they become a reincarnation of Rufus and Leona with a few notable exceptions. Ida becomes part of the inner circle of Richard and Clarissa “Cass” Silenski, Steve Ellis, and Eric Jones, the wildcard of the group who will remind readers of the character David in Giovanni’s Room. Those familiar with Baldwin’s life will recall that he not only died in France but spent a considerable amount of time in his life there and in Istanbul, Turkey. Paris is a part of the book and the place in which we learn more about Eric Jones, the “prodigal son” who returns to the United States even more uncertain of his understanding of what love truly is. His partner in France, Yves, is scheduled to arrive in the United States a few weeks after he arrives but before he does, Eric impacts the story in a major way which will never be forgotten by any of the characters. Incredibly, despite all that happens in the book, the story still belongs to Rufus who none of us can forget for too long as we make it through the book. And I do believe that at some parts of the book are based off of Baldwin’s life experiences or at the least, the characters composites of people he did know.
Where the book truly shines is in its examination of infidelity and the struggle that plagued interracial couples. Monogamy proves to be difficult for the characters in the book but we are reminded that they are human beings and humans do fail and make mistakes. But if we look past the shocking revelations, we can see the characters making a valiant effort to show us how and why we sometimes do the things that we do. And for those readers who have a spouse of love interest of a different background, the story of Rufus and Leona followed by Ida and Vivaldo will touch you directly as you find yourself able to relate to some of the challenges they face. Times have certainly changed since Baldwin finished this classic in 1961, but what is paramount, is that it takes a large amount of courage, sacrifice and understanding when one is involved in an interracial relationship. But love can and does prevail, and Baldwin does a great job of showing us the complicated ways in which we are able to make it last. I have always understood that it is far easier to hate someone than it is to love them. Loving another person is truly one of the hardest things we ever have to in life. But the reward is both fulfilling and to those who are the recipients of our affection.
Baldwin truly shines here, and the book is one of his greats. This is New York City and the story of a group of friends, bonded by tragedy and nearly separated by love, sex and the demons that come with all parts of life. And when you have finished this incredible story, you will have more of an appreciation for one of the greatest writers America has ever produced.
Every year that I age, I have noticed that I have a growing appreciation for classic literature and the works of other authors that are no longer with us. James Baldwin (1924-1987) is near the top of my list of authors whose books are critical to American history and the current day state of affairs in the United States. The Harlem native who took his last breath in France, stands out as a commentator on race in America. His observations which he then put into words, were sharp, analytical and deeply profound. Baldwin lived what could only be described as an eventful but complicated life. He was a Black American and homosexual in a time in which both were considered to be crimes of the highest nature. America had yet to see the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and homosexuality was still considered a crime against nature in many states. Baldwin was both and carried himself with an aura of confidence and intellect that has remained impressive many years after his death. In this short but intriguing book, Baldwin comments on race in America based off of his experience and encounters with White Americans and even Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. He never joined the nation but his account of his meeting with Muhammad is one of the highlights of the book. Racial discrimination is never an easy topic to discuss and many of us would prefer to discuss more pleasant issues. But Baldwin was a master of taking a explosive topic and relaying it to the reader in a way that forces one to do deep soul-searching if they are not African-American and reevaluate their own existence if they are.
Too often, it is assumed that books about racial inequality are attacks against White Americans. That is not Baldwin’s goal. In fact, Baldwin’s social circle was very diverse, consisting of White Americans, Black Americans, Europeans and Turkish individuals among others. In fact, in the book there is a part in which he feels conflicted about his White friends and his own social situation in America. His experience is not meant to demean or drive a wedge between friends but highlights the inner conflict that can engulf anyone. The key to appreciating Baldwin’s work is to remember that it was written in a time period that is much different from 2017. Jim Crow, voter suppression, poverty and class based war made life deplorable for minorities and poor White Americans. And before the courage of the Loving family, interracial marriage was illegal throughout the country. Every great movement needs voices like Baldwin, to remind of us where we come from and what we need to do in order to move forward. It is a shame that today, his voice has been largely forgotten by a generation that has no connection of one of the greatest writers in American history.
I truly wish Baldwin had completed more books before his death. His mind was uncanny and we are fortunate to have the works that he left behind. This book is not just for Black or White Americans, but for anyone who wishes to examined and understand America’s unpleasant history with racial equality. History is not always pleasant but the darkness in it, helps us not to make the same mistakes again but to try a different path that works and exemplifies what progress truly is. Baldwin does it again with another classic.
Harlem, New York has been and still is crucial to New York City politics. The area that was home to the majority of African-Americans has been affected by the wave of gentrification that has reached nearly every major city across the nation. Musicians, actors, gangsters and politicians have found fame and fortune in the neighborhood with a storied past. And of all of the colorful characters to use Harlem as their base of activity, perhaps none is as famous as the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972) There is a street named in his honor in the area but sadly, the generation of today is largely unaware of his story and his contributions to American society. He has been described as flamboyant, stubborn, cunning and of great intelligence. He earned the affection of his congregation and millions of minorities and the wrath of presidents and senators determined to put an end to his career. Forty-five years have passed since his death on April 4, 1972. Cancer proved to be his biggest opponent, taking his life at the age of sixty-three. But who was the real Adam Clayton Powell, Jr? And why is he so important to the Civil Rights Movement and the African-American experience? Wil Haygood has researched Powell’s life and compiled this definitive account of the late congressman’s life.
Powell’s life was anything but ordinary and Haygood brings the past alive as we become more acquainted with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as we follow him through life as he attends Colgate University, succeeds his father as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and takes the plunge into politics. Legendary figures of the past make an appearance throughout the book, some of whom are still alive today. Some loved him and some hated him, but all can agree that there was no other like him. The Powell amendment, which mandated the withholding of funds to cities that refused to follow federal law mandating desegregation was a landmark piece of legislation and remains his crowning achievement. But for all of his highlights, there was also another side to the famed politician. And Haygood, as a biographer, does not avoid the darker parts of his life.
Several marriages, a playboy like lifestyle and a larger than life character are just some of the many dimensions that composed Powell. The revelations in the book are not easy to accept but they reinforce the notion that in life we do have to take the negative with the positive. And flawed as he was, he lived his life on his own terms and without compromise. Today, many would not blink an eye to the escapades of Powell but in his era, far more conservative than today, Powell was pushing the boundaries of acceptability at every turn. And for millions of young men and women of color, he became a source of pride and inspiration. His power allowed him to move through political circles but also earned him the wrath of powerful enemies who would come together as the cast of villains in the hearings that resulted in Powell losing his congressional seat which he eventually obtained again following a successful litigation campaign.
Life for Powell was fast and full of highs and lows. In hindsight, we can see the habits and decisions that led to his early death. And in death, he is remembered as one of Harlem’s greats. Powell’s is long gone but through this book, his memory to continues. The children of Harlem and across the nation today have no connection to Powell, but if he were alive, he would be fighting right now in their best interest. And for New York City residents, we should remember his life every time we drive down Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. This is his life, the story of a New York City legend whose legacy shall never fade. Haygood’s book is a welcomed addition to any library.
The death of Idi Amin Dada on August 16, 2003, caused a stir of emotions in Uganda, the country he once ruled with an iron fist. His name is infamous and the crimes of his regime are endless. He ranks high among the worst dictators in world history and is a case study of the rampant abuse of power by a malevolent tyrant. Actor Forest Whitaker brilliantly played the late dictator in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland. The film was fictionalized in part, but Whitaker capture the essence of Amin’s character and his performance was nothing short of phenomenal. The real Idi Amin was far worse as we know and there is a chance that the true number of the crimes committed by him and his henchmen will never be known. The fates of hundreds of Ugandans remain a mystery with no sense of closure in sight. Nearly four decades have passed since Amin fled into exile but he is a permanent part of Ugandan history. In this book by journalist Andrew Rice, we take a different look at the Amin regime, not through his life but through the lives of those who served him. The lives and stories intersect around the murder of Eliphaz Laki, the former county chief of Ibanda, Mbarara. In 1972, he was apprehended by Amin’s enforcers, led by Yusuf Gowon, assisted and abetted by Nasur Gille and Mohamed Anyure. His murder was covered up until his son Duncan returned to his native country in a quest to find his father’s killers. Duncan emigrated to the United States, settling in New Jersey with his wife. Their union produced four children and Laki supports his family as a lawyer. But the laws of the United States are different from Uganda as we see in the book. This is his story and a step back into time as we revisit the Protectorate of Uganda under the all watchful eye of Amin.
Before you open this book, I recommend that you remove any pre-conceived notions about Uganda. Personally, I found that after reading this book, there was much about the African nation that I did not know. In contrast to the picture of Africa being a land of savages, the truth is that colonialism, tribalism and corruption combined to eliminate any semblance of a properly functioning society. As Rice follows Duncan on his mission to bring his father’s killers to justice, the complex web of jealousy and suspicion ignited by Amin’s paranoia becomes evidently clear. Tragically, what could have been a great country, seemed to regress upon finally gaining its independence. In the book, as each character is introduce, Rice retraces their history, explaining in detail why they’re relevant to the current story. Expectedly, former leader Milton Obote appears throughout the story as he and Amin end up on a collision course for control of the country. The book develops into a history lesson on Ugandan politics and is a social study of the issues that continue to plague it today. It should be pointed out that the book is not a biography of Amin. In fact, as Rice points out, Amin’s early life is highly obscure and his exact date of birth was never been attained. The focus instead is on Duncan’s investigation with the help of a local investigator, Alfred Orijado. Their investigation leads them to the three suspects who are arrested and interrogated before signing confessions explaining their role in Eliphaz Laki’s death. And similar to the former Nazi officials, the Nuremberg defense once again rears its ugly head.
The trial eventually reveals the many flaws in the Uganda system while highlighting the progress that had been made administratively under the direction of former President Yoweri Museveni. Along with Amin and Milton Obote, Museveni is a permanent fixture in Ugandan history with the distinction of having served thirty-one years as the ruler of Ugandan. He has been called a dictator and if he should move to change the law to exempt him from retiring at the mandatory age of seventy-five, the accusations will hold more weight. Nonetheless, he is a walking piece of history at the age of seventy-one, having witnessed Uganda’s darkest times first hand. His prominence is slowly slipping as younger Ugandans look towards a brighter future with change in a new direction.
Westerners may find it hard to relate to the events in the book. For those of us lucky enough to have grown up in the United States, a civil war is unknown to us personally and something we have read about in textbooks. But for immigrants from Uganda who remember Amin’s reign, the terror remains with them every day reminding them of how tragic their lives once were. And while the ending is not what the reader may expect, the book is invaluable is showing what life was like in Uganda during that era. In death, Amin has joined the ranks of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and other dictators whose dark legacies continue to haunt the nations they once ruled. Uganda continues to heal and the story of Eliphaz and Duncan Laki, is just one of thousands to be told about the maniacal Idi Amin Dada.
Wagner Moura became one of Netflix’s most memorable faces when he assumed the role of infamous drug czar Pablo Escobar in the hit series Narcos. The series, while based off of true events, is also a fictional account of the late kingpin’s life as a cocaine trafficker and public enemy number one in Colombia. The received rave reviews and I enjoyed it immensely. I was aware of Escobar’s story before watching the show and knew that the producers would tweak some parts of the story to enhance its seduction. The created a hit that will remain one of the best products of the digital behemoth. But some of us may be asking ourselves, how much did Netflix get right? And what did they change as they filmed the show? Shaun Attwood goes behind the camera and revisits the real story of Pablo’s rise and downfall that lead to his death on December 2, 1993 in the city of Medellín.
Attwood gives a brief recap of Escobar’s early life before returning the story at hand, his time as a narco. And it is here that the story quickly picks up speed. Netflix changed some of the names of the major players in the story most likely for either legal or creative reasons. For some readers, they may need to quickly catch clips of the show to match the characters. The deaths are also different but follow the same narration as the show. Pablo once again takes center stage with a supporting cast of deadly enforcers. Combined with the animosity of rival cartels, law enforcement, revels and a president determined to see Escobar fall, the war on Escobar and drug trafficking nearly turned Colombia into a bloodbath. The violence and increase in American consumption in cocaine, earned Escobar the wrath of Washington, then under control of President George H.W. Bush. Attwood probes in the battle between the two and Washington’s many actions to bring the drug lord down. Some are familiar but other information might be surprising for some readers who were unaware of the extent of Washington’s involvement in Escobar’s apprehension.
In spite of changes by the producers of Narcos, the show did an excellent job of telling the story. The actors in the show all did an incredible job of bringing the past alive again in stunningly vivid detail. The cinematography was beyond amazing and Colombia became enchanting real, a beautify country caught in an unfortunate situation. As I read the book, I involuntarily pictured the actors from the show as I read the conversations that are put on display in the book. And although their faces and names are changed, their roles in the story are not. To be fair to Attwood, the book is not a biography of Escobar, so readers in search of that will be disappointment. But for those who want to know what was changed during the filming of Narcos and what really happened, Attwood does a great job of putting it together in a narrative easy to follow and thoroughly engaging.
Twenty-three years have passed since his death but Escobar continues to live in pop culture, documentaries and on the internet. To be fair, a large number of traffickers existed at the time Escobar made his name. Some of them are still alive today while others are incarcerated or deceased. Regardless of their present status, none have come close to matching the man who could arguably be called narco number one. In future years, he will continue to fascinate and mystify and his story is re-told and readopted for the silver screen. In death he has become martyr, icon and glimpse into Colombia’s dangerous past. Narcos has yet to be discovered, but more viewers will tune into the show and have many questions about the true story. With books such as these, they will find the answers that they seek.
Grandmothers are one of the most sacred parts of the family structure. In some cases, the grandmother also takes on the role of the child’s mother. Their wisdom gained through years of rearing children and watching them grow into adults gives them a unique perspective of life. My maternal grandmother, Jean Williams Franks (November 18, 1934-February 14, 2017) departed from this earth on Valentine’s Day at the age of eighty-three. She died peacefully at home after two years of declining health. She resisted to the end but was unable to overcome the conditions that continued to plague her. She is survived by many relatives, friends and others who knew her in passing.
This blog is for book reviews and this post will seem unusual but there are a couple of reasons why it is her. You see, my grandmother was a secretary for several decades at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. She was an excellent typist and highly detailed. And she encourage all of us to focus on our reading and writing skills. Her home always had its share of books. In fact, I have one of her most-cherished; a book from the famed Pan Am Airlines that was published in 1958. In addition, she also had in her possession, license plates from the states of New York and New Jersey that were over forty years in age. To say that she was nostalgic would be an understatement.
In addition to her interest in reading and writing, she also allowed me to perfect my typing skills through the endless use of her computers as I moved through college. She would hear me typing and comment here and there on what I need to work on. I will never forget her admonishment towards my brother and I to drink more water and use our minds. Today, I do both of these extensively. Travel was one of her true passions and from her, I have gained my love of traveling which has influence my selection of reading material that appears on this blog. Whenever I saw her, she would always ask how long it would be before I was out of the country yet again. No matter where I was going, she was always happy that I was going somewhere. Throughout her life, she never let anything stop her from seeing the world and she truly loved people. Conversation was her love and she engaged anyone who was willing to listen and respond. Tomorrow she will be laid to rest and that act will be the final stage in the changing of the guard for my aunt and mother will now assume the roles that she once assumed.
The beauty in her life was that she gave something to everyone that she met in many different forms. Though she never was able to really see this blog, I know she would be thrilled that her first-born grandchild had tapped into the gifts of reading and writing to apply them towards a positive cause. As I write, I can see her smiling in satisfaction that her endless efforts to keep us on the right track did in fact pay off over time. And in the future, as I continue to write, she will appear in my thoughts repeatedly. She is no longer in pain and has moved to a place which we all shall see one day. But until then, we will serve ourselves best by living the life that we have and enjoying each day.
Tupac Shakur once said “death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside while still alive”. Our time on this earth is limited and we do not know when we will take our last breath. We come into the world, learn from those who are already here and through our experiences as we age and mature. And at some point, we leave behind our friends, family and those who we have crossed paths with. But our actions, words and thoughts stay behind and live on in the memories of those we have touched. And in that sense, we all have the ability to live forever.
On March 20, 2003, the United States military invaded the Republic of Iraq. The invasion marked the second time US and Iraqi forces faced off in armed conflict. Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq was deposed and fled into hiding. He was captured several months later on December 10, 2003 and three years later, executed by hanging. Over 10 years have passed since his death and Iraq continues to struggle with stability in the face of internal factions divided along tribal and religions lines and the emergence of ISIS intent of claiming their portion of territory across the Middle East. After he was captured, he was debriefed by American forces. The man who many Americans had seen as a powerful dictator on television, was reduced to another captured fugitive on a most wanted list. His appearance before cameras with a full beard and unkempt hear, remains one of the most popular images from that decade. However, it was a stark contrast from the man who allegedly had his mind-set on the destruction of America. But is that was Saddam Hussein really wanted? And what were his thoughts leading up to and during the invasion? John Nixon served as a former Senior Analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency and was tasked with debriefing the fallen dictator. This book is a recap of his career and the conversations he had with Hussein following his historic capture.
I believe that in order to truly enjoy this book, it is necessary for the reader to abandon any pre-conceived notions he or she might have about Hussein. While he was in fact a brutal tyrant, he did serve as Iraq’s head of state and provides insight to the decisions and non-decisions prior to the U.S. invasion. Prior to reading the book, I knew that Hussein was one of the worst rulers the world had seen. But I was curious as to what he truly thought about U.S. foreign policy towards his country. His answers a lot of questions and also clears up a few long-standing rumors. After finishing the book, I did not come away with a favorable impression of Hussein. Neither did I feel any more antipathy towards him. I do empathize with the men and women of Iraq who suffered under his reign. And I do feel that he was either unable or unwilling to see the error in his ways. At one point during the book he makes it clear that ruling Iraq was no easy task because of several factors and fears. Perhaps he is right, after all he would know better than any of us. I did find it easier to understand why he did not fully prepare for the invasion but found it increasing difficult to find any justification for the invasion. I never believed in the invasion and after reading Hussein’s answers, it seems even more bizarre and highlights a terrible moment in U.S. foreign policy.
It may sound ridiculous to some but during the book, it seemed absurd that the Hussein that is captured was the leader of Iraq. Perhaps his capture served to humble him slightly but I had trouble looking at him in the same way. Was he naive about some things? Absolutely. Was he also defiant? Yes he was. But the real question is was he a threat to American security and did he plan to kill both George H.W. Bush and the daughters of George W. Bush? Nixon touches on those topics and the answers just might surprise you. Nixon did an excellent job of remaining unbiased throughout the book. At no time does he praise of show disdain for Hussein. He does point out errors in Hussein’s answers and does make comments about his character but he gives a balanced account and lets the former ruler speak for himself.
Saddam is by far the highlight and main topic of the book. But where the book also piques interest is in Nixon’s account of the meetings with President Bush. His memories help shed light on what the White House was thinking and willing to believe as the events were taking place. And although I’m sure the book was heavily vetted by the CIA and perhaps the Obama administration, Nixon is quite frank in his assessment of both cabinets. He also points out where the ball was dropped and the difficulty America has in understanding our counterparts in the Middle East and in particular, Iraq. The book is not the end all account of the story of the invasion but it is a great read to understanding the mind of Saddam Hussein.
On the nights of June 27 and June 28, 1969, riots occurred that changed the history of New York City and gave strength to the movement for equality and legal rights for gay men, lesbian women, transgender and transsexual people. The incidents became known as the Stonewall riots, and took place in and outside of the Stonewall bar in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood. The bar is no longer there, but on those hot summer nights in 1969, the LGBT community made a stand that shocked not only the New York City P0lice Department but an entire city. The episode stands out as one of the movement’s most powerful moments that has never been forgotten. David Carter presents to us an investigative report of what really happened during the Stonewall riots and allows us to understand why and how they came to be.
Today it is hard for some to imagine the enormous struggle faced by gay men and lesbian women in their search for equality. Same-sex marriage and strides in all sectors of society have removed the early struggle from public awareness. However, less than 50 years ago, a new revolution based on the civil rights movement and inspired by its fallen heroes emerged as the LGBT community stood up and said no more. Carter exhaustive researched the riots and spoke with many of the first hand witnesses including the late Seymour Pine, a former Inspector for the New York City Police Department, whose raids on the Stonewall served as the catalyst for the riots to follow. Pine provided invaluable insight into the raids and up until the time of his death, made it clear the he was following orders and not a personal vendetta.
The beauty is Carter’s book is his ability to take us back into time to see what it was like to be a gay man or lesbian woman in New York City at a time when harassment, imprisonment, discrimination and acts of violence occurred regularly. The incidents that take place in the book prior to the riots are ugly and shocking but reveal the true nature of the officers who patrolled the streets and the unfavorable light in which homosexuals were placed. Carter also introduces us to the major characters in the book, some of whom are still alive today and serve as a part of the past which we should not forget. The youth of today will not recognize their names but to an older generation of activists, the names of Harry Hay, Dick Leitsch, Randy Wicker, Frank Kameny and Martha Shelley are among the pioneers of an exceptional movement. Their efforts and visions paved the way for the rise of organizations that would play a central role such as the Mattachine Society, Homosexual League of New York, Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance.
Sadly, many of the pioneers of the movement are no longer with us. The emergence of HIV and AIDS resulted in the deaths of thousands of gay men. The gay cancer as it was known initially, claimed lives unrelentingly before Washington finally addressed the growing crisis. The epidemic served as one more major obstacle to be overcome by the LGBT community in their quest for equality. The advancement of LGBT people today is a testament to the hard work and tireless efforts of thousands of men and women who risked their lives in the name of freedom. Their struggle continues and as they continue to make strides and face uphill struggles, the events of Stonewall will remain fresh in the mind as a reminder of the power of resistance. Further, the events of those nights force us to examine our own actions and beliefs towards those who are different.
The village of today in New York City is a stronghold for the LGBT community. For those who visit, it is to be understood that it is their haven and you are a visitor. Their lifestyles are sometimes unconventional and in some cases shocking and in others, flamboyant. But they do not ask for approval, only respect and understanding. And if we are to forget that, then we run the risk of seeing the events of Stonewall replayed before our eyes. This book is a good place to start for anyone seeking to understand the beginnings of the gay rights movement in New York City.
This past November marked thirty-eight years since City Supervisor Harvey Milk and George Moscone were shot and killed by Dan White. Their murders and the sentencing of Dan White to just five years in prison, led to the White Night Riots and filled the LGBT community of San Franciscans with shame and disgust. After serving several years in prison, Dan White committed suicide in 1981. Milk’s life was adapted for the silver screen in the Gus Van Sant directed biopic Milk. Sean Penn assumed the role of Milk in what became on his greatest performances. Josh Brolin took on the role of the film’s antagonist, Dan White and turned in an equally great performance. They were joined in the cast by James Franco, Alison Pill, Diego Luna and Emile Hirsch who plays the role of activist Cleve Jones. Jones is the most energetic character in the film and serves as Milk’s second in command as they take of Anita Bryant, John Briggs and Proposition 6.
Nearly forty years after their groundbreaking efforts, Jones has penned this autobiography which is not only the story of his life but also about that remarkable time in the Castro when men and women came together to effect profound change in the way Americans thought about sexuality. And as one of Milk’s closest associates, he gives additional insight into how and why many of their decisions came about. The film is about Milk and because Jones is a supporting character, his life is never explored except for the fact that he is from Phoenix, AZ. But was we learn in the book, his life story is simply extraordinary and could easily be adapted for the silver screen itself. Having been a first hand witness to all the major hurdles to be overcome in the movement, he is a treasure trove of history and knowledge. And the revelations in the book about his life and those around him are intriguing and also surprising. As an activist for the rights of the LGBT community, it is to be expected that he faced a severe amount of hate, bigotry and backlash for his efforts. It is detailed in the book and will be tough for some readers to get through but it is necessary in understanding the importance of the movement in which he partook.
Incredibly, he came out to his parents at a young age, but as opposed to what is shown in the film, he had already traveled in and out of the United State and across it even before he formed his allegiance with Milk. The early part of his life is incredible but will resonate with the hearts and minds of those who have the passion for travel. His meetings with Milk and subsequent involvement in Milk’s campaign signified the alignment of two minds united in a common cause. Much younger than Milk, he becomes a student of the movement and quickly makes his mark. And following Milk’s death, he became one of the loudest voices in keeping Milk’s memory and legacy alive. But what is overlooked is his life after Milk’s death which took on yet another critical turn with the onset of the AIDS epidemic. While Milk is covered in the book, this is not the story of Harvey Milk, this is Jones story and this time, Milk is the supporting character.
Accurately portrayed in And The Band Played On, San Francisco became ground zero for the growing HIV epidemic originally believed to be a “gay cancer”. Today we know that the term is pure nonsense and was fabricated by those ignorant of how HIV is spread. His account of the growing crisis which affect those around him is heartbreaking but an all too common story of hundreds or perhaps thousands of LGBT men and women who lived during the era. He does not try to explain the crisis but does lend a voice to what he saw and heard through his experiences and relationships with many of the late leading figures such as activist Bill Kraus and author Randy Shilts. And his own story is guaranteed to leave the reader both shocked and angered in regards to the political and social climate that once existed broadly in America and in some places still does. In spite of everything that happened and his personal struggles, he is still here and his voice is still relevant. He is in an integral part in San Francisco and American history.
Jones is a lifelong activist and his work on behalf of the movement has never ended. In the second half of the book, he tells even more about the continuing movement, his role and life at the time. The battle for marriage equality became the most important crusade and the Supreme Court’s decision deeming parts of Proposition 8 unconstitutional, became a landmark moment in the mission for true equality. Jones was there as a witness and participant and his memories of the effort are important and a testimony that deserves both preservation and exploration. Many years after he is gone, we will look back on his words to understand the enormous amount of work that goes into a movement and the courage that is required to face the daily threat of harm and death. This is his story, one that transcends across all social spectrums and is a historical record of pivotal times in the continuing evolution of the United States of America.
America still struggles to understand the Middle East and a large number of Americans have suspicion and fear of the religion of Islam. Acts of terrorism and reports of the extremes of Sharia law have caused many Americans to dismiss Islam as an archaic system of faith maintained by fear, intimidation and capital punishment. Furthermore we are rarely exposed to the positive aspects of life in an Islamic state and are only shown the most extreme acts of aggression that occur. It has been planted in our minds that Muslims around the world would like nothing more than to see the United States collapse. Near the top of this list are the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation which shares a long and troubled history with the United States of America.
It is tempting to dismiss Iran as another nation controlled by radical Islamic fanatics determined to destroy America. But the reality is that Iran is far from that and highly misunderstood by the west. Michael Axworthy dives into this topic and provides us with a history of Iran in an effort to explain how and why it is the nation it has become. His efforts have resulted in an incredible and insightful look into a unique and revolutionary country. As can be seen in the book, the key to understanding Iran and the Middle East are the Sunni and Shiite systems of belief. They lie at the heart of much of the dissension between Iran and its neighboring Islamic nations for the largest number of Muslims are believers of the Sunni system. The conflict between the two systems is explored throughout the book and helps the reader to understanding the forces behind Iran’s war with Iraq from 1980-1988.
Today, the focus is on Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and the incoming presidential administration will seek to enforce stricter measures than ever before. But the question we have to ask ourselves is how much of a threat is Iran to the United States? The answer just might surprise you. As we learn in the book, Iran has for many years sought to emulate the western style of life. And this is one reason why the overthrow of the government of Mohammad Mossadegh was such a dark moment in U.S. foreign policy. Mossadegh was a nationalist and believer in a free Iran but also believed in democratic processes. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi returned from exile following the CIA backed coup of Mossadegh’s government and sought to modernize Iran even going as far as to try to remove the name Persia from all aspects of Iranian society. His efforts would prove to be futile and would also help engineer his downfall which came during the 1979 revolution in which Ayatollah Khomeini asserted his reign over Iran. His administration was followed by several regime changes which resembled a comedy of errors culminating with the rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the brazen and outspoken president who seemed to walk a fine line between reality and make-believe. Each of the rulers come with their own story and one of the highlights of the book is that their personal stories are told in detail. At first it may seem overwhelming as a multitude of names appear throughout the book. But they are critical for the reader because they all played a critical part in the development of modern-day Iran.
Remarkably, even with devout Islamist such as Khomeini in charge, Iran still retained some aspects of western society. The true tragedy is the inability of the west, primarily the United States, to establish stronger diplomatic relations with the Iranian Republic. The attack on the U.S. embassy, overthrow of the Shah and war with Iraq, brought Iran into direct opposition to the United States. What is often forgotten is Iran has never threatened American or executed any type of preemptive strike. Their ability to inflict death and turmoil is far overblown. But what stands out above all else is that we continue to make the same mistakes towards Iran and fail to understand the complex history of a truly remarkable nation that finds itself on the brink of modernity. To help Iran along this trail of progression, it is imperative that the channels of communication remain open. Some of us have friends, neighbors, co-workers and even family members of Iranian heritage. We owe to them and to ourselves to learn the history of the place they call home. In the process we will not only learn more about them but about ourselves as well.
Iran continues to reexamine itself and look towards change. The healing process from the war with Iraq and constant regime changes have left lasting impressions upon the Iranian people. But they continue to hope for liberty and democracy, ideas that they have adopted from America. And as it continues to change, we can hope that the people of Iran move past the influences of despotic leaders, extreme ideology, suppression of freedom of expression, speech, women’s rights and a world opinion that has set neighboring countries against it. For those of us in the west determined to understand the true history of Iran and why it matters to us, Axworthy’s book is a good place to start.