... a masterpiece tome: part sociology, part oral history, part memoir, part call to arms ... The public face of ACT UP was often white and male ... But the organization itself was (if unevenly) devoted to medical access for all demographics...and this focus owed much to the work of activists from those demographics whose stories Schulman excels in highlighting ... Schulman has critical words for narratives...that center on a straight savior narrative, that tell only the story of white gay men, or that imply activism was the work of a few rather than of the collective. A stickler could argue that to zero in on ACT UP New York is to reinforce another kind of generalization: that New York, along with maybe San Francisco, was where AIDS happened, and where the response happened—to the exclusion of activism in other cities, on college campuses and abroad. To be clear, this is not a flaw in Schulman’s book itself, which could only achieve such depth by narrowing its focus to one specific organization. She also makes known the impact of those who brought ACT UP outside the city ... Here is a primer, a compendium of what one group learned and struggled with and accomplished. Here is a book to start a mighty shelf.
The effect is rather like standing in the middle of that large room, where anyone could speak up and share an idea. Everyone is talking; small stories branch off, coalesce pages later. Speakers shade in one another’s stories, offer another angle, disagree passionately. You turn a page, and the same people have their arms linked together at a protest. Shadows start to fall; in squares of gray text, deaths are marked, moments for remembrance. So many people leave the room ... I understand but can’t quite accept that this book is about 700 pages long — not when I tore through it in a day; still now, while fact-checking this review, I can scarcely skim it without being swallowed back into the testimonies. It’s not just the cumulative power of the voices gathered here, but the curious slant of the story itself ... This is a book about the past, written in the fury of the present — in the midst of another epidemic — but its gaze is fixed on the future. Let the Record Show doesn’t seek to memorialize history but to ransack it, to seize what we might need. The dedication — 'to us' — feels like an invitation: What are you doing with your Monday nights? ... This is not reverent, definitive history. This is a tactician’s bible ... [Schulman] writes nonfiction as an artist, she insists, not as a historian or academic. She does not measure her success by proof of her arguments but by their usefulness, plenitude and provocation.
... outstanding ... In writing Let the Record Show, published earlier this year, Schulman has orchestrated a people’s history of ACT UP New York. Her voice and those of a chorus of activists cohere in the book, which draws both on her experience as a veteran of the political-action group and from lengthy interviews she conducted with nearly 200 other members. The result is an expansive portrait of the people, principles, and campaigns that made ACT UP the most formidable political organization to emerge from the AIDS crisis ... The book is a significant departure both from the popular perception of ACT UP as an exclusively white, gay, male organization, and from other well-known representations of the group ... Schulman writes as a witness to and a survivor of a catastrophe, clear-eyed and committed to remembering the dead ... serves as both history and handbook of how a small coalition can achieve fundamental political change ... not an easy read, given that it tells a story of incalculable suffering and loss; and yet it’s an invigorating work, for it also documents uncommon courage and defiance. Schulman has written a necessary book that expands our vision of AIDS activism and demands us to remember the living and the dead who made ACT UP an indispensable political and cultural force.
... the remarkable, timely capstone to [Schulman's] decades-long labor of documenting the improbable miracle that was and is ACT UP ... Without polemic or resentment, the book is explicit in its corrective intent ... Having done the immense labor of collecting these testimonies, Schulman wants to make sure you hear them in their full and sometimes contradictory complexity, and to understand why some of the names are more familiar to you than others ... The fact that Let the Record Show only scratches the surface is not a critique but a sad acknowledgment of historiography’s realities ... This isn’t the only book on ACT UP, or the definitive book on ACT UP. It’s Sarah Schulman’s book on ACT UP, a powerful document of a harrowing and enduring tragedy, and of the relentless determination to act up, fight back, and fight AIDS.
... even though Let the Record Show is somewhere close to 800 pages, you’ll read it urgently. The fight for the public’s attention still feels alive in the way Schulman writes. This is a book that looks backwards and forwards at once ... Schulman does her best to highlight this, to pick at the ways we only understand movements through heroes and leading individuals. Let the Record Show acquaints the reader with this instinct. Reading through the memories and impacts of the survivors interviewed for the ACT UP Oral History Project and referred to in this book, I found myself clinging to each name, thinking this person, this one was especially memorable ... I love knowing this, that in the midst of all the loss and illness, attraction and pleasure and relationships were also integral, were also deeply explored and expanded ... the inciting question Schulman set out to answer when beginning the interviews that would become the basis for this book: What did the members of ACT UP share? Finding the link between such a diverse group was maze-like and riddled with deadends. The answer Schulman comes to is motivating though; it makes me ask what we’re all doing now.
... remarkable ... Schulman does more than establish an extensive history of the movement, she guides us through the transferable principles that made it successful and encourages us to let this history do real work as we strategize interventions in response to the countless crises of our world ... I think about the ways that one might utilize this hefty text by assigning these case studies in a classroom as companions to primary historical materials and a guide to the ACT UP Oral History Project, but I likewise imagine individual chapters circulating in consciousness-raising groups, community centers, and activist organizations ... restores the historical urgency and specificity of these actions and their imagery ... She doesn’t just pay lip service to the diversity of ACT UP ... Schulman weaves together the oral history interviews of ACT UP members and her own recollections and analysis, always mindful of the narratives she is constructing and closing down through her own writing; she makes space for the messy moments of historical experience and interpretation and highlights discrepancies between her own recollections and those of her subjects. While she makes a clear and convincing argument against the deification of particular individuals, it is difficult not to hold Schulman herself up as an unsung hero of the movement ... One is left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude—not only for the incredible amount of labor that it took to remember, collect, preserve, narrate, and interpret the events of this book, but for the world-changing activism from which we have all benefitted in such incalculable ways.
Let the Record Show is a corrective intervention in AIDS historiography, attempting to revise the popular understanding of ACT UP to make it both more democratic and more accurate. Schulman emphasizes the contributions of men of color, like the luminary artist Ray Navarro; of women of color, like the advocate for incarcerated people with HIV Katrina Haslip; and of lesbians, like the radical feminist Maxine Wolfe. Theirs is the ACT UP she wants younger activists to learn about ... The proximity of sex and death is part of what makes AIDS, like abortion, so fascinating, and also what makes it prone to sensationalism and misunderstanding. In Schulman’s telling, this joyfulness and sexuality does not read as indifference to the suffering of the sick, or obliviousness to risk (among other things, it becomes clear that there was widespread use of condoms). Instead, it paints a picture of activists not as martyrs, but as real people, living out the full spectrums of their emotional lives while also trying to meet the demands of history. This is part of Schulman’s project: to demystify ACT UP. The more its membership is understood as a group of plausible human beings, the more that it seems possible that what they built could be built again ... Schulman does not dwell on emotions—she is a markedly unsentimental thinker—but it is clear from her account that this era is something that many people from ACT UP never got over.
At first glance the title of Sarah Schulman’s remarkable history of the Aids pressure group ACT UP in New York has a cool authority at odds with the turbulent energy of the group itself, although justified by the meticulousness of her scholarship ... Her book is made up of testimony, exposition and analysis, not blended but artfully layered ... the thesis advanced here is that the skills and resources acquired from the struggle for reproductive rights enabled women to play a transformative role in ACT UP. She proves it in breadth and depth ... Schulman is quietly partisan, often using the first-person plural (the book is dedicated to ‘us’), though with such a broad range of internal perspectives on record there’s no shortage of in-house analysis and criticism ... if anyone is entitled to a little questionable speculation, after amassing so much compelling factual and human testimony, it’s the author of this rich and amazing book.
[Schulman's] book is best approached as a sort of modified oral history, a curated archive of nearly two hundred interviews conducted over the course of two decades. One can open this seven-hundred-page book at random and find something interesting to read: a mini-biography, firsthand recollections of major events, contentious perspectives on the goals of different groups within ACT UP ... Schulman draws, too, on her five years as an ACT UP member, but largely eschews other people’s research, and the book provides scant interstitial narrative; some readers may struggle to put these passages into context. Still, her labors will provide an invaluable resource for the social history of the movement that remains to be written ... of the nearly two hundred interviews that she draws upon for the book, only a few are with Black people. The voices of important activists of color who didn’t survive the plague are absent, owing to her reluctance to use archives other than her own. Even in a chapter describing the plight of H.I.V.-positive Haitians interned in Guantánamo, all her interview subjects are white...Schulman hurries past such conversations, more concerned with scrutinizing the group’s media image than its complicated reality ... ACT UP was always argumentative, though, and Let the Record Show remains faithful to that spirit. If Schulman’s record-keeping sometimes projects her own ideals and aspirations, she never fails to make one truth eloquently clear: 'how brutal debates within the aids community could be, how high the emotional and literal stakes were, how desperate people were, how little anyone else was listening, and how truly destructive the pain and frustration could become.'
Let the Record Show’s massive size is the result of Schulman’s decision to structure the book around oral histories collected over the course of nearly twenty years for the ACT UP Oral History Project, which she cofounded with the experimental filmmaker Jim Hubbard ... Grounding the book in the tradition of oral history also allows for voices previously sidelined from major ACT UP historiographies to be heard ... Activists of color, too, are front and center, as evidenced by Schulman’s editorial—and political—decision to open the book with the stories of Robert Vázquez-Pacheco and Moisés Agosto-Rosario, two Puerto Rican members of ACT UP who played significant roles in the Majority Action Committees and Gran Fury, and the Latino Caucus and ACT UP Puerto Rico, respectively ... But Let the Record Show is still missing a crucial set of voices: HIV positive women, specifically HIV positive women of color ... Not merely a matter of representation, Schulman’s recontextualization serves as an intervention in the political analysis of ACT UP. While histories focused on T&D can make it seem like they alone won victories for the activist group, Schulman argues that most ACT UP wins must be viewed as the result of what she calls the group’s 'inside'/'outside' tactical approach ... The irony of Schulman’s choice is that Gran Fury’s Let the Record Show assumes that the record of harm will reveal itself without explication, which is surely not an interpretive task Schulman believes regarding the oral histories. Not only are the oral histories meticulously edited and organized for the purpose of the book, but there’s an inherent instability to them ... we can and must differentiate between unfounded criticisms of ACT UP and the necessity for multiple, and at times conflicting, histories of the group, and to not allow the fear of the former to prevent the latter. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing sight of those activists now receiving the overdue recognition they deserve.
Let the Record Show is in part a grand accounting, tallying up what was won, what was lost, and the process through which those battles were fought. Only by this kind of rigorous analysis can the lessons of ACT UP be passed on to current and future activists ... Let the Record Show is a work of considerable formal daring composed almost entirely of quotes taken from those oral histories, woven together with summaries and interstitials that cohere those voices into a narrative ... Schulman doesn’t replace one set of heroes with another; rather, she destroys the idea of singular heroes at all. This is a political choice that creates a more honest representation of ACT UP, and it is a strength of the book—but like all strengths, it contains its own weakness ... It at times can get repetitive ... Let the Record Show is unquestionably the product of Schulman’s unique vision.
... deeply personal ... [Schulman] states that she is not a trained historian, but her skilled use of oral histories, combined with solid research into earlier social movements, provide a complete history of ACT UP, from its founding in 1987 to the present day. The writing is given a personal touch with the inclusion of profiles and oral histories of notable people, such as chemist Iris Long and HIV/AIDS researcher Mark Harrington. These portraits, together with the historical context offered throughout, prove the lasting influence of ACT UP and have a lot to teach readers about activism today. Schulman reminds us that ACT UP still exists because the HIV/AIDS crisis is not over ... This engaging, accessible book will find a wide audience among readers interested in activism from the ground up. It will also be a foundational document for historians for generations to come. A must-read.
Schulman presents ACT UP not as a heroic, sanitized institution made up of exclusively white gay men, but as what it actually was: an organization that managed to improve the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS despite its own racism and sexism. By doing this, Schulman creates a much more nuanced—and accurate—portrait of the AIDS crisis, highlighting the ways the disease impacted women and people of color.
... a significant boots-on-the-ground account ... Schulman clearly demonstrates that ACT UP was founded in part to engender a relentlessly democratic and inclusive force of activism. That ideology explains the heft of this book, which isn’t written as traditional history but as a mashup of events witnessed by Schulman and oral history that’s truly all-encompassing. Readers are right there with activists, hearing their stories from them but also others who knew them ... Vital, democratic truth-telling.
Schulman showcases the diverse array of people who worked to raise awareness about AIDS, and notes their simultaneous involvement in related issues including homelessness, gender inequity in medicine, and needle exchange programs ... Readers less familiar with ACT UP may wish for a clearer explanation of its organizational structure and more narrative cohesion than Schulman provides. Still, her firsthand perspective and copious details provide a valuable testament to the courage and dedication of many unheralded activists.