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“By institutionalizing memory, resisting the onset of oblivion, recalling the memory of tragedy that for long years remained hidden or unrecognized and by assigning its proper place in the human conscience, we respond to our duty to remember.”– UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura1
I am disturbed by Roland Emmerich’s historical drama “Stonewall,” because of its whitewashing of a historic moment turned movement. When I look back at the first night of the Stonewall Inn riots, I could have never imagined its future importance. The first night played out no differently from previous riots with Black Americans and white policemen. And so too, it being underreported. But I was there.
FRIDAY, JUNE 27TH, WAS THE last day of school that year. And with school out, my middle-school cronies and I looked forward to a summer reprieve from rioting against Italian, Irish and Jewish public school kids for being bussed into their neighborhoods. However, the summer months in Brooklyn’s African American enclaves only escalated rioting between New York’s finest—the New York Police Department—and us. During this tumultuous decade of Black rage and white police raids, knee-jerk responses to each other’s slights easily set the stage for a conflagration, creating both instantaneous and momentary fighting alliances in these Black communities across gangs, class, age, ethnicity and sexual orientations—against police brutality.
That night of June 27th started out no differently than any hot and humid summer Friday night in my neighborhood. Past midnight, folks with no AC or working fans in their homes were just hanging out. Some lounged on the fire escapes while others were on the stoops of their brownstones laughing and shooting the breeze. Some were in heated discussion of Black revolutionary politics, while the Holy Rollers were competing with each other over Scripture. The Jenkins boys were drumming softly on their congas to the hot breezy mood of the night air. And directly under the street lamp was an old beat-up folding card table where the Fletchers and the Andersons, lifelong friends and neighbors, were shouting over a game of bid whist.
The sight of Dupree galloping up the block toward us abruptly interrupted the calm of the first hour of Saturday, June 28th. Dupree stopped in front of the gaming table and yelled out, “The pigs across the bridge are beating up on Black faggots—right now!” Cissy Anderson, who was just moments from throwing in her hand to go to bed, let out a bloodcurdling scream that shook us and brought a momentary halt to everything. Nate Anderson grabbed his wife to comfort her and said, “Cissy, calm down.”
Greenwich Village in the 1800s had housed the largest population for former slaves in the country. But gentrification forced racial relocation and led to Harlem becoming the Mecca of Black America.
When Dupree stopped in front of Mr. Fletcher’s game table, he was signaling to his aunt and uncle that their son Birdie, who sang like a beautiful songbird, was more than likely in the melee across the bridge. Everyone knew Birdie was gay, and we wondered where he and his “brother-girls,” as he dubbed them, had gone on the weekends when they laughed and spoke in code on Sundays about their exploits while robing-up for choir.