My current situation. My library didn’t have either of these, but I was able to purchase them online. First editions, both of them. #bestillmyheart
So, do y’all know how it feels when you finally get a book that you’ve been waiting for but you’re scared to open it? The very idea gets your heart to racing and your palms get all sweaty and you keep reading the back cover trying to psych yourself out, ’cause you know that this book is everything you’ve been waiting for and more. And once you start reading it you know that nothing else in your life is going to matter, that you will NOT be bothered until you finish it? Y’all know what I’m talmbout. The way we feel when we know that Toni Morrison has a new book coming out.
Well, that’s how I’m feeling right now, and although I know Mama Morrison has a new one coming out in April, that’s not the book that’s giving me the bubble guts right now. That book would be Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. I’ve just purchased my copy and I’m so anxious that I decided to write this blog instead of just reading it. Lest I sound like a crackpot, let me explain.
Barbara Smith is a Black lesbian feminist icon. Her essay “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” written in 1977 formed the foundation of my own theory for writing about Black lesbian literature, and I am currently using it as the theoretical underpinning for my dissertation. Her work with the Combahee River Collective, in particular their bold statement of interlocking oppressions and feminist organizing would help to shape my own thinking on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, and lead me to “coming out” as a Black lesbian feminist in grad school. Her work as a publisher, specifically the creation of Kitchen Table Women of Color Press with her sister Beverly, inspired me to start my own small press. I believe as Mama Morrison does, that if there is a book that hasn’t been written that you want to read, write it yourself. It follows then that if you want to see something in print that has yet to be published, do it yourself. That’s what Barbara Smith did, and I believe with all my heart that I can do it too.
Before writing this post I spent 20 minutes trying to decide whether to by this new book about Smith’s life and work in print or download to my iPad. I finally decided to do both: I downloaded it because I could not bear to wait the two days it would take to get to my house. But I still need the print copy; I have to feel this book in my hands. Call me crazy, but the print book somehow seems more real, a physical representation of archive of this great woman’s work.
At some point tomorrow I’ll start to read it. I can’t tonight; if I start it I’ll stay up all night reading, and I have to get up early to go to work. The struggle is real, y’all.
So no, this is not a review of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, but rather a love letter (albeit a strange one) to one of my heroes, a woman I’ve never met but whose work has had a huge impact on my life and work. I owe a huge debt to Smith and her generation of activists and writers, and I doubt many of the LGBT or queer scholars working today would be able to do the work that we are doing without Smith’s tireless efforts and advocacy on behalf of Black women, lesbians, and other oppressed peoples. I’m grateful to the editors, Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks as well, because I know this book must have been a labor of love.
To commemorate the life and legacy of our sister Audre Lorde, who would have been 80 years of age today, I am reposting this piece I wrote in 2009 on the new collection of Lorde’s work, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Rudolph Byrd, and Johnnetta B. Cole.
Musings on I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde
Travel back in time with me to 1986, (I realize that some of you might have been very small children then, but work with me), to my senior high school English class, taught by Chi-Chi Peak, and yes, she looked just liked her name sounds, like a little bird, flitting around the classroom correcting our English and encouraging us to embrace Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I loved. When it came time to select a text for our book reports, I wanted to write about one of the few black authors I knew of at the time, James Baldwin.( Morrison and Walker had both been writing for decades, but their work had not received the status that it has today.) I had read If Beale Street Could Talk and fallen in love. From that point forward, I read everything by Baldwin I could get my hands on, including his famous collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, and Giovanni’s Room. Somehow I figured out that Baldwin was gay, and even though at that time I didn’t know that that was something we had in common, I felt as if Baldwin was my big brother, uncle, something. He became my hero, and I wanted to write the kinds of essays that he wrote, essays that would spark a nation divided by racism into action, to write essays that would stir the types of emotions that Baldwin’s work had stirred in me. Mrs. Peak didn’t want me to write about Baldwin, and she wanted to know why I chose this author rather than one of the authors on our reading list. Well, to me it was quite obvious, he was Black and wrote about all of the things I cared about, racism, oppression, love, family, literature, all of the issues that shaped the world I lived in. He was my brother, and I wanted everyone I knew to appreciate his work too. Mrs. Peak did not share my enthusiasm for Baldwin, and indeed, from this point forward I was “militant.” I guess you could say that I still am.
Fast forward to the year 2007. By this time I had been married, had a daughter, divorced, and had been “out” as a lesbian for about 13 years, even though I had been only out to my family for about four. I came across Alexis DeVeaux’s biography of Audre Lorde, Warrior Poet at a used book store. I didn’t read it then, but knew that I should. Still, I put it on my shelf and promptly forgot about it.
However, in 2008, I was reintroduced to Lorde’s work, and in the past two years, Audre Lorde has become central to my research and central to the ways in which I have come to view my identity. Yes, my identity. For those of you who think that identity politics is an exercise in futility, that the death of the author, theories of structuralism, and post-structuralism, postmodernism, and psychoanalysis, queer theory and performance theory, have done away with the subject, be advised that in doing so they erased our very humanness as well. It is very easy for us to sit in the safety of our tower, our classrooms and offices and theorize about what it means to be Black, lesbian, woman, man, the list could go on. But for the past several months, a lot us of have shed tears of the senseless suicides of several gay youth who suffered at the hands of bullies because of their real or perceived identities as gay men. But how many of us have cried over Sakia Gunn? The young Black lesbian woman murdered on the streets of Newark, New Jersey because she rejected the advances of white men and proclaimed her lesbian identity? This is the kind of oppression that Lorde speaks about in her essays. And this is why I Am Your Sister:Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde is such an important book.
This collection of essays is in part inspired by the recent opening of the Audre Lorde Papers housed at the Spelman Archives at Spelman College, where both Guy-Sheftall and Cole have been faculty and administrators. The Arcus grant that funded the processing of the archives seeks also established the ZAMI project to: “increase the public awareness and understanding about African American gay and lesbian experiences; explore the marginalization of racial issues in the GLBT movement;… and other activities to combat homophobia in the Atlanta University Center community and other historically black colleges and universities; and contribute to the production of scholarship on Lorde” (Guy-Sheftall 2009, 255).
So this volume has several goals as articulated in Byrd’s introduction:
- To honor the life and legacy of Audre Lorde.
- To elevate the importance of Lorde’s published essays and other work, which have served as a catalyst for theorizing by scholars and activists in relation to questions of identity, difference, power, social movements, and social justice.
- To publish selections from the unpublished writings by Lorde.
- To recover some of Lorde’s prose writing that has been out of print. (2009, 4-5)
What Guy-Sheftall, Cole, and Byrd suggest in their reflections on Lorde and her work is that “each of us has multiple identities” and Lorde reminded us of that each time she introduced herself as “black, woman, feminist, lesbian, mother, teacher, warrior, poet” (2009, 236). Indeed throughout the text Lorde is referred to as a Black lesbian feminist, and as the sister outsider. Why are the authors privileging these identities? For two reasons: The terms bring to mind Lorde’s collection of essays, Sister Outsider; and also because the term “illustrates the ways in which Lorde reclaimed and transformed overlapping , discredited, and marginalized identities—black, lesbian, feminist—into a powerful, radical, and progressive standpoint” (Byrd 2009, 5).
Likewise, the introduction traces a brief history of Black feminist thought, and gives us snippets of Lorde’s Back lesbian perspective on the civil rights movement, second wave U.S. feminism, the Black Nationalist movement, and the gay and lesbian movement. Lorde had something to say about it all. We also learn about her battles with cancer, her trips to the Caribbean, and the homophobia she experienced at the hands of Black intellectuals. I Am Your Sister is important because we need to rethink how we hear and don’t listen; see, but look through, past, or around; identify and dismiss.
In the years since I’ve become re-acquainted with Lorde and her work, I’ve come to understand that my fierce commitment to self-definition, to speaking boldly, to embracing difference, and to uncovering racism, sexism, and homophobia wherever I find it, are also hallmarks of Lorde’s work and life.
I am a Black mother, sister, daughter, lesbian, scholar, writer, activist, southerner, friend.
And I too, am your sister.
So much has happened over the past few weeks, that I barely know where to start. I’ll just jump right in and if this point seems disjointed and random, that’s probably because that is what my life feels like right now.
First, the good news: The semester ended well and I’ll be teaching Intro to LGBT Studies in the spring and LGBTQ Identities in Popular Culture this summer. I’m excited about both courses and I’m itching to put my Black lesbian feminist spin on both of these topics.
My daughter graduated from college on December 9th, and the whole family celebrated the occasion for at least a week. She was also offered a job (albeit part-time), where she completed her internship, so she’s now an assistant editor at a pretty posh little magazine in the South. I had her sign her first issue ’cause I know she’s going to be famous someday!
After spending three weeks with the fam, I met up with T. in Chattanooga to meet my new “in-laws” for the first time. I was a bit nervous at first, but I had the best time with them and they welcomed me with open arms. Literally. EVERYBODY I met hugged me. I got to tell you, that’s one of the things I love about being in the South with Black people, we aren’t afraid to show you that we love you.
On to the bad news: My mom fell ill while I was home, and after she was admitted to the hospital with possible pneumonia, we found out that she had had a minor heart attack. How the heck did she have a heart attack and no one knew??? She said she probably passed it off as indigestion and I believe her, but she also had a stroke last year with hardly any symptoms. We’ve got to keep a better eye on her, and she’s got to tell us when something hurts! I won’t theorize here about Black women being “strong” and keeping our pain to ourselves (you can look it up for yourself), but I do believe this is part and parcel why she kept so quiet about not feeling good.
My mini-vacation to Edmonton with T. was cancelled due to the weather (I missed my flight) and her flight was delayed for two days. This wasn’t such a bad thing, but I probably won’t get back out there until mid-March.
Finally, I’m in a love/hate relationship with my dissertation right now. This probably deserves its own post, but I’ll just say that I’ve struggled this past semester in ways that I had not thought imaginable. I’m nearly done with the chapter I’m currently working on, but just couldn’t seem to break through my writing fog until today. I don’t know if it’s the dismal job market, current ennui with my topic, or the current state of academia writ large, but I’ve been rethinking this whole Ph.D. thing for a few months now. I came into this thing fully aware of the risks, but since I’ve been in academia I’ve seen what seems to be a full-scale assault on academic freedom/dissent, the adjunctification of academic labor, as well as come to realize that not everybody working in Women’s/LGBT Studies is as feminist as they claim. Still, I absolutely adore my home discipline of American Studies, even as it comes under fire for its correct decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
I’m no baby (no offense to the babies out there), but I started this thing at 40, having enjoyed a decent career in corporate America. However, academic in-fighting and posturing, arm-chair activism, and the never-ending hierarchies sometimes leave me wondering if I made the right choice. In other words, if another person tells me I’m “just a grad student” one more time, I’m going to punch them in the throat. I’m 44 years old, I’m not “just” anything. Only in academia are you expected to give up life and limb for paltry pay and the privilege of being at the bottom of the academic heap. The undergraduates are treated with more respect. I have not experienced this in my home discipline, but I most certainly have in other areas of the institution with which I am currently affiliated.
But on the other hand, I have the extreme privilege of watching my students “come to consciousness” and knowing that when they leave my classroom, they are better equipped to deal with the issues they will most certainly face in the real world, and that I’ve helped them to think more critically about their role in maintaining or disrupting the race, class, gender, and sexual systems of oppression that impact all of us. On more than one occasion I’ve been blessed with a hug or a kind note of appreciation from a student.
I also love my research project, even though there are days when I want to toss it across the ocean and never look back. I’ve finally finished transcribing an important interview, and I feel ready to move forward. I received good feedback on this chapter draft from a trusted colleague, and I feel like I’m headed back toward the land of productivity.
I’m still mad at academia right now, but not because I feel cheated or because I might not get the job I think l I’m entitled to. It’s because I think we can and must do better, and I’m not sure that we will. In this digital age, why are we still holding on to peer review processes that take upwards of 18 months to complete? Why are we still admitting students into graduate programs for which we know there will be no jobs? Why have we allowed contingent labor to become the primary means by which we educate our students? Have we decided that the only way to hold on to whatever semblance of privilege we have is at the cost of educating our students? I know that as a 44-year old Black lesbian, I am not supposed to be here. That I am is in itself an act of resistance and an affront to all those who wish to silence me, and evidence that the work that I am doing is valuable and necessary.
So I must press on. Weary but determined to get what I came for.
The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.
Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977
This is a re-post of a blog I wrote earlier this year. As I move forward with the diss and continue my work on Black lesbian literature and culture, I am reminded why the work I am doing has value, why our stories MUST be told. Faderman’s text is a salient reminder that if we don’t document our own stories, no one else will.
I’ve just finished reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America by Lillian Faderman, and while I didn’t really expect to learn anything new about (cough cough) white lesbian culture, I was surprised to find out that Faderman seems to be an apologist for the racist behavior of the white lesbian feminists she writes about during the period of about 1960-1980.
Lest you think I’m being overly sensitive, let me give you a few examples:
To start, Faderman publishes this scholarly text in 1991, but she doesn’t mention Barbara Smith, The NBFO, (National Black Feminist Organization), The Combahee River Collective, or any of the other Black lesbian feminist activists or writers in her chapters on lesbian revolution or lesbian nation, key periods for Black feminist organizing that included several Black lesbians. She does mention Pat Parker briefly, but then goes right onto Third World feminists and “how they felt they all shared the experiences of racism in a white society and white women needed to deal with racism on their own.” This is probably the only thing that Faderman gets right in her discussions about race and lesbian feminists. Yes, Black and Third World lesbians and feminists did believe that white women needed to deal with their racism, but Faderman makes it seems as if Black and Third World women were at fault for the racism that kept them from feeling a part of the larger lesbian feminist movement. Faderman states:
“They [white lesbian feminists] really did want to broaden the base of their group by attracting lower-income and Third World women, but they sincerely did not know how, outside of welcomes and appearing receptive. As radical as they were, they suffered from the liberal’s basic ineptness in dealing with other classes and races.”
Seriously? So these women, who were savvy enough to start an entire movement, organize women from all over the country, come up with an agenda, publish treatises and manifestos, leave their husbands, and forge new lives for themselves on communes and in new communities, couldn’t take the time to sit with their shit and examine their own race and class privilege? Nah, I guess not.
This point is further driven home in a statement by radical lesbians when asked why they didn’t want to work with straight feminists:
“Quit begging our straight sisters to let us be their niggers [italics added] in the movement, and stop taking all the insults and shit work the pussy cats and their toms can heap on us. If we can step forward, we should do so with the intention of working for our own cause….”
So, I’m not surprised at all that white feminists used the oppression of Black people as their go to point to drive home their own positionality in the feminist movement, but I am surprised that Faderman made no mention of this as indicative of the types of racist shenanigans that kept Black and other lesbians of color from wanting to organize with them in the first place. She doesn’t mention this egregious use of the N-word at all. At all. Yeah, Black women really wanted to work with white women who had the nerve to use the N-word talk about their own oppression, even as they oppressed Black women. Okay.
While Faderman does acknowledge that Black and other lesbians of color did organize, she gives total credit to radical lesbians “who had helped to foster awareness in minority lesbians, who now began to see themselves as a group with lesbian and feminist political interests.” If we are to believe Faderman, Black and other lesbians of color had no idea what feminists or lesbians were before white women came along and educated them. Girl, bye.
She also mentions that Black women would not embrace the identity “lesbian feminist,” because lesbian feminist goals “were irrelevant to the major problems that minorities faced.” I guess she hasn’t read ANY of Audre Lorde’s work, who always referred to herself as a Black lesbian feminist, and who wrote several essays uncovering the race and class privilege that white women refused to acknowledge at this time. Faderman wasn’t reading the Combahee River Collective “Black Feminist Statement” either. Black lesbians WERE suspicious of lesbian separatist politics. They knew that it was impossible to separate themselves completely from their communities, and that any politics that would not address the interlocking oppressions of race, class, sexuality, and gender could not adequately improve the conditions of Black women in the United States. Black lesbians did not hate Black men and most certainly would not abandon Black communities for a politics that barely acknowledged their existence as humans, much less saw them as equals.
Faderman does eventually admit that there were racist policies in place at clubs and bars in San Francisco in the 1980s, but makes light of the situation by reminding us that there was interracial picketing of the clubs and bars. So? Y’all should have shut those mofos down!
I realize that perhaps Faderman couldn’t write an entire history of every lesbian group in the U.S. But I think this book would have been better if it were entitled “A White Lesbian History of the U.S. with notes about Black and Third World lesbians too.” It just seems that information that was readily available about Black lesbians who were working and organizing at the time just didn’t make it into this history. Or quite possibly it is because that very work challenged white lesbian and feminist racism, and Faderman just didn’t want to deal with it. How else can she account for excluding Audre Lorde, Beverly and Barbara Smith, Jewelle Gomez, and others?
So, while this post is neither a measured or methodical examination of Faderman’s text, it is a response to something I felt when I picked the book up the first time: that Black lesbian scholars have got to get on the ball in regards to writing our own histories. There have been several articles that have discussed a few notable Black lesbian texts, even a monograph or two about Black gays and lesbians in the Harlem Renaissance period, and some of the blues women. I also know Kimberly Springer has written a wonderful history of Black feminist organizing. However, there is no contemporary history of Black lesbians in the United States, merely a chapter or two in this or that anthology. My own work is on Black lesbian literary and popular culture, and others are engaged in this work as well. But there is so much more that needs to be done. Work that doesn’t trivialize our experiences as Black women, or our desire to be a part of Black communities. Work that sees us as people, not as props, or tools in the service of someone else’s struggle. Work that understands that Black lesbians are an important part of U.S. history, and that our stories deserve to be told too.
One thing we know as Black feminists is how important it is for us to recognize our own lives as herstory. Also as Black women, as Lesbians and feminists, there is no guarantee that our lives will ever be looked at with the kind of respect given to certain people from other races, sexes, or classes. There is similarly no guarantee that our movement will survive long enough to become safely historical. We must document ourselves now.
Lorraine Bethel and Barbara Smith
“I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black: it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect.”
— June Jordan.
As I was reading Brittany Cooper’s thoughtful post The Politics of Being Friends With White People over at Salon today, I paused to think about my own experiences over the years with white people. When I was in third grade, my best friend in Mrs. Beck’s class was a white girl named Lisa. Well, I guess we were friends. She sat in front of me in class and we’d pass notes back and forth, and most days, she’d ask me to brush her hair. She had the longest hair I’d ever seen, and I loved to play in it. (As a child, I wanted to be a hairdresser, and I would try to “do” anyone’s hair that was brave enough to let me. My sister is still mad at me for burning her hair with a marcel iron when I was nine.) I don’t remember much else about our interactions, but I do know that I loved her with the kind of love that only third grade girls can have for each other. One day though, we took our seats in class and she scooted her seat up and turned away from me when I spoke to her. A deep sense of dread overcame me, and although I can’t quite remember the entire exchange, I knew that my blackness and her whiteness had become an issue in our friendship.
Let me explain: In my Georgia hometown, the desegregation of schools came a bit late. In 1977 I was eight years old, and I was bussed from neighborhood school to a nearly all white school 13 miles away, and I say “nearly” only because there were a couple of Vietnamese students that lived in the area and attended the school. The goal of the school desegregation movement for my school board at that time was 70/30, 70% white and 30% non-white for the predominantly white schools, although I don’t recall any white kids being bussed to the all Black schools. Regardless, it was a traumatic transition for me; I left the comfort of my mom walking us to school every morning and having personal relationships with my principal (the beloved Mr. Caldwell) and my teachers, to being a statistic. I felt alone for the first time in my short, sheltered life. My sister, two years behind me in school, would join me soon, but until then, I was on my own. Like Brittany, I didn’t fit in anywhere: I was a shy bookworm and used more Standard English than not, so the Black kids thought I “talked white,” and the white kids couldn’t get past the color of my skin. I was smart, but shy, so I withdrew into myself until Lisa decided she wanted to be my friend.
What I remember most about the end of that friendship was not only the loss of my friend, but a profound sense of the universe shifting beneath my small brown legs. I’ve referred to this moment in other contexts as The Moment I Realized I was Black. Of course I knew I was Black, but I didn’t KNOW I was Black. In other words, in my Black working/middle-class neighborhood I was loved and protected, we knew everyone, and they knew us. So much so that if we got in trouble two streets over, our parents knew about it before we got home. We had so many aunties and grandmothers I can’t begin to name them all. But most of all, my humanity was never in question; I knew exactly who I was, and everybody was Black like me. My blackness wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, or even to pay much attention to. It just WAS. However, upon my arrival at Britt David Elementary School, it became readily apparent that my blackness was a problem. I was different in a way that had been illegible to me, and my growing knowledge of the racism that existed outside the safety of my neighborhood shattered the bubble I had previously lived in. I was Black, and at Britt David, Black wasn’t beautiful at all. Black was a stereotype, a nuisance, an oddity to be dismissed or denigrated. I wasn’t sure what to do about that, but I knew that at some point Lisa realized I was Black, or maybe it was that someone told her that she shouldn’t be my friend because I was Black. The particulars don’t really matter, but I remember clearly when she told me I wasn’t “allowed” to brush her hair anymore.
I was hurt when Lisa rejected me, and don’t think I had another white friend for several years after that. I wasn’t sure I could trust them not to reject my blackness and I didn’t want to be their “Black friend.” Thankfully, over the years I connected with other nerdy Black girls and boys and forged other friendships, and it was only when I went to college that I began new friendships with white people. I can honestly say that now I have two close friends who are white women, and race is something we discuss often and earnestly. I am thankful that they are women who understand the politics of race, gender, and sexuality, and that our conversations on these topics are ongoing and always self-reflexive. I do believe that it is possible to be friends with white people, but I also know that those friendships are forged by truly recognizing the humanity of others, and the ways in which societal, structural, and systemic racism shapes our interactions with others.