This is Not a Book Review

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.BSmith_coverx400d

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.

Thank you.

S.O.

Bay Area Lesbian History Archives Project

Hey y’all! This post is a shout out to my friend Lenn Keller in support of her latest project. She is an activist, filmmaker, historian, and community archivist.  She is also the founding organizer of the Bay Area Lesbian History Archives Project, and I am honored to be able to support her work.  Lenn is working to expand the historical record to include Black lesbian histories and experiences, and you all know I’ve written about the lack of Black lesbian representation in lesbian historical texts, as well as in certain archives.

I met Lenn in 2009 while doing research for my dissertation. I came across the website for her film, A Persistent Desire, and contacted her about doing an interview. After talking with Lenn for hours on the phone, I realized that what I thought was simply a research problem was actually a larger issue: the lack of accessible archival material that documented Black lesbian lives and experiences in the United States. Very soon after our first talk, I made a trip to the GLBT Historical Center, and what I found there supported my hunch: If we want to make sure that the artifacts that make up our lived experiences are valued, we need to create our own archives. This is why the Bay Area Lesbian History Archives is so important. Barbara and Beverly Smith wrote in 1977, “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.” This what the BALHAP seeks to do, and we must support this work now, before our histories are lost.

So, please visit the Bay Area Lesbian History Archives Project Facebook page, and contact Lenn if you want to help with this important work.  I’ll be posting an interview with her on this blog later this summer.

The struggle continues,

Sista Outsider

I Am Your Sister: Notes from a Native Daughter

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 SonThe 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.

Celebrating Black History: All Day, Every Day

This is a repost of a blog I wrote last year, and I’m hoping to include more posts in my Black History Month series this month. 

IfBealeStreetCouldTalkSo while I celebrate and educate folks on Black history and culture (American history and culture) EVERY SINGLE DAY, I decided to use the month of February to highlight some of the folks that have been a major influences on my life and my work. No doubt I should have started with my family, who continue to lift me up, but I don’t think they want to be featured on my blog. 🙂

I’ve started with my chosen family instead, and I’d like to think that if I had a Black gay dad, it would be Brother Baldwin. His influence on me has been immeasurable, from Notes on a Native Son to If Beale Street Could Talk. My predilection for essay writing can be directly attributed to Baldwin, as well as my desire to always speak my truth to power.

If Beale Street Could talk was one of the first “grown up” novels I read as kid. I think I was 15 or 16 when I read it, and what I remember most about this experience was that I was told by my English teacher that I couldn’t do a book report on this novel because it wasn’t on our list of approved readings. Nor were any of the other texts by Black authors that I wanted to read. That upset me, and stubborn child that I was, I did it anyway and dared her to fail me, knowing already that I was one of her best students. She didn’t, and thus my reputation as being “radical” was born. They really had no idea, nor did I, how far that one little act of defiance would take me. Either way, I love this book and I was able to read it again a couple of years ago when I was studying for my Ph.D. exams.

If you know anything about Baldwin, you know his novels are emotional, thought-provoking, and gut-wrenchingly honest, especially in regards to Black experiences in urban America. This novel is no different, and reading it reminded me of how spot on Brother Jimmy was about all things America. The other thing it did this past year was remind me of how little has changed in American society in regards to the incarceration of so many Black men, as well as the ways in which Black communities are still struggling to save all of our children from the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in this country.

On Black LGBT “History”: More Substance, Less Celebrity Please

Ok, so I’m a little hot right now so bear with me. And this is probably going to make some of y’all mad.  Huff Post Gay published LGBT History Month 2013: 21 Influential Black LGBT Icons which I saw on my Facebook feed. The National Black Justice Coalition shared it with the missive to “know your history” as in your Black LGBT history. I clicked the link and was pleased to see the likes of Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Bruce Nugent, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey, Alice Walker and E. Lynn Harris, who I absolutely consider to be a part of Black LGBT history. However, I was bit dismayed to see the likes of Frank Ocean and Snoop, or even Don Lemon, who are not “historical figures.” They may be popular, and even talented. But “historical icons?” Come on y’all. Did you just  put Don Lemon in a category with Bayard Rustin and Jimmy Baldwin? Coming out publicly as gay does not make you an historical icon. It is certainly brave and admirable, and for those of us who are always searching for community among those that share our skin tone, it’s almost like meeting a new family member.

However, I’m also bothered by the fact that they claimed Snoop from The Wire as an historical figure, but left out Barbara Smith, founding member of The Combahee River Collective and the Black lesbian credited with the first ever theoretical statement on the creation of a Black feminist criticism. In 1977 no less. Or what about Ann Allen Shockley, credited with publishing the first Black lesbian novel in 1974? Or Doris Davenport, Pat Parker, or Stephanie Byrd, Black lesbian poets from the 1970s and 1980s? Or Black lesbian filmmakers Cheryl Dunye and Yvonne Welborn, both who have been making and producing films for decades?

It seems to be that our claim to LGBT history seems to be invested in the young and sexy, or the spectacle of celebrity, much like the rest of the world. Or maybe the author of the piece was stretching the limits of his knowledge to come up with 21 Black LGBT folks. I don’t know. Regardless, no shade whatsoever to the current group of Black LGBT gamechangers, but I think categorizing them as “historical icons” is a bit disingenuous, since in my book you have to do more than put out one or two hit records, star in one show, or make a lot of money and look good to be an historical figure. It would also seem to me that you would need to be around for a while, since you know, history is about the PAST, not the present.

The struggles of Rustin, Lorde, Nugent, and Baldwin in particular are substantive and have been tested over time.  They truly paved the way for this current batch of folks to do what they’re doing right now. Maybe it would be better to look back on the work of folks like Snoop, Polk, and Ocean, and take note of the ways in which they use their celebrity OVER TIME, to expand our notion of Black LGBT history. Or maybe we need to understand that pop icon and historical icon don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Until then, if you need the names of people who have actually changed history for the good of Black LGBT folks over the past forty years, let me know.

Mini rant over.

“Odd Girls” and Black Lesbians

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.