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.

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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.

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