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.

I Am Your Sister: Notes from a Native Daughter

To commemorate the life and legacy of our sister Audre Lorde, who would have been 79 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.