“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.

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

The Uses of My Anger

Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortion, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation. Audre Lorde

Not too long ago, I was doing a little research and found that one of the scholars I really admire, Barbara Christian, is no longer with us. I didn’t know. And I’m mad about it. Let me explain. I’m saddened and dismayed by the fact that so many of the Black women scholar/activist/artists that I admire are no longer walking the earth. Barbara Christian, Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry, Pat Parker, and others have all been taken from us too soon. All of the aforementioned women were taken by cancer, and although that is not the point of this piece, it is surely an odd coincidence.

But this piece is about my anger. I’m angry that with more than a decade of post-secondary education under my belt, I had not heard of most of these women until recently. Five years of undergrad, not one course on Black women’s writing or Black feminism. And if you’re thinking that undergrad is ancient history, it’s not. I went back to school as a late twenty-something year old woman. Two years of a master’s in English, nothing about Black feminism there either, and the only graduate level Black literature seminar my department offered was my last semester there, too late for me to take it. I did, however, take a course on African-American lit, with its obligatory slave narratives and tragic mulattas. No disrespect intended to these narratives, it’s just that I already knew them. Now that I’m doing a Ph.D., I can focus my attentions on the literatures that mean the most to me: Black lesbian fiction, Black feminism, and other contemporary Black women’s fiction.

My point here is that in most of my post-secondary institutions, not only was Black women’s writing relegated to the margins, in most cases it was non-existent. Now, those of you who have attended schools with strong Black Studies or Women’s Studies programs, consider yourself fortunate. A lot of us have had to fight to include Black women’s writing in our syllabi, or justify our reasons for wanting to write about it in the first place. Those of you who know me, or have been reading for a while, know that I’ve been reading Black women’s lit since I was big enough to pick up a book. However, I was not introduced to some of the scholarly work of Black women until very recently, and the only Black feminist I had heard of was Angela Davis. So I’m mad that these institutions denied me the experience of learning about so many wonderful Black women scholar/activists and artists when I was beginning my academic career. I’m angry because I now realize that this was intentional.  Institutions of higher education are typically not invested in disseminating knowledges or information that includes the experiences of Black women, especially same-sex loving Black women.

I’m angry because they didn’t want me to know.

Now, in the world that I live in, ignorance is no excuse, and it has become my goal, my duty, as it has of some of my sister/friends, to write about the women who have helped to shape my thinking about this struggle that we are all engaged in. You BETTER know that every time someone asks me about my work I tell them that I “do” Black Lesbian Studies and that I am a Black lesbian feminist. I don’t care that “queer” is the “hot” term right now; I refuse to allow you to name me. I don’t deal in theoretical abstractions, I deal in Black women’s lit and black feminism because they are always attending to the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality that are such a part of our lived experiences. The author ain’t dead, I AM the author. The women I write about and the thousands upon thousands of women like them ain’t dead either. They are the authors of their own stories, and I want you to know them, to read them, to understand that these stories are as vital to our survival as the air we breathe. So I keep searching, reading, and writing; telling anybody who will listen. And even some who don’t. ’Cause I want them to KNOW.

This is one of the ways in which I use my anger. How are you using yours?