Originally Delivered by Cheryl Clarke as the Kessler Lecture on Dec. 6, 2013 at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center
Scenes of black queer and feminist resistance; or “forced confinement and forced mobility”
Recently I said the following at a “Symposium: Black Women’s Studies and the Transformation of the Academy” in 2010. I shared the panel is Nikol Alexander-Floyd, Paula Giddings, and Cheryl Wall. I think it is applicable to black queer trouble-making:
“I remain convinced that there is no transformation in the academy unless black feminists engage in a kind of itinerant movement from front to back, to inside, to outside again and again, and unless there are parallel movements, going and coming–in the streets, down the alley, and in the house–whereby dynamic mutuality and exchange coalesce and contest. As [Akasha Gloria] Hull said of [Audre] Lorde’s radical positionality of ‘living on the line,’ black feminists [and black queer troublemakers] too have to live ‘on the line’ between the either/or and both/and’ and engage in ‘ceaseless negotiations of a positionality from which [we] can speak,’ not settling, setting, or sitting still.” (Hull ,1989, 154-55). (Clarke, 2010, 786).
Kimberly Springer calls it “interstitial” politics or feminism in the cracks in her study of black feminist organizing from 1968-1980, Living for the Revolution (2006, 88).
A few words about lesbian-feminism. Lesbian feminists did the work and the word. We took the potluck to new levels; most nights of the week, on Saturday mornings, Sunday afternoons at meetings and on projects. At fundraising events for those projects. At the proof-reading and lay-out meeting. After an afternoon of wrapping and trips to the post office with scores of parcels among you in somebody’s old VW or Corolla. The lesbian-feminist theater group, the tickets, the box office, the folding chairs, the posters, the feeding of the cast and crew; or the cultural center and cafe, its readings and public programs; the film set in someone’s loft with 20 volunteers on hand to make up, dress, direct, film, feed the cast and crew; the lesbian-led national conference on violence against women of color on a frayed shoe string budget and women from all over the country and the world come–at their own expense or ours; the anti- apartheid publication celebration on an equally frayed budget under the aegis of a lesbian editorship; the all-volunteer lesbian health fair; etc. Or at the weekend long board retreat, where we supplied the food and cooked it too. We produced politics and culture for us, by us, about us. Lesbian feminism put our feminist messages out to our constituencies–other lesbians, women identified women, gay women of color, and “women for whom relationships with women are an essential part of their lives.” Lesbians of African descent were/are everywhere. Women of color sometimes code for “lesbians of color” were/are everywhere. Lesbians of all colors worked very hard to produce for our imagined audiences. We claimed and challenged our masculinity, femininity, blackness whiteness as well as our androgyny and hybridity, liminality, and marginality.
I know we celebrate This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology–as we should– but I must celebrate CONDITIONS: FIVE, The Black Women’s Issue. Its guest-editors Barbara Smith and Lorraine Bethel gave me the first space to call myself a black lesbian feminist there. And white feminists and CONDITIONS founding editorial collective members, Elly Bulkin, Jan Clausen, Irena Klepfisz, and Rima Shore gave the journal over to the project of black feminism and later to the project of women of color feminism by committing the magazine to women of color leadership.
In their introduction to C5, the co-editors identify many of the obstacles to producing the publication, most of all the very perilous conditions of black women’s lives:
“. . . [T]welve Black women were being murdered in Boston’s Third World communities between Jan. 29 and May 28, 1979. While we were working to create a place for celebration of Black women’s lives, our sisters were dying. The sadness, fear, and anger as well as the unforeseen need to do political work around the murders affected every aspect of our lives including our work on CONDITIONS FIVE.”
And the editors go on to say that these murders and all other violence against black women necessitate “the dire need of such a publication and for a Black feminist movement.” Let me call out some of the writers who appeared there: Gloria Hull, Renita Weems, Ann Allen Shockley, the late Linda C. Powell, Donna Allegra, Toi Derricotte, the late Yvonne Flowers (Mauwa), the late Pat Parker, the late Audre Lorde, Eleanor Johnson, Alexis DeVeaux, Beverly Smith, Fahamisha Shariat. CONDITIONS: FIVE was my first encounter with “queer black trouble.” Some people ask what ever happened to lesbian feminism. Well, like many things else, it has gone virtual and viral, including black feminism and lesbian feminism, as the “Crunk Feminist Collective” enunciates in its mission statement and blog:
“Our relationship to feminism and our world is bound up with a proclivity for the percussive, as we divorce ourselves from “correct” or hegemonic ways of being in favor of following the rhythm of our own heartbeats. In other words, what others may call audacious and crazy, we call CRUNK because we are drunk off the heady theory of feminism that proclaims that another world is possible. We resist others’ attempts to stifle our voices, acting belligerent when necessary and getting buck when we have to. Crunk feminists don’t take no mess from nobody.”
Quite a change in tone from the rather depressed tone of Smith and Bethel, and also different from Gumbs’ more teacherly, reserved tone. The virtual anthology carries on the work of black feminist trouble-making.
Women’s Studies scholar and trouble-maker, Vivian M. May asserts in “Undertheorized and Understudied,” her article on Harriet Tubman– a real revolutionary and if not queer a definite black troublemaker–that histories of this noted icon of black women’s resistance tend to portray her as a superhuman 19th century anomaly, separate and apart from the community of black women in resistance to slavery. May further contends that were Tubman doing today, what she was doing before Emancipation, i.e., armed resistance to slavery, leading someone’s human chattel to freedom, ready to kill or be killed rather than be returned to slavery (which was still legal during the earlier part of her resistance), she would be considered a “domestic terrorist.” May continues to frame how we “make over” the radical facets and figures of black history in the image of black respectability.
Tubman’s historical “makeover” transforms her radical vision and resistant (and at times illegal) actions into benign symbols of progress and family values: this interpretive shift aligns her organized resistance to fit with narratives of the nation’s deliverance from its past sins and to render a more tender portrait of the nation as a family. The salvific also reinforces problematic ideas about the state as an otherwise perfect system—with its central tragic flaw, slavery, and its tragically flawed central characters, white citizens, healed over thanks to Tubman. It is imperative to consider how “deliverance” models draw attention away from the tenacious nature of the systems of oppression Tubman fought against in her lifetime and how they persist to this day (i.e., they live on in new ways, and we as a nation are still not “delivered” from them). (forthcoming in Meridians, 8)
There is some room for comparison between Tubman and Assata Shakur. Similarly Tubman was branded an “illiterate” and “insolent” abolitionist, who, when she was enslaved, was always “getting in the way” of slaves discipline. $40,000 dollars for Tubman’s capture, dead or alive; or ‘the sooner she is turned in the better it will be for all Southerners.’ Assata has been cited by the F.B.I. as a “domestic terrorist” with a $2 million reward, aided by the New Jersey State Troopers, for her capture. For over 40 years the U.S. has been trying to capture Assata, who was railroaded into life plus thirty imprisonment on very unclear evidence that she murdered New Jersey State Trooper, Werner Foerster in 1977– which continues to tell us that the systemic racist oppression of African-Americans, primarily in the context of the carceral state, is not only the new Jim Crow but really a 21st century replication of slavery. Once a slave, you’re a slave for life, once a prisoner of the state, you are for life contained, constrained, and surveilled by the state, blacks have no rights whites are bound to respect, an ex-felon has no rights a citizen is bound to respect, stand your ground, shoot to kill, take your best shot, stop and frisk. Assata continues to say that she is a warrior for black liberation. Angela Davis declaims: ‘Assata is not a threat. . . . If anything, this is a vendetta.’ And at least I can say, like Mychal Denzel Smith in The Nation Online: “Hands off, Assata, now and forever.” (http://www.thenation.com/blog/174209/assata-shakur-not-terrorist#).
I flew in on the cusp of the Black Power Movement. But someone did not pay the bill. . . . And here we are all left alone in our blackness. Oct. 8, 2009
Black queer troublemakers, one of the more excluded and despised members of the black community in the United States, carry on the “black power” revolution’s commitments to racial justice. In response to black drag artist Jomama Jones’ comment cited above, I will claim that work for black queers and for that “unfinished revolution” somewhere in Atlantic City when Ella Baker walked out of the 1964 Democratic National Convention after the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was prevented from being seated. While we–black queers– were left “alone in the dark,” countering the sexual repression of the Nixon-Mitchell/Reagan-Meese nineteen-seventies and eighties, black lesbian and gay writers appropriated that direct and aggressive expressivity of Black Arts Movement to continue black queer critiques of the ubiquitous racism of white America, the racism of the predominantly mono-sexual lesbian and gay liberal movements, and the sex-role prescriptiveness and homophobia of the conservative black community—most viscerally documented in its refusal to organize around the AIDS pandemic or anything else having to do with lesbian and gay rights/same-sex rights. Here Jericho Brown reminds us:
Herman Finley is dead. Then,
Tell them what God loves,
The truth: the disease
Your mother’s mouth won’t mention
(Jericho Brown, 2010, War Diaries)
During those years lesbians enacted what Farah J. Griffin says of black modern dance artist, Pearl Primus, in her portrayal in the 1940′s of the “Jim Crow car.” .Primus was able to embody a particularly black paradox “forced confinement and forced mobility” (Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II, 2013,27). Can’t set too long and sometimes can’t go too far or can’t be afraid to come back or must, like Assata Shakur, never come back. We too worked within the constraints to break free of them.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s short story, “Wolfpack,” “for the New Jersey Four,” about the seven young black lesbian teenagers who were arrested in the West Village for defending themselves against a low-life street peddler exemplifies Griffin’s metaphor of “forced containment and forced mobility.” A good story about the ways in which the press “savaged” the young women is in “The Public Intellectual” in 2011, an online newspaper, and predisposed the court and the public to viewing them as assailants rather than victims. Sullivan’s story is based on the actual event in 2006 and is told from the perspectives of four fictional oung women who were sentenced from 3 and a half to 11 years in jail. “Verniece,” one of the four, decides to make things whatever she wants them to be inside her prison cell. Out In The Night is a developing documentary of the New Jersey Four. This story is a parable of places that could use some black queer trouble-making:
I am wrapped up in Luna, my girls, and the warm, licorice sky. The man tears like a bullet through our night.
“Who asked what you think, you goddamn elephant?”
. . . . So many things are going on in this moment, my skull loses its solidity and breaks down to mesh, to screen. I cannot tell what part of the action is happening inside, what out. I see a man in pink come, I see a woman run away. I see fingers and DVD cases and a nugget of fire fly. . . . I see blood curled around stripes, and Sha holding a silver-soaked blade. From one side of my ears or the other I hear him say again “Goddamn,” “God-damned,” “God-dammned.” I feel words popping like firecrackers inside my mouth, and I let them blaze the air:
You are not a man Your sneakers are cheap your clothes are corny you have no job You are not a man, hands on your sleepy little dick You are not a man, what you know about God some white man in the sky If your God doesn’t know me and my big black dyke manwoman God fuck him he doesn’t exist You are not a man You are a joke.
. . . . My first night here, I make a decision: Pretend. I play games with myself, games like my mother used to play: I pretend to fool myself. Things are not what they are. In some other place, in some far corner of possibility, things are right. . . . Still, there is always the ink, running like blood up and down the newsprint paper: “Killer Lesbians’ Trial Begins.” “Seething Sapphic Swarm Descends.” “Bloodthirsty Pride Attacks.”
. . . . When I can’t tell the difference between inside and out, I decide. If I want to share my dinner with Anthony Jesús, I decide he’s on my lap, his polka-dot bib brushing my wrist. If I want to joke with TaRonne and Sha, I decide they’re on the cot with me, and we laugh. I wade through the sea of orange suits, eat my food and do what I’m told. I try not to think in days, how they close me up in darkness. . . I try not to think of how time is crusting over, baking me deeper into stillness each time the moon brings a day to its end.
On the morning after my first night here, someone puts a newspaper in my hands. The paper is folded open, and before I read the headlines, I find my name in the middle column. . . . I read up from there, wading back. I see the name of the reporter and roll up to the headline: “Lesbian Wolf Pack Howls its End.” This is when I decide to make things whatever I want them to be. From the space around me, I carve my mother’s smile and a deep, wetwarm sky. I get up, tighten my grip, part my lips like two heavy winds and say—out loud—Let’s go.
And so I finish.
Bambara, Toni Cade.”Foreword.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, Mass.: 1982.
Baraka, Amiri.”Black Art.”Transbluency: Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995). N.Y., N.Y.: Marsilio Publishers, 1995, 142 .Transbluency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995),Transbluency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1995),
Bashir, Samiya. “Clitigation.” In Clarke and Fullwood, eds. To Be Left With the Body. AIDS Project Los Angeles and GMAC, 2009, 20.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “A Street in Bronzeville: song in the front yard.” Selected Poems. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006 (1945).
Brown, Jericho. “Herman Finley is Dead (1947-2005)” in eds., Bryant, T. and E. Hardy, War Diaries. AIDS Project Los Angeles and the Global Form on MSM and HIV. 2010, 33.
Clarke, Cheryl.”Living the Texts Out.” The Days of Good Looks. N.Y.: Carroll and Graf, 2006 . In “Symposium: Black Women’s Studies and the Transformation of the Academy” Signs: A Journal of Women, Culture, and Society. 2010, 786.
Crunk Feminist Collective. “Mission Statement.” http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/about/
Fullwood, Steven J. “The Low Down on the Down Low.” Funny. New York, N.Y.: Vintage Entity Press, 2004, 74-75.
Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. http://tobeaproblem.wordpress.com/syllabus/how dare we know) “Star Apple” in ProudFlesh: New Afrikan Journal of Culture, Politics, and Consciousness, 2013, 18.
Hemphill, Essex. “Heavy Breathing,” “Conditions: XXIV.”Ceremonies, 1992, 5.
Jones, Jomama. In a performance for the Fire and Ink Conference in Austin, Tx. Oct. 8 to 11, 2009.
Lorde, Audre. “Echo” The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance 1993 in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde 2009. (1993).
May, Vivian M. “Undertheorized and Understudied,” forthcoming in Meridians, 2014.
Moraga, Cherrie. A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness.Writings, 2000-2010. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011, 31.
Smith, Barbara and L. Bethel, eds. Conditions: Five, the Black Women’s Issue. 1979, 14.
Smith, Mychal Denzel. “Assata Shakur Is Not A Terrorist.” The Nation. May 7, 2013. http://www.thenation.com/blog/174209/assata-shakur-not-terrorist#).
Springer, Kimberly. Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizing From 1968-1980, 2006, 88.
Sullivan, Mecca J. “Wolfpack” in Best New Writing 2010. Titusville, N.J.: Hopewell Publications, 2010.
 The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was organized throughout the state in 1964 to elect delegates and to challenge the all-white segregationist delegation to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. Because of backroom maneuvering and strong arm politics of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the MFDP did not get seated but was extended a crust of bread, i.e., to have one representative seated with the rest of the all-white delegation. They turned it down. Fannie Lou Hamer came to fame here with her “I question America” speech. Also Ella Baker was a major organizer and motivater of the MFDP. See Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. University of North Carolina Press, 2005.