Black Queer Trouble in Literature, Life, and the Age of OBama: Part I


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

 Note:  Elizabeth Lorde Rollins, my friend and sister, introduced me at the event.  

Thank you, Beth.  Wonderful to see you again.  We miss your Mother.  In case I run out of time at the end, I want to make sure I read this for you, ‘Echoes’ from Lorde’s last collection, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, 1993.

I want to thank Jim Wilson and the CLAGS Board.  I am deeply honored and surprised to be here.   I was a member and a co-chair of the CLAGS Board from 1990-1992.  I had good times as a board member and co-chair with Esther Katz and working with Marty Duberman and was involved in many good programs.  I remember one year when Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker agreed to serve as Honorific Co-Chairs of our annual fundraiser, and Alice Walker was in the city at the time of the event and wanted to attend.  So, Esther Katz, and I had the honor of picking up Ms. Walker and her friend historian, Robert L. Allen, and escorting them to the Graduate Center when it was on East 42nd Street.

As many of you in the audience know,–or even if you don’t–I have been honored, asked to give celebratory addresses to students and colleagues, been given a fabulous retirement party in June by my beloved Rutgers colleagues [alma mater of  Paul L. Robeson in 1919].  And I received a wonderful celebration of my writing on the Livingston campus in October 2013, organized and convened by a hardworking group of younger black queer troublemakers:  Darnell Moore (the Hetrick Martin Institute), Steven G. Fullwood (the Schomburg Center). Alexis Pauline Gumbs (the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, Durham, N.C.), and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan (U-Mass/Amherst).  And now, tonight, here at the CUNY Graduate Center for  CLAGS.  I gave my talk the title, “‘Black Queer Trouble’ in Literature, Life, and the Age of OBama,” so I could practically talk about anything in the black queer/lesbian, gay, bi, trans  world.  But I won’t talk about everything–or anything.  And I am going to begin before the age of Obama (almost before he was born), however.  I just stuck “Obama” in there in the hope of drawing an audience.


My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae

Will grow up to be a bad woman.


But I say it’s fine . . . .

. . . I’d like to be a bad woman too,

And wear the brave stockings of night black lace

And strut down the street with paint on  my face.

(Brooks, “a song in the front yard,” A Street In Bronzeville, 1945)


I am an oversexed

Black Queen
by phrases like
I am the love that dare not
speak its name.”

. . . . And you want me to sing
“We Shall Overcome”?
Do you daddy daddy
do you want me to coo
for your approval? (Hemphill, “Heavy Breathing,” Ceremonies, 1995)



Pass through me /

dark to light /

wash over me

with rivers of joy

embrace me with

your love — if  I’ll

have you — but know

I am no one’s for

the taking.  No —

I am not even mine

for the taking.

(Bashir, “Clitigation,” To Be Left With the Body, 2008)


Mannish dyke, muff diver, bull dagger, butch, feminist, femme, and PROUD” (Political poster, 1991 at the Fifth Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference, Rutgers, New Brunswick)       


All of the above ought to be enough to cause some queer black trouble up in here tonight.  One starts to ponder what one has contributed and where and its future.  And was it progressive, reformist, reactionary, in the service of institutional politics, in service beyond the boundaries of the institution, transformative, radical or even revolutionary?  What are the limits of one’s allegiance? Of feminist commitments?  Of risk?  Of courage?  Of the politics of blackness? Of erotic choices?

Black Literary Practice

In the summer of 1967, auditing Arthur P. Davis’[1] course, “Negro Literature in the U.S.,” I learned for the first time about black literary practice, from Phillis Wheatley to LeRoi Jones. I learned that the reading of so-called “Negro literature” had been a primary means of communicating social injustices done unto black Americans.  African-American literature became a metonym representing global oppression of Third World peoples.  South African writer, Peter Abrahams (b. 1919) is inspired to write by reading Du Bois, Cullen, Hughes, Wright, claiming in his memoir Tell Freedom that their writings gave him a new vision of his own country, which he left in 1957.  My sense and experience of writing as an explicator of the absence social justice emerged.  And I might add, I was emboldened to write poetry.

Having attained a R&B and a black arts sensibility, I set out from Wash. D.C. in 1969.   I had read Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie, Alex Haley’s Autobiography Of Malcolm X, Fanon’s Black Skins/White Masks, Aptheker’s The Documentary History Of The Negro American, and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.   What more do you need?  I landed in New Brunswick, on the Rutgers campus met by the ballyhoo of a full gamut of political demonstrations by students and faculty:  anti-war, black power, women’s liberation, gay liberation, and the kindness of, shall we say, strangers—all in jeans and tee shirts.   It took me ten more years, however, to catch up to lesbian-feminism and the women in print movement that enabled and emboldened my contributions to “our sex lives and political dreams”— as Prof. Daniel Hurewitz from Hunter College said so kindly of my work when I spoke at the Harry Hay Conference here a year ago.

I am drawn back to the writings of black women, who have fed my desire for troublemaking: Walker’s first novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970); Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye (1970); Bambara’s (ed.) The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970);  Angela Davis’ article from prison, “Black Women in the Community of Slaves (1973);” Lerner’s (ed.) pivotal Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1973); shange’s “choreopoem,” for colored girls (1975); Smith and Bethel’s  quested-edited Conditions: Five, the Black Women’s Issue (1979); Moraga and Anzaldua’s (eds.) iconic This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981); Smith, Hull, Scott’s (eds.) celebrated All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (1982); Smith’s expansive Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1984);  Audre Lorde’s outstanding volumes of poetry, The Black Unicorn (1978) and Our Dead Behind Us (1986), Ikon Magazine’s special edition Art Against Apartheid (1986).  WHOM DID I LEAVE OUT FROM THAT 70-80 period.  JUST SHOUT EM OUT.

I must also call out the names of the black feminist critics who followed Barbara Smith’s call to be as “daring” as the writers themselves and who emerged during the seventies and eighties:  beginning with Smith’s own “Towards a Black Feminist Criticism” (1977), Barbara Christian ‘s Black Women Novelists: Development of a Tradition (1980), Hazel Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood:  the Emergence of the Black Woman Novelist (1989), Deborah McDowell’s essay “The Nameless . . . Shameful Impulse: Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing” (1986), Hortense Spillers’ article “Interstices:  A Small Drama of Words” (1983),  Claudia Tate’s ethnographic Black Women Writers at Work (1983), Mary Helen Washington’s collections Black-Eyed Susans and Midnight Birds: Stories By and About Black Women (1988) ), Jewelle Gomez’s “A Cultural Legacy Denied and Discovered: Black Lesbians in Fiction by Women” (1983),  Cheryl A. Wall’s influential Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women (1989),  Gloria Hull’s article “Under the Days: the Buried Life and Poetry of Angelina Weld Grimke” (1979), Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s volumes Sturdy Black Bridges (1979) and Words of Fire(1995) and so many more.   Writers and writing became the chief arbiters of a transformation of consciousness–intellectual, political, emotional–which is ongoing.  Not merely instrumental, novels, poems, plays, essays of underrepresented writers, and cultural readings and public events became pedagogical and theoretical and critical guides by which to live.

In her “foreword” to This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color, the late Toni Cade Bambara charged us, the writers and editors of that enduring anthology, to “Make revolution irresistible.”  We know revolution is protracted—and so is a progressive agenda [(witness what people said about Obama’s inaugural speech.  “Liberal Progressive.” And we say to Obama, “Hey, bro, it’s about time.  At least be liberal/progressive.”  We also say “deeds not words.” And I suppose supporting same-sex marriage, getting rid of DOMA, getting rid of “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell,” refusing to sell women’s reproductive rights totally down the hole is liberal progressive–but not enough). ]

This talk will speak to black queer spaces of resistance and desire, and ‘black queer trouble,’ and black feminist trouble, too.  I am taking “black queer trouble” from Alexis Pauline Gumbs,’  a queer black feminist writer, poet, educator,  online troublemaker, and founder of the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, a virtual school of black feminism.  Here she defines the learning outcomes of her free online course, entitled “To Be A Problem: Outcast Subjectivity and Black Literary Production”:

“We will explore trouble-making, radical performative critique and the trangsressive and embattled act of (visual, textual, sonic and multi-media)  publishing as possible responses to systemic and individual exclusions. If publishing is an act of stolen power for outcasts, this class will be a publication of what it can mean to be problematic in a society inflected by race, class, sexuality and gender norms. Our aim is not to solve the problems of classism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia as inflected by race, but rather is to create a space where it is possible to act, speak, write and think otherwise, anyway.”                                                                                    ( how dare we know)

Take that, University of Phoenix!

Can I, as a queer black trouble-maker and feminist too, operationalize revolution and/or progressive agendas?  Can I trouble the liberal same-sex status quo enough to say it’s not enough.  Can I trouble LGBT communities to feed our hungry youth–both physically and emotionally–in ways their birth families, relatives, and neighbors can’t or don’t or won’t.  Can I trouble our white LGBT allies to continue to challenge white domination and white leadership within their organizations and to share the resources you have attained because of white privilege?  As I have become more assimilable, can I trouble the carceral state by advocating for and with survivors of it, by refusing unnecessary police presence in my gentrifying and gentrified neighborhood, and by demanding professional police behavior wherever I am and they are? Can I trouble my communities of color enough to counter their homophobia and sexism and black straight respectability.  What account do I give myself in the context of the scourge of HIV/AIDS among the most vulnerable people in my communities.  Steven G. Fullwood, in his piece, “The Low Down on the Down Low,” calls for accountability on the individual and group level in the black community in chilling terms:

“If a man is on the DL, that’s his business. If he spends his time out having unprotected sex with men (or women), contracting several venereal diseases and bringing them home to his girlfriend, wife, or male lover, then that’s another story. That’s an issue of honesty, not sexuality–or to the point, homosexuality…If we can’t talk to each other across perceived sexual boundaries, the walls of ignorance will just get higher. . . Ignorance will continue to be passed down from generation to generation.  And perhaps, worst of all, after the dust has cleared, nobody will be left to talk about anything.” (2004,  74)

Can I sustain the trouble?  Is it enough to trouble in increments.   Am I about changing myself, the courses of events, structural power, eradicating the carceral state, inequities of race, gender, sex, politics, material resources, money, and the harsh domination of immigrants and the working classes the world over?  I turn to my sister of the plantain and the corn, Cherrie Moraga, as she defines her feminist politics in the context of her Xicanism, her Mexican/Native ancestry and the frailty or strength of coalitional politics:

“. . . . We make and break political alliance as we continue to evolve and redefine what our work in this life is.  As a Xicana, I find the deepest resonance in that evolutionary process with my ‘sisters of the corn,’ as Toni Cade Bambara called native women.  Indianism (north and south) gives shape to the values with which I raise my children; it informs my feminism, my sense of lugar on this planet in relation to its creatures, minerals, and plant life.  Ideally, it is a philosophy, not of a rigid separatism but of cultural autonomy and communitarian reciprocity in the twenty-first century.  It is my sure-footed step along that open road of alliance with my ‘sisters of the rice, the plantain, and the yam.'”  (2011, 31)

What rituals, legacies, praxes give shape to our values?  What does it mean to still believe the lessons of the Black Arts Movement became a large house of resistance to patriarchal culture–black and white.  Black lesbian-feminism continued its expressivity throughout the 1980’s, the era of Reaganism.  I still believe in Amiri Baraka’s 1969 dictum about literary practice, as expressed in the poem “black art”:

Poems are bullshit unless they are

teeth or trees or lemons piled

on a step.  . . . Fuck poems

and they are useful, wd they shoot

come at you, love what you are,

breathe like wrestlers, or shudder

strangely after pissing.


Our work and our writing, as black queer troublemakers, are fraught with disobedience, resistance, and direct language.   In these lines from her poem, “Star Apple,” Alexis Pauline Gumbs que(e)ries us:


how to tuck home into cleavage

and bring it out

flower magic

how dare we be



all out loud

and in public

and shit


Disobeying our penchant for black respectability–something we crave even as black queers–Essex Hemphill also faces off black macho culture by asserting his phallocentric masculinity in the poem “Conditions”:


In america,

I place my ring

on your cock

where it belongs.



[1]Arthur Davis was a professor of English at Howard University from 1944-1980.  He inspired and fostered a generation, including his own, of black writers, intellectuals, and scholars. He was the friend of many of Harlem Renaissance writers, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Famously known for co-editing The Negro Caravan (1941/1970), three editions of Cavalcade:  Negro Writers from 1760 to the present (1975, 1991, 1992), and From the Dark Tower: Negro Writers from 1900 to 1960 (1974).  He alternated teaching “Negro Literature in the United States” with Prof. Sterling Brown.  Davis died at the age of 91 in 1996.

2 thoughts on “Black Queer Trouble in Literature, Life, and the Age of OBama: Part I

  1. I confess I did not read this.

    I just wanted to say I’ma need this blog to get more relevant.

    There is so much going on in politics, culture, health, business, etc speaking directly to the intersection of race, class, and gender and I do not see this blog stepping to the plate.

    There are so many talented thinkers and writers on this blog. I would love to come somewhere and see thoughtful, academic, activist, critical, passionate analysis about what is happening RIGHT NOW. We need voices and analysis. Every time I come I’m disappointed and have to go read Clutch magazine (ugh).

    I’m sure y’all are busy and putting in actual work in the community and dealing with your lives. But I need y’all to bring me life.

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