Lighting the path: brave lesbian writers of an earlier era made a way out of no way for the others who would follow.
Forward Strides in the Seventies
A librarian and archivist at Fisk University, Ann Allen Shockley (b. 1927) broke new ground in 1974 with the publication of her first novel, Loving Her. It was the first book by an African American author to feature a black female character in an interracial, lesbian relationship. In 1980, she published The Black and White of It (Naiad Press), the first collection of lesbian short stories by an African American writer. Shockley also edited several critical volumes, including Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide (G K Hall, 1988), a book that was considered a definitive reference work at the time of its publication. She was one of the first writers to address the invisibility of black lesbians in African American and lesbian studies.
Pat Parker (b. 1944-d. 1989), a West Coast--based poet, activist and former member of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, was a radical proponent of a black feminist lesbian poetic theory and practice. She articulated, long before others did, the links between sexual oppression and oppression based on race, gender and class. A self-described revolutionary and well known for a raw, working-class sensibility, Parker wrote about subjects few people in black communities dared to address openly at the time--domestic violence, alcoholism, homophobia. She wrote five collections of poetry, including her most recognized work, Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker, 1961-1978.
Audre Lorde (b. 1934-d. 1992), a major American poet of international stature and the most iconic black lesbian figure of the late 20th century, was one of the most revered lesbian writers of her time. She published significant works in multiple genres, including 10 volumes of poetry, one posthumously in 1993. Lorde's groundbreaking work The Cancer Journals (Spinsters, Ink., 1980) deals with her own experiences as a black lesbian battling cancer. Lorde also published a collection of essays, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Crossing Press, 1984). With her widely acclaimed masterwork, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Crossing Press, 1983), Lorde invented a new literary genre: the "biomythography"--a blending of autobiography, fiction, history and mythology--to tell her story, coming-of-age black and lesbian in 1950s America. Lorde's final book, a sequel to The Cancer Journals, was titled A Burst of Light: Essays (Firebrand Books, 1988). Lorde died of metastatic breast cancer in 1992.
Leading the Call
A pioneering contemporary influence, Barbara Smith (b. 1950) made contributions to black lesbian and black women's literature that have been singular. In the late 1970s, she was the first to argue that narratives of and by black lesbians were critical to the development of black women's literature.
Smith was responsible for the first anthologies to feature works by black lesbian authors: She was coeditor of Conditions: Five--The Black Women's Issue (Conditions, 1988) and editor of Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (Kitchen Table/Women of Color, 1983).
In the 1980s, she led the call for the development of black women's studies in academia, editing (along with Gloria T. Hull and Patricia Bell Scott) the groundbreaking primer of black women's studies, All the Women Are White, All the Men Are Black, But Some of Us Are Brave (Feminist Press, 1982). Her collection of essays, The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom (Rutgers University Press, 1998), details a life lived at the forefront of some of the most engaging questions of identity, sexuality and history.
Other contemporary black lesbian authors have pushed the lesbian narrative to new heights. Notable among them are fiction writers such as Jewelle Gomez and Marci Blackman; poets like Cheryl Clarke and Staceyann Chin. Gomez's first book, The Gilda Stories (Firebrand Books, 1991), a Lambda Literary Award-winning novel, introduces its readers to same-sex loving black vampires and reinterprets the vampire genre. Gomez continues to make her mark as a writer of black speculative fiction in her collection of short stories, Don't Explain (Firebrand Books, 1998). In Po Man's Child (Manic D. Press, 1999), first-time novelist Marci Blackman's black lesbian protagonist, Po, is at the center of a brutally unflinching narrative of eroticized abuse, and the impact of family and memory on spiritual healing.
The works of poet and scholar Cheryl Clarke celebrate an in-your-face eroticism laced with social consciousness, and they are known to readers of feminist, lesbian and straight black publications. The author of four collections of poetry, including Humid Pitch: Narrative Poetry (Firebrand Books, 1989) and Experimental Love (Firebrand Books, 1993), Clarke has also penned After Mecca: Women Poets and The Black Arts Movement, which will be published by Rutgers University Press in 2005.
Born to a Jamaican mother and Chinese father, performance artist Staceyann Chin has set fire to the male-dominated, heterosexual, poetry slam movement. Openly identified as lesbian, Chin--the subject of a film, Staceyann Chin, A Poetry Slammer--has been hailed as a major American slam poet. (See Black Issues Book Review, March-April 2004, POETIC LICENSE, "Almost Famous.") With several slam competition awards to her credit, she is fast becoming a rising star for a new generation of black lesbian voices.
A bibliography of black lesbian writers discussed in Dr. De Veaux's essay.
Ann Allen Shockley
Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide (reprint) Meridian Books, August 1989, ASIN 0-452-00981-2
Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker, 1961-1978 (reprint) Firebrand Books, February 1999, $16.95, ISBN 1-563-41108-3
A Burst of Light (reprint) Women's Press, January 1992, ISBN 0-889-61174-2; The Cancer Journals (reprint) Aunt Lute Press, May 1990, $8, ISBN 1-879-96026-5; Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, The Crossing Press, April 1984, $14.95, ISBN 0-895-94141-4; Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Crossing Press, December 1983, $16.95, ISBN 0-895-94122-8
Conditions: Five---The Black Women's Issue, Conditions, June 1988, ASIN 0-686-31642-8; All The Women Are White, All The Men Are Black, But Some of Us Are Brave, Feminist Press, February 1982, $19.95, ISBN 0-912-67095-9; Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (reprint) Rutgers University Press, April 2000, $21.95, ISBN 0-813-52753-8; The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom, Rutgers University Press, September 2000, $17, ISBN 0-813-52761-9
The Gilda Stories, Firebrand Books, June 1991, ISBN 0-932-37994-X
Don't Explain, Firebrand Books, October 1998, $22.95, ISBN 1-563-41095-8
Po Man's Child, Manic D Press, April 1995, $12.95, ISBN 0-916-39759-9
Humid Pitch (paperback), Firebrand Books, October 1989, $10.95, ISBN 0-932-37966-4 Experimental Love, Firebrand Books, October 1993, $18.95, ISBN 1-563-41036-2; After Mecca: Women Poets and The Black Arts Movement, Rutgers University Press, January 2005, $60, ISBN 0-813-53405-4
Dr. Alexis De Veaux, Ph.D., chairs the Department of Women's Studies, University of Buffalo (SUNY), New York, and is the author of several works including Warrior Poet, A Biography of Audre Lorde (W.W. Norton & Company, March 2004).