Memoir of a Race Traitor.
In the 1980s, things fell apart with the recognition that neither struggle nor friendship, ethics nor romance, was easier among women; the fictional solidarity of the we construct was increasingly challenged by those--often lesbians of color, working-class lesbians and/or the sexually nonconformist--who had felt left out all along. Eventually our ambitions for both justice and power impelled some of us outward, to try our fortunes in the great world of "male" politics that we had once despaired of ameliorating.
In Memoir of a Race Traitor, white essayist/activist Mab Segrest records one version of this transition as she reflects on the collapse of a collective that published a Southern lesbian magazine: "After Feminary imploded, I figured: 'Shit, nothing could be worse than this.'" That disappointment nudged her into the anti-Klan movement in Durham, North Carolina, where
after thirty-five years, my life was no
longer [racially] segreated.
Somewhere in my metamorphosis, I
realized that I could no longer settle for
"lesbian space" as just one room, or
camp, or building, although I was, and
am, still grateful for those gathering
places. The Reagan era made it clear:
there is no separate safety.
In My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years, white novelist/activist Sarah Schulman comments on her switch from reporting for Womanews and working for reproductive rights to fighting AIDS in malemajority ACT UP:
On a human level, the fact of the gay
community going co-ed is something
that has certainly enriched my life per-
sonally and intellectually, although it
has been a strange experience....I
guess it is something akin to experienc-
ing heterosexual privilege for the first
time because we now have access to the
money, power, visibility, and resources
that men move with in this culture.
Read together, these two volumes provide a fascinating account, thought-and action-provoking, of what the Reagan/Bush era meant for us all. Each interprets in a double sense Segrest's point that social safety is indivisible: While "lesbian space" needs to be open to allied struggles, heterosexual progressives must heed what the queers (of all colors) are saying.
"Memoir of a Race Traitor," the lengthy multipart essay that begins Segrest's book, is framed as the story of how an out lesbian served for six years as coordinator of North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence (NCARRV). It's a narrative with national implications, for not only did developments in North Carolina (the scene of the Klan's "Greensboro massacre" of five Communist Workers Party members in 1979) reflect Klan and neofascist tactics in other states but local neofascists were linked to and partially financed by the Order, a powerful West Coast white supremacist group. Working in NCARRV meant tracking these connections; more important, it involved publicizing the pattern of threats, attacks and murders, and then moving citizens to constructive action in the absence of any encouragement from mainstream media or political institutions.
Interwoven with the organizer's-eye perspective is Segrest's reflection on the personal effects of a superracialized history. We witness her struggles with her biological family, who were segregationists in Alabama during the civil rights movement; her thorny friendship with mortally ill Carl Wittman, a pioneering gay liberationist who died of AIDS in 1986; her connection with Christina Davis, a co-worker in NCARRV and "my first really close Black friend"; and her changing sense of self as she begins to feel "pretty irregularly white."
Following "Memoir of a Race Traitor," two other essays round out the book. The first, a whirlwind trip through five centuries of North American racism, hastily cites a mishmash of motivations for Europeans' genocidal actions: "massive denial" consequent upon the destruction of communal bonds in Greece and Rome, various stages in the development of capitalism and Europeans' "projection" of repressed sexuality onto darker peoples. "A Bridge, Not a Wedge," a 1993 speech to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, offers a much sharper analysis, sketching what she calls the right wing's "investment in our degradation" (millions spent on homophobic campaigns that have proved potent fundraisers for a range of right-wing causes), and making the point that "[f]or many lesbian and gay people of color, it is every bit as much an expense of spirit to be in a room with us radical queer white activitsts as with the most hair-raising fundamentalist minister."
Segrest announces early in the book that she cannot make a formal separation between public and private, objective and subjective levels of her narrative. She's right in principle, of course--such boundaries have too often served to mystify both emotional and political life. Unfortunately, she never quite masters her form, and the work misses the seamless quality of the politically engaged consciousness, as we lurch awkwardly from statistics to emotions and from one time frame to another. Not only are family tales interlaced with the account of her time in NCARRV but she attempts to organize the narrative of NCARRV's intricate involvements in various communities around the state into discrete stories, each with its cast of characters.
Cross-referencing between stories and a convoluted flashback/flashforward structure make it hard to get an overview. For example, the statement "In 1986, Reverend Lee had his first stroke" is directly followed by "Chris and I traveled back and forth to Statesville through the spring and into the summer, responding to growing Klan presence in the area." Only a close scrutiny of text and footnotes reveals that these travels actually took place in the spring and summer of 1985. For this reader, at least, the result of such structural problems was a tendency to pay more attention to the personal history, simply because it was easier to follow.
Segrest's handling of her emotional material is most successful (and most successfully integrated with the historical dimension) when she's dealing with her parents. We see the evolution of her feelings over decades, and many a radical middle-class daughter, whether from conservative or liberal roots, will recognize the trajectory implied by the question: "When had my 'racist daddy' contracted to himself--to one aging man--from the balloon into which I had inflated him: a caricature of everything in the culture that I hated, my archetypal white person, whom I could never convert because I could never accept, the him of me?"
At other times she takes shortcuts, trying to sum up feelings without leading us through the experience that produced them. Her bumpy, crucial relationship with Christina remains shadowy; in fact no African-American figure emerges with the layered clarity of her portraits of mother and father--a regrettable lapse in a book that tries to show what it's like for a white person to enter an authentically integrated world. Nor do we ever fully understand the effects of her draining work with NCARRV on her life with her lover and their infant daughter, though she alludes to Barbara's anger.
Undoubtedly part of the difficulty is her concern for the privacy and feelings of those who will read what she writes about them. But there's also a problem of language. In a pinch, Segrest falls back on cliched or melodramatic writing ("A clock was ticking toward some midnight disaster"); losing confidence in the reader's ability to recognize tragedy in the details, she appends melodramatic captions: "I warned you about the Death card. Well, here it falls, and falls, and falls." In the end, this book's very imperfections of structure and style seem to me symptomatic of the organizer's desperation, her frantic (and understandable) conviction that everything must be done right now.
"With whom do you believe your lot is cast?" Adrienne Rich probes in "Sources." "When people have to choose, they will go with their own race," is Segrest's mother's formula. Underlying that sad credo, I believe, is not only selfish reluctance to relinquish power and privilege but the fear that fully acknowledging the enormity of racism will spoil or contaminate her (I want to say our) only available identity. The great value of Segrest's book is its evidence that, through hard, risky work, white identity can be "revised" in a positive direction. White people, in other words, can come to have a stake in a world where we're not on top.
My American History, a chronologically ordered, annotated compendium of Sarah Schulman's journalism and other political writings from 1981 to 1993, shares with Segrest's book a sense of desperation about the difficulty of making visible the outlines of spectacularly lethal yet consistently underreported events. By 1992, after seven years of reporting on AIDS and five of AIDS activism, Schulman has come to frame this experience as one of profound abandonment:
Why do we [gay people] stand alone?
Well, one of the most obvious reasons
is that our biological families have
abandoned us. Our parents are not pro-
tecting us. Our children are not defend-
ing us. The America that is against us
is composed of and maintained by our
families....No other group of people
has been so abandoned.
The direct, assertive style and the provocative conclusion (where on the abandonment index would she rank the Holocaust? chattel slavery?) are classic Schulman, risking distortion in order to make a valuable point. (Note, by the way, the ingeniousness of this twist on "family values" discourse, to call attention to which is not to negate the emotional core of her outcry.)
Schulman's laconic wit and womanly swagger give this politically passionate book a stylish edge characteristic of recent lesbian cultural activism, in contrast to the trademark earnestness of the somewhat older lesbian-feminist cohort to which Segrest belongs. After remarking apropos the advent of a new lesbian "look and presentation" emphasizing fearless sexuality, that "[a]esthetically, of course, this was a lot more pleasing to the eye for girlwatchers like myself," Schulman adds wryly, "In the end, I still don't believe that the nineties dyke enjoys sex more than Catharine MacKinnon."
Despite the insight, Schulman herself is not entirely immune to the temptations of a "more radical than thou" stance. This is often the weak point of an analysis whose strengths include a relentless intelligence and laser-sharp focus on the issues she considers primary. (She was one of the first and is still among the most eloquent lesbian analysts of AIDS as a moral/political emergency.) To which should be added her tireless reminders of the need for an activist response to affronts like the use of discriminatory diagnostic categories that prevent women with AIDS from receiving appropriate benefits, or the series of antigay ballot measures currently being inflicted on small communities without resources to fight them.
The next-to-last part of the collection consists of a reprint of "The Lesbian Avengers Handbook," a sort of Radicalesbians manifesto for the nineties, complete with pages of bomb logos in a camera-ready format. The idea behind the Avengers--Schulman was instrumental in founding the group, which she clearly sees as the vanguard of a "post-ACP UP lesbian movement"--is to focus on doing rather than theorizing; their watchword is "direct" (rather than "symbolic") action. Schulman emphasizes their creative approach in contrast to the supposedly dull, unimaginative styles of earlier lesbian and feminist organizing.
Her account of the groups formation and campaigns, including a challenge to the right wing in a Queens school district and an unsuccessful drive to defeat antigay legislation in a small Maine town, is inspiring and useful; less convincing is her insistence that these political forms represent radically new ideas, rather than the inventive application of good old ones. The Avengers' theatrical tactics were anticipated by feminist groups such as the reproductive rights-focused No More Nice Girls and the Women's Pentagon Actions of 1980 and 1981. (I must admit, however, that the Avengers' fire swallowing sounds a lot sexier than antimilitarist web weaving!) Newer organizations such as the Women's Action Coalition (WAC) and Women's Health Action Mobilization (WHAM) are also known for deeds rather than "points of unity." All of these groups have shared the Avengers' desire to be effective, but even the Avengers have so far had to content themselves with the educational (symbolic) impact of their energetic protests.
In her introduction and annotations to the reprinted pieces, Schulman artfully constructs a tough-lovable persona that I enjoyed to the hilt as I read, only afterward realizing I'd caught a whiff of the improbably dauntless heroines of early lesbian fiction (the unsinkable Molly Bolt of Rubyfruit Jungle comes to mind). References to intrafeminist battles usually offer neither pretense to objectivity nor sufficient information to permit an independent evaluation of Schulman's perspective. An instance is her cursory treatment of some black lesbians' objection to the use of the term "Freedom Ride" for a Lesbian Avengers action, which misses an opportunity to examine in depth how the racial identities of lesbians themselves (as well as the race-exploiting discourse of the right) articulate with the Avengers' brand of organizing.
Finally, it's intriguing to consider how, despite their obvious convergences, Segrest's and Schulman's respective activist vantage points generate different emphases, different maps of the political world. For Segrest at this point in her life, the very understanding of her lesbianism is channeled through race; for Schulman, a queer identity is so much at the center that race becomes visible primarily as it relates to lesbianism. Displaying more awareness of these dilmemmas of location, Segrest notes: "In this border crossing from the lesbian and feminist to the antiracist movement, I began to realize how such movements separate people as much as bring them together. I found a compelling and complicated reality that neither race theory and organizing, nor class theory and organizing, nor feminist theory and organizing is capable of handling." Schulman is more impatient, less reflective: "I don't want to only show straight people how we live. I also want to show them how they live."
Her comment raises the question: How far will these voices carry? My writing of this review has been immeasurably complicated by my awareness of a split audience of Nation readers: on the one hand, a minority of lesbians, feminists and others who will welcome a complex critique of universally relevant books; on the other, the crowd who will want an intro course to this exotic subject matter (if they even bother to read on, once they spot the L-word). To the latter group, I repeat Rich's query: With whom do you believe your lot is cast?--a poet's self-interrogation, so much less comforiting than that good old radical conundrum, Which side are you on?
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 14, 1994|
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