The Academic Feminist: Cheryl Clarke on Black Queer Trouble, Past and Present

ClarkeWelcome back, Academic Feminists! In a departure from our usual format – featuring the work of early career scholars – this edition of the AF features one of the foremost scholars, poets, and “troublemakers” of our time, Cheryl Clarke. Clarke is the author of four books of poetry, Narratives: poems in the tradition of black women (1982), Living as a Lesbian (1986), Humid Pitch (1989), Experimental Love (1993), the critical study, After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (Rutgers Press, 2005), and The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry 1980-2005 (Carroll and Graf, 2006). She recently retired from Rutgers University-New Brunswick, and is currently raising money for the Festival of Women Writers in Hobart, New York. In this interview she discusses her introduction to feminism, her dedication to independent presses, and, of course, troublemaking.

1. I usually start out with a question about how you got interested in feminism. Posing this question to a person whose work is included in feminist anthologies and read in introductory women’s and gender studies courses is daunting! But tell us: What were you reading and who was inspiring you when you started writing?

This question is daunting for me as well.  I really have to think. I didn’t really take feminism seriously as a practice until I started publishing my writing. I became interested in anti-sexist ideas in the same way I became interested in blackness when I was in college at Howard University from 1965-1969. During my black power days I considered “women’s liberation” (“wimmens lib”) a white fixation, a distraction from the “real struggle,” i.e., black liberation, until I learned some things from a close friend of mine who was married to a physically abusive man. She said, “I don’t know that black women can afford not to be concerned about sexism.” I was exposed to feminism later, in 1969, when I came to graduate school at Rutgers-New Brunswick. When I read Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation by Dennis Altman in 1972, I came to understand the relationships among systems of oppression, issues of power over and enforced powerlessness–like my friend in her abusive marriage; or like African-Americans living in Mississippi particularly prior to World War II; or gay people trying to avoid detection in a government job during the McCarthy fifties. I got more involved in feminist thinking when I first came out as a lesbian in 1973, when I met up with black lesbians in a group called Salsa Soul Sisters, and through white lesbian friends of mine in New Brunswick, N.J. 

There is no cut and dry answer to this question.  There were a number of influences. I became more firmly committed to feminism when I met Barbara Smith in 1975 at the Socialist Feminist Conference at Antioch College. We ran into each other as we were both leaving a session where some Marxist women were making quite homophobic statements about lesbians. I asked her, “Are you gay?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “So am I. This conference is sickening.” Anyway, I learned a great deal from Barbara in terms of her outspokenness and her courage to say, “I have such a deep commitment to feminism.”  And as I began to meet other black feminists through Smith, my commitment became deeper as well.

During the 1980′s I was privileged to be part of a multicultural feminist community. I became involved in the Conditions Editorial Collective in 1981, and had the privilege of working with nearly twenty women, all lesbian-identified, who cycled through the Collective, each contributing time, expertise, and tireless editing skills as we pored collectively over the many writings submitted to the journal. We also dubbed it “a feminist magazine of writing for women with an emphasis on writing by lesbians.” Conditions published from 1976 to 1990. It was founded by Elly Bulkin, Rima Shore, Irena Klepfisz, and Jan Clausen, who opened the collective to more diversity in 1981, when I joined with Jewelle Gomez, Dorothy Allison, the late Carroll Oliver, and Mirtha Quintanales. Cherrie Moraga worked as our office manager until she went to direct New York Women Against Rape. This was an exciting time, and I learned much about feminist practice. And Conditions published so many women: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, Barbara Banks, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Olga Broumas, Barbara Smith, Enid Dame, Cherrie Moraga, Sapphire, Shay Youngblood, Chirlaine McCray, and so many more.

Lately, I find myself even more committed to feminism, especially for young women. I see it as something that could possibly save one’s life. This is also why I think an effort like Feministing is so important to all of us. You keep us all going.

2. Your book of poetry, Living as a Lesbian, first published in 1986, was just reissued. What would you say to a young queer person who might be reading your words for the first time?

I am very happy that Living has been reprinted by the energetic Sinister Wisdom and A Midsummer Night’s Presses –  they too keep me going and all of us going. I am happy that we still have the publishing infrastructures to not only publish lesbian-feminist so-called classics but also to distribute them. So, first I would say to the young queer person who might be reading Living as a Lesbian for the first time is to support our independent presses! As I said often about the Black Power/Black Arts Movements: we need our history, our culture, our literature. And this is what a whole multicultural generation of lesbians engaged in the 1980′s – creating cultural institutions so that we could live our lives with determination, decision, and yes, of course, pride. So, I would say this to a “new generation.” Read Living, whether or not you like poetry. You may not think it is wonderful in the world, but you will know that the work is out there and that you are a part of its audience.

3. You are guest editing an upcoming issue of The Journal of Lesbian Studies. The theme of the issue is the only spoken word album produced by Olivia Records, Judy Grahn and Pat Parker’s Where Would I be Without You? What made you interested in editing the issue?

My interest stems from my appreciation of the early work of Judy Grahn and Pat Parker in the independent women’s press community. Of course, as I stated above, I have done editorial work and feel I can lend those skills to The Journal of Lesbian Studies. I am one of three editors, including Julie Enzer and Lisa Hogeland. I will hopefully be helping the two of them and not getting in the way. One wants to lend one’s skills.

4.  You were recently given the Kessler Award by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York.  In your lecture, titled Black Queer Trouble in Life, Literature, and the Age of Obama, you gave shouts to some up-and-coming “black queer troublemakers,” including one of my favorite feminist scholars, Darnell L. Moore. Who are some other “troublemakers” on your radar?

Well, Mr. Darnell Moore is certainly on my radar, since our early days of trying to work on issues of homophobia in the city of Newark. He and three other trouble-makers organized a “Retrofuturespective” at Rutgers University which celebrated my work on Oct. 4, 2013. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Mecca J. Sullivan, and Steven G. Fullwood were the other troublemakers. They are definitely on my radar. Dr. Gumbs conducts on-line discussions every Sunday on the poetry of Audre Lorde. She also is a poet and essayist and has opened the internet to black lesbian-feminism. Dr. Sullivan is a scholar of the black queer diaspora as well as a fiction writer, whose short story collection will be coming out this year from Magnus and who will be teaching at U-Mass Amherst next year. Mr. Fullwood is the founder and curator of the “Black LGBT, In the Life, SGL Archive” at the Schomburg Center, also an independent publisher of Vintage Entity Press. Aisha Shahidah Simmons, the film-maker and cultural worker, producer of “No: the Rape Documentary.” Tiona McClodden, videographer and producer of Black Womyn in Conversation, a documentary of interviews with 50 black lesbians, and I was lucky to be among them. Members of the Crunk Feminist Collective are on my radar getting “buck” every week online. J.P. Howard is on my radar, founder and curator of Women Writers in Bloom in New York, which offers a monthly salon for emerging and established women writers. I am trying to get her to offer a salon at my home in Jersey City. I know I am leaving people out, which is why I do not like to name names. Anique Nixon, poet and scholar who recommended me for the Kessler Award, LaMarr Jurelle Bruce, getting ready to take his Ph.D.at Yale and his place among our scholars, R. Erica Doyle and her wonderful book of poems, Proxy. Samiya Bashir, lovely skilled poet and veteran of June Jordan’s “Poetry for the People” program at U.C.  Berkeley, and way out there teaching in Oregon. And, of course, all the editors at The Feminist Wire.

You can read Cheryl’s full Kessler lecture, Black Queer Trouble in Life, Literature, and the Age of Obama, over at the Crunk Feminist Collective and watch a video slideshow tribute from the Rutgers’ “Retrofuturespective” here.

for FeministingGwendolyn Beetham curates this series for Feministing. When she’s not interviewing academic feminist heroes, she’s teaching feminism at Brooklyn College and editing the blog University of Venus.

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