By Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Today, at a time when it is more important than ever for black LGBT folks to make our voices heard, I want to lift of up the legacy of extraordinary20th century Black LGBT and straight ally feminists who took inspiring strategic approaches to action, voice, publishing and power.
In fact, if we look at my two most cherished Black feminist ancestors, we can see four crucial elements of what I call a strategic transformative warrior approach to our own words as a powerful resource.
1. Take a Stand
“I entirely expect that you will print this last word.” -June Jordan
June Jordan, acclaimed Black bisexual poet, essayist, and political activist, was always ready to take a stand. Check out her archives at the Schlessinger Library at Harvard and you will see passionate letters of protest and demands for accountability addressed to the editors of every publication you have heard about, and many that have long since disappeared.
June Jordan took controversial and important political stands that threatened her relationship with the publishing industry, most bravely and notably her passionate protest against Israeli apartheid, solidarity with the Palestinian people, and her decision to stand with Winnie Mandela when she was the subject of scandal in South Africa. She also called for accountability from the publishing outlets she encountered and their actions towards herself and other women of color writers.
What are the controversial political issues that we need to raise our voices on today, whether or not they are marketable to the publishing industry? Where is our solidarity with people of color around the world most urgently needed in this moment?
2. Stand Together
“I hereby resign as Contributing Editor of Chrysalis. I take this action in absolute support of my sister, Audre Lorde.” –June Jordan
Many of Jordan’s angry letters ended with the threat above, daring the editors of the publication to print her words of protest and rage. My favorite angry letter by June Jordan was addressed to Chrysalis, a lesbian feminist magazine where she served as an honorary advisory board member while Audre Lorde served as poetry editor. When Audre Lorde quit the publication in frustration with the shady, disrespectful and racist behavior of the otherwise all-white editorial board, June Jordan quit too, with the parting words: “Tell me/show me how your hopelessly academic, pseudo-historical, incestuous and profoundly optional, profoundly trifling, profoundly upper middle class attic white publication can presume to represent our women’s culture.” The words burn the page. Chrysalis, unwilling to be accountable to women of color’s voices, ceased to exist.
What would it mean today for LGBT writers of color to refuse to be tokenized by publications that do not demonstrate accountability to the communities we love? What would it mean to refuse to be the next token when our comrades are burnt out by the racism of well-resourced organizations and publications?
What would it look like for us to stand for excellence, transformative inclusivity, and true accountability from our movement publications with passion and audacity?
3. Leverage Our Privilege and Opportunities
Similar to June Jordan’s choice to leverage her power when her name was used to provide political and racial credibility to particular publications, Audre Lorde chose strategically to use her power as the most visible Black lesbian poet of her lifetime to challenge the norms of every part of the publishing industry. She called for the Black Arts publishing movement to challenge its ideas of gender and sexuality and, most persistently, she challenged the feminist and lesbian gay publishing movements on their racism.
For example, at the 1991 Bill Whitehead Memorial Award for Lesbian and Gay Publishing ceremony where she was honored for her work, Audre Lorde used her acceptance speech to ask, “What’s at stake in lesbian and gay publishing in the 1990s” and to challenge the racism of the organization through its consistent exclusion of gay and lesbian writers of color.
Even as an economically struggling artist with burdensome medical bills at the end of her life, Audre Lorde refused to take the monetary award from the Triangle Foundation, the sponsors of the publishing award, proclaiming “If this group wishes to truly honor my work, built upon the creative use of difference for all our survivals, then I charge you, as a group, to include and further expose the work of new lesbian and gay writers of color within the coming year, and to report on what has been done at next year’s award ceremony.”
What would it mean for us to transform opportunities to shine, into specific institutional demands, bright with our visions for our collective brilliance as a community?
4. Create the Context We Deserve
Audre Lorde put her little bit of money where her mouth was. If you look in the papers of her fellow Black lesbian and gay artists, Joseph Beam, Pat Parker and others, you will find that she donated small amounts of money towards their projects whenever she got her tax return or had access to a little bit extra. And for me, this is the most crucial act.
Audre Lorde collaborated with Barbara Smith and other feminists of color to create Kitchen Table Press as an autonomous publishing space especially accountable to lesbians of color. June Jordan collaborated with her students at UC Berkeley to create the Poetry for the People Program, dedicated to telling the truth regardless of political backlash. Both of these institutions had a major impact on the literary world of the late 20th century and continue to impact us in the 21st century. But I want to highlight the fact that both of these artists devoted substantial energy to support the projects of other artists in their communities. Audre Lorde supported Pat Parker’s poetry workshops in prison and Joseph Beam’s work to spearhead a Black gay and lesbian magazine. June Jordan gave revolutionary underrepresented poets space to share their work and funding towards their art by bringing them to her university campus.
The commitment that June Jordan and Audre Lorde demonstrate reminds us that our voices are only worth the love they carry.
May we raise our voices in honor of each other and our ancestors. May we tangibly support the world we deserve.