This is a conversation rich with history and history in the making. Cheryl Clarke and Vanessa Huang are poets, activists, mentors to each other in many ways, vital and crucial beings. Here, they traverse intergenerational bridges and they have stories to share, people who you will want to know, movements and collectives you will want to Google. These are radical women, politically and poetically—their poems are part of this conversation! Their evolution as humans, thinking bodies, “sensate witnesses” unafraid of their queerness allows us to meet our edges, even when they flex and flow. Read on and enjoy.
HER KIND: Thank you Cheryl and Vanessa for welcoming us into your Conversation! It’s a pleasure to have your voices here. Let’s begin: Gloria Anzaldúa asks in the foreword to the second edition of This Bridge Called My Back: ¿Qué hacer de aquí y cómo? (What to do from here and how?) As a woman and writer, what are the bridges you’ve had to cross, burn, and forge? What came of those experiences?
Cheryl Clarke: The notion of “Bridges” brings up many correlations for me as a post-World War II black person. I suppose another way to term “bridges” is as transitions. Getting from one change to the next. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Mississippi, Watts, Alabama, Memphis, Georgia, Detroit, D.C. . . . . I see myself of a generation whose experiences join and jettison that space between the changes, that site of ambiguity, that liminal place.
If only one could talk about oneself without using the personal pronoun, “I.” My first “bridges” are those writing ancestors who gave me the bridge to permission—to be a writer, to put my work out there, to publish, to write. Baldwin (1924-1987) comes to mind as the first “homosexual” writer. Another Country—eloquently and grittily—gave me the vaunted “permission” to imagine same-sex sexuality. (I have written about this elsewhere.) And then Gwen Brooks (1917-2000) who made poetry seem so fabulous and elegant. I can name other writers’ backs I have walked across, who have helped me make a transition from naïve self interest to and abiding knowledge of the richness of black culture. That could be a book in and of itself. And I don’t think I am all the way across yet. (I suppose I don’t want to get all the way across.) The 1970s was a decade of study and unsettling transition for me in preparation for the “lesbian-centered” 1980s.
My writing has been, since 1979, enlarged by the networks of independent publishing and print communities. In fact, I participated in that print movement as a member of the Editorial Collective of Conditions Magazine from 1981 to 1990. It is difficult to believe that twenty years ago the final Collective members closed Conditions as an active lesbian feminist publication. I placed our existing journal stock in storage for 17 years. But back to the “independent publishing and print communities” comment: “Bridges” has got to make me think of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color! Yes, Cherríe Moraga wrote me to say Barbara Smith had told her that I liked to write, was an “out” black lesbian and might be willing to write a piece for her and the late Gloria Anzaldúa’s anthology. I agreed to write the piece, which became “Lesbianism: an act of resistance.” Not only has that article become a classic of feminist writing but This Bridge is an enduring work and continues to shape and shake the field of women’s studies. So, I feel “Lesbianism: an act of resistance” as well as “The Failure to Transform: Homophobia in the Black Community,” which appeared in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, have been bridges of pride, anger, and fortitude for lesbian and gay generations of all colors over the past 30 years. And for that I am happy.
Vanessa Huang: Life so far, in 28 years, has been full of opportunities to both cross the bridges you and others in and around This Bridge Called My Back have made before, and to build upon them in the ways we need and want de aquí, both across my experience inhabiting “woman” and the fluidity of gender, and in learning how to be human in this world, a yearning at the core of my intention as a writer.
CC: “Learning how to be human” is a provocative notion. But do you feel that what you call fluidity gives us something beyond “human?” Is our ability to “inhabit” gender(s), sexualities, political stances, “race(s)” beyond “human?” If so or if not, can you give specific examples from your writing of these “yearnings” at the “core of your intention as a writer?” (Beautifully said, by the way.)
VH: It’s taken over two decades for me to begin living into my own experience feeling human with a sense of my own two feet on the ground, my own heart’s desires for freedom and aliveness, outside of the influence of this now embedded, though unraveling notion of two genders, male and female, that have played its role in allowing patriarchy and heterosexism and capitalism to flourish as they have. I don’t know about fluidity being beyond “human.” Perhaps? You remind me how impressed I am by the ease with which strangers and friends alike project our human notion of gender onto our canine friends, whether voicing the go-to “is it a boy or a girl?” or assuming “he” or “she” based on our human conception of how our sexes determine who we are or how we be. Friends who know my dog read Shani as super butch, and I find that lots of strangers “he” Shani by default. In Mandarin Chinese, my mother tongue, “they” is just “they”—one pronoun to reference someone you’re not speaking directly with. I’ve felt relief and joy of late witnessing friends and acquaintances allow the young ones they’re rearing to answer how they identify and express themselves.
Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” comes to me—“You do not have to be good./ You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./ You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves.” I channeled a poem in conversation with “Wild Geese” a couple years ago, in the voice of this body of water covering our precious earth, in prayer amidst some of the horrors of human delusion I was grappling with in spring 2010, between BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion and Israel’s military raid on a fleet of ships sailing in international waters to bring aid to Gaza. In “Gaza waterprayer” the ocean water speaks to our human body: “You do not have to be good or bad./ You do not have to pray angelic,/ veil each thousandth tide this dying body./ You only have to let each shrivel/ loosen and tell what it tells: fire from the air, fire from the sea./ Love me, shrivel to shrivel, as I’ve loved each unwanted red flower.”
I also channeled a poem in conversation with Nina Simone’s expressive yearnings in “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” and more, alongside those of my friends in present time through the unfolding of Occupy/Decolonize Oakland. I performed it at the Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant amphitheater at Oakland’s General Strike on November 2, 2011:
WE BEDBOUND GENDERBOUND JAILBOUND
WE HOMED & UNHOMED WE THIS SACRED FIRE
WE WISH WE COULD GIVE ALL
WE LONGING TO GIVE
WE A CELEBRATION
WE WISH WE KNEW HOW
WE FEEL A TASTE OF IT, FREE
WE HUNGER LOVE STRONGER
WE SOUNDING THIS LOUDER
WE SMELL A NEW DAWN
WE TASTE THIS NEW POWER
WE STILL WHISPER
WE STILL WONDER IF THERE WILL BE A PLACE FOR US
WE LAND IN BODY
WE OCCUPY OUR OWN LONGING
WE REMEMBER THE ISOLATION
WE KNOW EXPLOITATION
WE HOLD ITS SHAPE
WE’VE LEARNED TO CONTAIN IT
WE UNKNOW THIS BODY WITHOUT IT
WE KNOW WE DON’T WANT IT
WE LOSING SHORE
CC: I am a little speechless at your response. I still have my question about the “human.” Perhaps I would prefer to just be designated “they” or “the person” to differentiate me from those who gunned down the ship in the Gaza waters and those responsible for the explosion in the Gulf that killed eleven people and scarred the region. But then, who am I to differentiate myself and be beyond human. I need to claim it and hold myself accountable for the wrongs committed in my name. (See, I can’t not say “I.” But you manage to use the pronoun so infrequently. Think it’s cultural?) I connect with Mary Oliver’s work too, particularly the poem about the snapping turtle, which she kidnaps but puts back into the river. I can’t channel.
VH: I don’t know if I believe you. What are we poets but channeling the human condition, our human discomforts, our human yearnings, including this deep push-and-pull yearning you speak of here?
One of the first times I gathered with women and gender-variant people of color writers with collective purpose was in 2006. We’d all answered a call from Chrystos to “Let me Rest Here” at a social justice retreat center in Michigan. I met two queer Asian poets there, whose paths continue to dovetail with my own. I remember being picked up at the airport by a sweet white butch (I believe) working at the retreat center with my now friend, then stranger, Ching-In Chen, also a queer Chinese-American poet—whose work has laid bridges for me to cross—and our long drive and conversations along the way, arriving sometime after dusk. As we settled in and met fellow spirits in person for the first time, I learned from some of the black women writers of their absolute mindfulness about arriving well before dusk in order to avoid white vigilantes.
CC: The type of experience you recount above is so very crucial to one’s development as a lesbian, queer, LGBT, butch, dyke, stud (first heard this term in 1967 by an ultra straight black man) bulldagger, of color radical writer. I had similar experiences between 1977 and 1980 with the Black Feminist Retreats, organized by Barbara Smith and other members of the Combahee River Collective. Kimberley Springer talks about these retreats in her book Living For The Revolution. But the life-sustaining importance of this experience of coming together with those who one shares life and art (writing) is never to be taken for granted or forgotten. These Retreats were essential to my ability to produce the work I have done over the past 30 years. These experiences were truly “bridges” for me. I think we need more than three days to answer this question. (But we don’t have the time.) This really points to Arisa White’s brilliance in doing her work. I think each generation of us must have those coming together experiences because they keep us going—to know there are others, that there is/are community/ies. Right on Chrystos, always a woman I have admired—since This Bridge.
And yes, the black women’s insistence upon arriving before dark is intensely viscerally crucial. A poet living in Austin, Texas, recounted to me two years ago an experience, while visiting her girlfriend in Michigan, certainly since 2006, of being stopped by a black cop even, interrogated, made to spread-eagle, because he thought she was dealing dope to her girlfriend, who happened to be a white-skinned Latina. (But a cop is a cop is a cop. You know that “wall of blue.”)
VH: Having grown up mostly in the Bay Area, and having been born into a family whose skin color hasn’t been a target in this way, I will never forget meeting this insistence at that moment.
CC: Not to diminish the African American’s continuing oppression and being under surveillance, victims of the carceral state, and just plain “starved” and murdered—it amazes me still—but what is the Asian [American]’s oppression, besides the “model minority” stereotype, and how do you address this in your writing?
VH: I can only speak to what I know, through my own lived experience and what stories I’ve received or invited, searched for. There’s such a range, and it’s always evolving. I guess “the only lasting truth is change,” as Octavia Butler penned. White supremacy as we know it in the United States is premised on the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement and forced migration of Africans to this continent and beyond. I hope my work invites bridges across the spectrum of these experiences and the experiences of my people held at Angel Island, as well as of peers in the South Asian and Southwest Asian/North African diaspora as we’ve watched the state’s control, reach, and use of its range of tools expand through its “War on Terror” (something I tracked as a news columnist for ColorLines for a couple years in the mid 2000s). I guess my approach to the writing reflects my principle of liberation for all, or as comrades who have directly experienced lockup have asserted through their organizing initiative of the same name, “All of Us or None.”
CC: The surveillance of Arab and Muslim peoples is so like the surveillance in the 1970s of so-called “black revolutionaries.” New York Public Radio announced yesterday that the suit against New York City police for stalking people and “surveilling” homes and mosques of Arab/Muslim citizens in New York City and New Jersey was dismissed. Yes, stalk us all or stalk none.
VH: Yes. Early on, as a high-schooler, just before 9/11, working in Barbara Lee’s district office I saw an example of a woman of color with collective purpose using the privileges she had to build bridges in a way I could relate to. I wouldn’t know until later on just how difficult building bridges can be, whether across lines of institutional power or even human to human amidst all we’ve internalized. Along the way I’ve crossed so many bridges laid down by fierce Asian-American women activists with collective purpose, too, like Yuri Kochiyama, and those of later generations.
CC: I knew of Yuri Kochiyama from my Assata days. And in fact about 25 years ago, I had a phone conversation with her. I forget what occasioned the phone call, but I remember that she invited me to a celebration of Malcolm X’s birthday. Yes, she is definitely a “bridge” for all of us, across the generations, across the ethnicities, across the regions, and across the genders. And can you name the Asian [American]s in Michigan whom you refer to above with whom you have continued to have contact?
VH: Ching-In I mentioned already, and the other kindred spirit sojourning with us in Michigan that weekend, who I’m still in contact with, was Jai Dulani. Both of them are poets and activists, and co-edited (alongside Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha) The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities, in which my poem “Manifesto” lands in call and response with some of the activists and work it’s directly and indirectly labored with towards the lives we need and want.
Did you go to Malcolm X’s celebration? How much, and what was the dialogue like across the circles and communities surrounding all of you?
CC: No, I didn’t go. I am who I am and shy away from calling myself an activist, because so many other people, like yourself, have a richer history of doing the “heavy lifting.” However, activist peoples have always surrounded me from the time I was at Howard University 1965 to ‘69 at the height of the Black Power Movement, until now, in my work with the Newark Pride Alliance in supporting and promoting the work of those ministering to LGBTQ-QTS youth (if we have to add any more letters, I will be retiring from the community) in that homophobic town. I have learned what I can and can’t do, as I mentioned. I consider myself a good “follower” with a talent for identifying excellent leaders.
VH: I’m reminded of some insight Chrystos shares on the back cover of my copy of Fire Power: “Telling the truth is powerful medicine. It is a fire that lights the way for others. When we speak our “Fire Power,” we join a long & honored line of warriors against injustice.” I’ve been inhabiting a phase of slowing down after some intense years of “heaving lifting,” taking the time to honor and tend to secondary trauma and my own through this work while also inviting deepened connection and awakening towards my “sacred direction” as Chrystos offers: “Each of us is born with innate power & purpose, a sacred direction for which we have been created. Our task is to find the place where we belong & do our work there.” These days I’m also asking and wondering how we might shift the work of this honored line of warriors from “heaving lifting” by a few and growing towards an integrated part of life for all of us, even beyond what we’ve seen and are continuing to effort towards in mass-based organizing, towards a place where all our contributions and abilities and sacred directions are valued? How do we love and labor together in ways that unravels ableism and its hold on capitalism?
I continue to carry the teachings I’ve received always. Some pivotal political mentors and comrades, also prison abolitionists, both white cisgender women and lesbians outside, and black studs and bois and First Nations activists inside through an organization here in Oakland called Justice Now, have influenced my outlook and leadership practice by passing along the teachings and learnings on coalition building as offered by Bernice Johnson Reagon, the Combahee River Collective, and activists imprisoned at New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for “women,” struggling with the AIDS epidemic. And I have crossed and continue to cross the bridges of gender self-determination and fierce courage patience and resilience laid by my friend, comrade, and elder Miss Major, and other women of color resisting transgender oppression leading up to Stonewall and for those still alive like Major, in the decades since.
CC: Could you talk about Miss Major? Who is she? Why is she important to you? Perhaps quote from your poem.
VH: Miss Major is “mom” to courage tribes of transgender women here in San Francisco and Oakland, and actually around the country. We met through the love and labor of building relationships, campaigns, and lines of accountability across prison walls and across experiences of trans/gender oppression in the mid 2000s in California while the legislature was trying to push through a host of prison expansion packages, including by co-opting liberal feminist rhetoric to justify “gender responsive” prisons that would only further consolidate the state’s trans/gender oppression and control and reach over communities of color and poor communities. Knowing Major through these efforts and beyond as friends through battle has provided me a place of refuge, simply by knowing her presence today and survival through decades of transmisogyny and historical amnesia and denial. In refuge I can breathe knowing the blood and sweat and tears, from Stonewall and Attica till now are holding me up, and safeguarding all of our freedom to simply be and breathe in peace one day.
Major and I have traveled some together to bridge our work here in the Bay Area with that of our comrades across the country. “Driving with the top down sun/ out & wind blowing all over the place/ xoxo, mm” (which you refer to, and graciously offered feedback to before publication) I channeled from the stories in the air, in our bones while driving together one day in a convertible in Texas. The poem is meant to be a portrait honoring her resilience, courage strength, and fierce patience over the years:
Attica is all of us
& I know
for me/ ‘Til he holds me I wait
impatiently/Where the boys are black flowers stemming without
light or water black that whispers I can’t tell you
what the yard was like I cried it was so close everyone together castle
a flowers thick & bitter/ where the boys are/ We shall overcome
these birds a prey firesky deaths
& stripped naked / Where the boys are/ We are not afraid
We are not alone some day/ column a flowers shake shadowmemory
out a hostage echoes knuckled under ‘til spirit crawl & beat down
on trouble & trouble plea guilty
/ some day accordion dreams
someone waits for me
¿Qué hacer de aquí y cómo? Out of necessity and choice, a bridge that my current project—the poetry manuscript you’ve been supporting me in moving towards completion this year, which this poem excerpt is a part of—has been forging over the last eight years is between the outward physical labor of our lives as political beings who take responsibility to care for each other, and what largely has become the internal work tending to collectively untended grief, trauma, hurt, loss, so many layers of wounding we experience from the worldly conditions we’ve inherited, where our relationships and ways of being so often are rooted in exploitation and delusion. Arab poets Suheir Hammad and Elmaz Abinader both have been guiding lights along the way, encouraging me in word and by example to write to my edges, into the flesh, into the heart.
CC: What do you mean by writing “to my edges”—I love that image? But what do you mean? What do we have to do to write to our “edges”? (I don’t know if I have the courage to do it.). How do you address the grief, trauma, hurt, loss, wounding in/with your poetry?
VH: I remember Suheir inviting us to “write to the edge of our water” or something to that effect. How far can we reach to share of ourselves? How much is too much at each moment? Since that invitation I’ve learned that the edges can ebb and flow, and what I can tolerate within myself, and tolerate expressing to invite collective healing, too can ebb and flow. Though I must say I think the practice of poetry is a practice that stretches my feeling muscles, the core of my permeability. I’m deeply sensitive—to external suffering caused by these wars of delusion, to the connected internal suffering we create within, and more recently to the growing toxins all around us. To borrow a phrase a friend and NYC–based artist Samara Gaev has penned in her work, I feel like a “sensate witness.” Are all of us poets so sensitive? It seems like poetry has become a way for me to steward my senses.
And I fancy we all have the courage within to do it. Sometimes we’re not ready; perhaps the conditions don’t want to allow it; perhaps we don’t have the support we need—but I think it’s always there.
CC: Perhaps some of us don’t have the courage for some work. I know I don’t have the courage for prison work.
VH: Yes, perhaps sense of courage has shifted and will continue to shift over time as external conditions and my physical and emotional body changes and evolves.
This body of poetry, the fabric of the poembody you’ve witnessed and been in dialogue with, and my practice around it—channeling and offering poetry in call and response with dear ones and the work that’s dear to us—wants to bridge the work of transformation we so need and want across these inner and outer worlds. They have been teaching and encouraging me to live into the places where stillness needs/meets movement, quiet meets sound, humility meets power [Beautiful]. They labor to honor the relationship and deep connection between cultural work and direct organizing; and dances the tensions between the wisdom of our bodies and heart, and the sometimes-brilliance-sometimes-delusion of our brains and ego. They’ve carried my strength, resilience, and healing across some of the sweetest joys as well as bitter disappointment building and burning all sorts of bridges in service towards life-affirming worlds where all of us are deeply cared for, and no one is thrown away or deemed unworthy of love and support.
CC: I consciously burned one bridge or relationship in 1993, which I don’t care to dwell upon here. And I have no regrets about its burning. (There may be others who believe I have burned bridges, but I don’t know who they are.) However, above you speak about the cleansing, re-vitalizing burning. The hope that comes from the so-called burnt offering. I think this may be a certain type of burning that takes us beyond the human. Where does sex, e.g., fucking, fit in here?
VH: What fucking? Talk about writing to my edges, Cheryl . . . I’m not going to lie. I often blush when my friends get up on stage and perform about the wildness and brilliance of our uncontrollably hot queer and trans sex. There’ve been times I’ve amply written poems about sex directly to partners, or lovers, as you say, mostly inspired by the creative life force in my erotic connection with them. Living into this first poetry collection has commanded my focus on listening for and channeling the music that not all of us hear around us or that I haven’t always heard within myself through the unrelenting and untended to grief and trauma we hold through the generations and through genocides of all sorts. A specific project, and a project that has been patient for years and is now calling me to birth it already. So I haven’t been writing many poems about sex. Or any writings about fucking. Besides text messages. Not that that isn’t a connection; there is. Audre’s “Uses of the Erotic: the erotic as power” comes to mind: “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change.”
What about for you, then and now?
CC: I suppose, Vanessa, I am not just talking about writing about sex or the erotic, but deploying it within ourselves and our writing. (And, as one woman said to me years ago, ‘I’m not talking just about masturbating while writing’—though as far as I’m concerned that’s good too. And “text messages” sounds good as long as you don’t plan to run for office. Yes, yes, yes Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic,” always a beautiful fall-back to any discussion of queer sex/sexuality, because Lorde tells us to have the courage to harness erotic energy for our work. I use it every year when I teach my graduate course at Rutgers.
Sex for me then, when I was in my thirties was disappointing, exciting, and important. Crucial, in fact, to my creative work. It is still crucial. But in a different way. I find I live for it in the imaginary (which isn’t always productive) but it’s easier. But I feel I must address sex, desire for sex, sexual longing and wanting and missing it whether or not I am experiencing the fucking, because it is good for my poetry and my life. And fantasies are so good when they’re good. Always were when you learned how to use them.
Here’s a newish poem, the latest in a long series of poems entitled, “Living as a Lesbian. I have them from “Living as a Lesbian at 35” to “living as a lesbian at 60,” which is the following:
still pass after dark as butch
the only ever safety in times of war.
one turquoise pierced ear
memory of that sharp initiation
into femaleness before the malli-
fication and the wildfire among men
(sporting both ears in bling and hoops of bullion)
the 14K hoop thought to be a custom
of savages by white girls’ mothers whose daughters
wanted the stud and the wire instead of the clip-on
tried to make the holes into a stigma
some colored daughters
i got the attention.
VH: This project you’ve been accompanying me in completing is a bridge of sorts that asks how we can really create the ways of being in this world together that we crave and love and labor for. I’ve spent time lobbying Republican staff in Sacramento through policy work speak to help expand ways for our imprisoned loved ones who are terminally ill and medically incapacitated to return home, and in many ways am still recovering from their responses. I think these poems are reaching to understand how this world has come to be this way, where it can be so excruciatingly difficult to connect on the heart level, human to human. It asks us: how do we reach the human in police uniform, the human under gavel’s learned command? I’m still forging this bridge alongside my peers and readers, so we’ll continue to see what may come.
CC: This is the question I am still asking: is there something beyond the human? Something beyond the ‘human’ in the police uniform. And, I know, you all in the Bay Area (Occupy Oakland) have had to deal with the human in the police uniform in a way we have not had to deal with them here on the East Coast at Occupy Wall Street. After seeing the way in which the human in the police uniform have to deal with gun violence in my town—Jersey City—I begin to understand their human-ness, their vulnerability, but also the vulnerability of those they (cops) shoot or shoot back at who shoot at them. And then, I think about the maleness of this mess, the masculinism of it all. So, what do you say to this?
VH: Well I think the prison industrial complex as we know it, we know to have borrowed heavily from the military industrial complex, a culture steeped in patriarchy and rape culture. One place we’ve begun to acknowledge as a prisoner rights and anti-prison movement in terms of where we’ve seen ourselves get tripped up in pushing back against the prison industrial complex and making plain its growing reach on people of all genders (not just “men”) from communities of color and poor communities is pointing fingers at “men” or “masculinity” as the root of our culture’s delusion with prisons and the violence they enact. As we’ve seen and grappled with in the growing circle of voices in solidarity with people in women’s prisons and transgender women most often held in men’s prisons, “women” officers—as with officers of any gender or sex—are tasked to do the same job as any other officer when it comes to the big picture, that is, guarding a population of people the state has decided to take away from us and assert its control over to help maintain our social order. I experienced this all too plainly when a friend and I recently attempted to observe a large and growing group of cops detaining a few young Latin@ youth in the Oakland redwoods. Initially, the female officers’ tone was friendly with us, but upon reminder from their higher ups, they quickly assumed an abrasive, threatening demeanor with us.
I’m not denying the violent intensity and legacy of patriarchy and normalization of rape culture in our cultures over decades, or the somatic imprint it leaves us with individually or collectively and that we feel so viscerally when faced with bodies and/or ranges of gender conformity that have systematically been granted privilege and power within these norms. Nor am I denying that there can be and most likely are cops who live into this role with the intention to do more good than harm within their own practice amidst this large and growing system. And, at the end of the day, we all face the question of what is wise livelihood for us, and how do we make choices and interact with institutions and their impacts in a way that is least harmful?
CC: I wish that were the only question we faced at the end of the day. I feel I am connected cross-generationally—with my past and present students at Rutgers, with younger activists who have read my work and respect it (and me), with younger scholars and writers with whom I am involved in various projects, with friends and colleagues my own age who, like me, are still working on relevant issues and projects. For example, I am working with Julie R. Enzer (not my age), a poet, scholar, and archivist, who is writing on feminist publishing, to bring Conditions Magazine back into the realm of the living by getting extant issues out to libraries and archives and people who knew it. As I said, twenty years have passed since the Collective closed the magazine in 1990. I kept the remaining issues in storage since 1994. And Julie wrote me last summer and gave me a reason to get it out and put the work women did in Conditions, from 1977 until 1990, back on the lesbian feminist/queer/LGBT radar and historical agenda. This is the importance of cross-generational contacts—on the street, in the academy, and in political organizations. This is also the importance of commitment, which I think I have, to certain ideals that have to do with bridges. As a black person, I learned many years ago how easily oppressed communities become forgotten in history. So, I think as a lesbian I have learned to guard against my own amnesia and others. But I cannot do it by myself. I crave community.
Younger queer people and my younger colleagues at work continue to push me to do more, that is, to write, to speak, to blog, to tweet, to Facebook, to even answer my email. (Believe me, I want to do these things.) I continue to remind people of the work lesbians have done over the past forty years and continue to do around diversity, social justice, developing sustainable systems of knowledge like the work of Arisa White, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Lisa Moore. And, I am certain, many, many others are doing.
As one example, working with you, Vanessa, over the past year has been a deep experience and continues to be as we exchange these ideas. You remind me of how difficult prison activism still is, which I haven’t been involved in since 1976, when I worked on the political defense committee for Assata Shakur from c.1973 to c.1978. And I see how crucial and unbelievably difficult the work still is. Prisons have only proliferated. So, your work—both your poetry and the political work— have brought me into greater contact with the intersection of culture and politics, more specifically the intersection of poetry and politics, i.e., how a poet says what is happening in the world of wars, violence against women, violence against LGBT youth, of urban and rural poor people, of impoverished students, of women in prison. I feel I go off of consciousness and must be brought back to the ground of what must be done or written or published or posted, or shouted about in the town hall space and the street.
I am 65 years old. And I say this tentatively. I am in another space of transition. So, if anyone wants my back to be a bridge, some bodies better be down there helping to hold my ass up.
VH: Cheryl, something I love about you, and something I—and I think we—so need is this directness and wit, especially in a world brimming more and more with delusion-run-amuck at the hands of people and institutions controlling and containing our communities and aliveness through the force of direct, state-sanctioned violence (surveillance, policing, imprisonment, from COINTELPRO to today’s grand juries and more) and the more evasive violences they create to infuse our intimate, spiritual spheres (the media’s persistent enemy production of black and brown and increasingly Arab and Muslim bodies, capitalism’s ongoing creation of standards of “beauty” that reify the use of toxic fragrances and exacerbate the deep environmental imbalance that is showing up more and more in our individual and collective bodies and wellness).
Your directness and insistence on claiming space for laughter amidst it all have been keeping me alive in so many ways through this past year phoning each other. Yes, we better be there helping hold your ass up. While I no longer can do heavy lifting through my own transitions, I can make the invitations, make my calls. I want us to be there for you, as dear ones have shown up for me through the changes life inevitably offers up. We need this for you and for all of our friends and elders who have come before, who have shared your stories navigating those liminal places that hold our lives and legacy together, whose blood and tears are holding our backs. If you’d like to share here, I’d love to know more about “that space between the changes, that site of ambiguity, that liminal place” as you’re experiencing them now, de aqui. How can we best show up to hold you up?
CC: Deer [as our sister Chrystos would say] Vanessa:
I am exploring that liminal (my Word program keeps changing that word to “luminal,” which is a good word too) space. I have been thinking about and using this concept ever since I read an article called “Anyone” by Jason King in Callaloo’s special issue on “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Literature and Culture,” in 2000. It was a beautiful article on the late Luther Vandross’ ability to render himself “queer” through his expression of “affect” in his style of singing and his refusal to say what his sexuality was. Thus, rendering him a kind of ambiguous and liminal figure. So, the writer lovingly calls our attachment, as consumers and producers of Luther’s performance, that “in-between space of kinship.” (Of course, King’s argument is much more complicated, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read it. And Luther is dead. Poor Luther, all he wanted to do was to sing and be a pretty boy. Well, he definitely could sing.) I later used that notion in an article I wrote on black gay writing and its rejection of black macho. Of course, it is too late for me to not claim my sexuality, especially since I have been claiming lesbianism, lesbians, and the imperative of the pussy since 1973. But, as a middle child in my family of five (including me), an “unknown,” I like to play with that idea of the liminal, the ambiguous one. So, now when people say “sir” to me, I don’t correct them. I accept my liminal/ambiguous manhood, which I sometimes call butch, dyke, bulldagger, stud, which I no longer refuse either.
VH: I share your desire and commitment to guard against amnesia and your need for community. This, perhaps why I chose you as a mentor
CC: [Thank you.]
when invited by Arisa (White) and Cole (Krawitz) to cultivate a new artistic relationship sustaining our lives and work, this layered with my need for intergenerational relationship. This spring we lost Adrienne Rich in the same breath that we lost Paige Clay, Brandy Martell, and so many women of color to transphobic violence. Through these breaths of transition I became aware in a more conscious way of the deep influence Adrienne had on the lives of so many. The communities surrounding my life and practice testified to her impact in both positive ways and hurtful ways. I learned through the world of social media and my landlord/neighbor that Adrienne’s work has deeply made possible the journeys of specific white lesbians and queers of all colors (mostly female-assigned, many of prior generations, some of my own) who’ve shown up for me along the way and made it possible for me to go on. I also learned online that Adrienne was acknowledged by Janice Raymond (of The Transsexual Empire, which I haven’t read but have heard to be an infamously anti-transgender treatise) to have “read the manuscript through all its stages and provided resources, creative criticism, and constant encouragement.” I’m learning to hold and grow in this life with all its and our complexities.
CC: Yes, I am certain Rich mentored her. In fact, Rich suggested that she be invited to lecture at Douglass College, the women’s college at Rutgers, back in 1977 or ‘78. Raymond was indeed invited, and it was just after The Transsexual Empire was published. Rich was teaching at Douglass at the time. And Rich, herself, had not been out as a lesbian all that long—under ten years. But she was trying to build a “feminist empire,” as it were, along with the rest of us. Rich was there that evening, and so was I. I am not defending Rich, but I think she was really taken with Raymond’s argument against male to female trans people, which Raymond mainly talks about—not that I am defending either Raymond or Rich. (I never read the book [at the time] just an article from the book that was published in a feminist journal no longer in print.) Raymond really impressed me with the way in which she could dismiss the humanity/personhood of the people who opted for sex reassignment surgery. (Did we call it that then?) I was in social work school then and asked Raymond, “I am a budding social worker. I just wonder aren’t transsexuals people?” And boy did she blow me out of the water by calling me a “liberal.” Then a transsexual woman, well known in New Jersey because she was a middle school teacher whose “sex change” had become quite public, asked a question. I think she had to sue the school district for trying to fire her during her transition. (Did we call it that then?) Raymond had talked about her in Transsexual Empire. She identified herself as transsexual and took Raymond to task for her critique of transsexual people. Raymond said, “Yes. I recognize you.” I didn’t know Rich then, but I knew her work. I went over to her that evening and said something to her about Raymond’s attitude. She said, “Oh, you’re the budding social worker.” We (Rich and I) later became friends.
VH: It’s so human in some ways to want to selectively curate and glorify our ancestors, especially warriors whose backs have become our bridges.
CC: What do you mean by “curate” here? And I don’t know if I care for “glorify.” Am I ready to be “curated” and “glorified,” Vanessa deer.
VH: We all are curators I think, as with those who came before us. What words we gather, which we leave behind? I guess I’m wondering how to honor our collective body in all its flawed, evolving magnificence, how to meet each other in the stuck places, even and especially within those of us who are so deeply fed by the flames of rage and fury and love towards transformation?
CC: Rage and fury are important as long as we don’t stay there long. Move on to anger, because anger enables transformation. I think of “Uses of Anger” by Lorde.
VH: How do we support each other in taking accountability for and shifting the ways our words and silence, actions and inactions impact each other in present day and in years to come?
CC: We just take accountability for what we say, which obviously is not ever easy—and why should it be? I guess I would say, always be ready to be called to account for what you (not you but all of us)/we say and write. For example, my article “Lesbianism: an act of resistance” is always a point of contention for younger generations. Up until around 2002, I had been asked to come to college classes to answer up to my words in that article, especially regarding bisexuality and biracial people. (I even wrote about this in my article in This Bridge We Call Home in 2001). This is as it should be. We need to be held accountable for our words, our speech. This is what I say to my students when they go around exercising their so-called “free speech,” i.e., no speech is free. Silence is another matter. Some silence is strategic or “golden,” and some is cowardly—and all of us have our moments, years, decades of cowardliness. I certainly have mine, which only my therapist knows. Of course, some silence is more purposeful and evil, like the witness to domestic violence or police brutality who won’t intervene or call for help.
VH: My private and public worlds are swimming in these questions.
CC: Keep asking them.
VH: I’ve been writing to Adrienne through a poem after her death to honor her legacy and explore her relationship and engagement with transphobic and transmysoginist work and practice. The poem asks: what kept this starved song hostage? I was blessed to have a peer, Navajo poet Nazbah Tom (whose work is featured in Turtle Island to Abya Yala: A Love Anthology of Art and Poetry by Native American and Latina Women [How can I obtain this?]), amongst other friends, read and respond to the poem in its early stages.
In response, Nazbah offered, “i think it’s important to converse with our ancestors in spite of their imperfections and the distance death puts between their memories and our experiences. […] as i read this piece over and over again, i was struck by the idea of having a conversation with a river…how it changes all the time, the course of it slowly unfolding, and how it’s never the same river even though we might put a name on it and call it by the same name.” Nazbah wrote of the ways that “the building of a dam, or denial/transphobia, work similarly […] in that people and environment “downstream” or in the area where water is collecting, suffer from the building of the dam, while very few benefit from the dam itself. damned water offers some reflection in that it […] sits there holding back a lot of water/sustenance [from] and all of us years later downstream, and […] all those who drowned in transphobia while the water collected.”
CC: This is, of course, a brilliant analogy. Rich was indeed a river. Coursing, changing, overflowing, ebbing, channeling into something much, much larger. But she could be wrong. And she could be rigid. (She was, after all, a Taurus. Like me. We have the same birthday—May 16.) But she could change. Pity she never met you or knew your work. She was never the same river.
VH: Cheryl, how has the river around you shifted along the way? How have you seen us be able to notice the building of such dams, and steward a river for us all? As Nazbah’s wisdom offers, how can we continue to not leave others, humans, fish, birds, and other animals, thirsty? How do we replenish ourselves?
CC: I think you must ask Nazbah. How do we replenish the fish, birds, coyotes, wolves, deer, bald eagles, etc.? When we answer that, we will know how to not leave “humans” behind. [Some humans need to be left behind.]
VH: You mean we need to accept our losses?
As I continue in these explorations, I find myself grasping for pieces to hold onto, weaving to mend.
CC: Don’t “grasp,” just “hold onto.”
VH: In your essay, Cheryl, “Lesbianism: an Act of Resistance,” you passed along some of Adrienne’s words from her essay “The Meaning of Our Love for Women Is What We Constantly Have to Expand:” “our foresisters, millions whose names we do not know, were tortured and burned as witches, slandered in religious and later in “scientific” tracts, portrayed in art and literature as bizarre, amoral, destructive, decadent women.” It saddens me that these words can so easily be applied to so many women, cisgender and transgender, queer and straight, then and now. As my friend and collaborator Reina reminds us, WE CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT OUR LIVES! (http://thespiritwas.tumblr.com/post/21834409223/dear-michael-freemen-we-cannot-live-without-our).
CC: I believe Barbara Smith originally said, “We cannot live without our lives.” Somebody needs to break that down further. But not tonight.
VH: Yes, this oft-circulated photograph documents Barbara Smith and other Combahee River Collective members protesting the murders of black women in Boston, 1979.
In conversing with Adrienne’s river, I came across this offering of hers:
“An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two [or more] people have the right to use the word “love”—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
CC: What is “truth,” anyway?
VH: It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
VH: It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.
VH: It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”
VH: How do you hold and grow with complexity, along the way, and now? What pieces have you held on to?
CC: I think I have held onto my belief that others are only as brave as I myself am willing to be.
VH: Lately the work of some of my peers here in the Bay Area, Indira Allegra (indiraallegra.com), m.a. brooks, and Sheena Johnson (sheenajohnsonrebelhome.blogspot.com/), have been bridges for my own breath aliveness, permission to be brave and go on through these complexities, grief, trauma of our lives and legacies. I wish I could teleport you here so you could experience each of their work in person. As we write, m.a. is riding the AIDS Life Cycle to Los Angeles in honor of her dance partner, whom she lost to AIDS. Before she left, we bid her farewell at a fundraiser gathering where she and new collaborator shared some new choreography on the theme of trust, which I’ve been leaning on since. The other weekend I had the privilege of witnessing Indira perform a blues song she wrote as part of a production here called Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance. Her performance and the song were full of historical and present day rage and humility and power, which I’m still letting sink in and hoping to have the chance to be with and breathe with again this summer.
CC: I wish I could hear it. Harlem Renaissance is one of my favorite literary events, so to speak. Actually, one of the early queer historians, and not an academic, Eric Garber unveiled the queer figures of the Renaissance before a lot of people got into it. He was from the Bay Area. Died of AIDS in early 90s, I think, but maybe later. A good friend of Jewelle Gomez, who lives in San Francisco. Call her up. She’d love to meet you. Tell her not to wear her perfume, though.
VH: And Sheena is working on The Yellow House Project, the story of her “entrepreneurial great-grandmother, Ida Sue Brown, and her queer son, Billy Brown (who was murdered in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1982 because of how he dressed).”
CC: I must meet them.
VH: Sheena shares in describing her project: “Shortly after his murder my great grandmother died (it is said of a broken heart). She left a beautiful large yellow house to the family where she also housed her successful beauty parlor in Erie, Pennsylvania. Our family lost the house many years ago. It was condemned and bulldozed. Today a green field is all that remains—as if the house never existed. The Yellow House Project is an attempt to re-imagine and re-build my family’s home in hopes of honoring the legacies of both my great uncle and my great-grandmother, and ultimately all the LGBTQI legacies we have inherited. How do we heal from intergenerational wounds of poverty, racism, and homophobia?”
CC: A colleague of mine, Donna Jean Murch, is from Erie, Pennsylvania. She wrote a book on the Black Panthers in Oakland, called Living For The City, a good but tragic story. I grew up with my Aunt Doris, who “did” our hair from the time we were four until we were in our teens. She owned successive beauty parlors and schools of cosmetology and only died two years ago at 90.
That is crazy-making. How whoever can come into a place and remove what was there as if it never needed to exist, as if no people were there, no persons were there, no they. Cover it over like a toxic bed. Or bury it. But as Lorde said, our dead, including land and buildings, behind us. And as “Baby Suggs” said in Beloved, “Ain’t a house in this country full of the screams of some dead negro.” And that goes for all of us who are screaming or hearing the screams. Yeah! Ghosts.
Total healing may not be possible. One always has trauma and wounding. I want the wounds, because I can live with them. It is like the sudden death of my 14-year-old nephew in 1989. This event changed all our family’s lives, especially my sister and brother-in law. I don’t want to heal totally from that trauma. I want the grief at some level to be fresh. I don’t want to stop living or thriving. But I don’t want to forget. I want my dead behind me, goading me on, holding me accountable. In some ways that is how I am able to keep going.
VH: Cheryl, I’ve been so incredibly honored to receive the gift of your accompaniment and support as I steward the completion of my poetry collection, and of your affirmation of resonance. With each companion along the way comes our dead behind us, as you say, holding us accountable. I would love to hear more at some point about your work on Assata’s defense, and transition.
CC: I loved Assata, a truly charismatic person. But charisma is not enough. I resolved at the point (1976, but I continued to visit her for two more years), when she no longer needed a political defense committee, when she escaped to Cuba, that I would not devote myself to a single political issue or person again. I am happy that prison work has gone to a different level these days—and even Mumia is no longer on death row. Other people are talking about it than the few who were doing it when I was involved 1973 to 1976. I think that a Tribunal needs to be held in this country on its human rights (we can start there, though I believe rights may be too limiting) violations of women in prison. I think we can raise money internationally to do it, like the one that was done in Japan on its history of the detainment of the so-called “comfort women” during World War II.
VH: I too am holding that sometimes continuing to write has been difficult. I wonder and invite you to ask: From here, what do you and we still need to write? What are you and we still healing from? “For those of us who live at the shoreline/ standing upon the constant edges of decision/ crucial and alone” (I too would be wandering in a fog without Audre)—what are you, and we, afraid of, de aqui?
CC: Vanessa, I don’t know that it is always fear “de aqui” that keeps us from writing. Those of us who write to reach out and communicate with audiences will continue to write, not always as well as we can or think we should, but we will write. I want to stand on that “edge,” sharp as it is. I am and am not afraid. I am crucial and not alone—and you are crucial and neither are you alone.
Love to you, CC
Cheryl Clarke is a poet and essayist. She is the author of four books of poetry, the critical study, After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement, and The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry 1980-2005. She is at work on a new manuscript of poems, Baltimore Aureole. Clarke is a Dean of Students at Rutgers University New Brunswick, where she has worked and studied since 1969.
Vanessa Huang is a poet, cultural worker, and activist whose practice draws on teachings from the prison abolition, migrant justice, gender liberation, transformative justice, disability justice, and reproductive justice movements. Currently, Vanessa takes refuge in the breath aliveness of song through voice and cello and is stewarding the completion of a first poetry collection, quiet of chorus, which was a finalist for Poets & Writers’ 2010 California Writers Exchange Award. A Macondo and Kundiman fellow, Vanessa lives in Oakland, California, and consults with social justice organizations.