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The Black Lesbian Writers You Need To Be Reading

I wouldn't be the editor — or the person — I am today if I hadn't read the work of these extraordinary women.

Out in the world, I’m primarily known as a publisher of black lesbian and gay literature. Lisa C. Moore, RedBone Press: The two go hand in hand. I’m pleased, and humbled, that I’ve edited works that resonate on so many levels. After shaking my hand or giving me a hug, many black lesbians will tell me their own coming-out story — and oftentimes, they’ve been inspired by RedBone Press’s first book, does your mama know?: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Coming Out Stories.

As an editor and publisher, I stay cognizant of the inherent power of publishing. Publishing, after all, means getting your work out there. It’s not just printing a book; rather, it’s getting it into the marketplace of ideas. I wouldn’t do what I do — be who I am — without having read certain books. Like the women who are compelled to thank me for my service, I, too, am forever thankful for the help that books have given me. Call this a genealogy of sorts — my personal book history. It’s the history that shaped me.

I first encountered the work of Barbara Smith in the early 1980s after reading Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, which she edited. (Home Girls was originally published by Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, and has since been reissued by Rutgers University Press.) When I read Home Girls, I was in college in the early ’80s, just learning that there were other lesbians — but I only saw white ones at Louisiana State University. I rode the second wave of feminism and didn’t know it. The wave wasn’t very colorful where I was: I rarely saw images of black women. It didn’t help that I’d always gone to white schools and most of my friends were white. I was a baby feminist, and an even babier lesbian.

Then, at the library, I found these words by Barbara Smith: “[With] Home Girls ... I knew I was onto something, particularly when I considered that so many Black people who are threatened by feminism have argued that by being a Black feminist (particularly if you are also a Lesbian) you have left the race, are no longer a part of the Black community, in short no longer have a home.”

Was that why I couldn’t find the colorful wave? Were the women in this book part of my tribe? Those words resonated (still do), and I wanted more.

I soon learned that Barbara was a co-founder of Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, which published not only Home Girls, but was the second publisher of the seminal anthology This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. And then I learned that she was a co-founder of the Combahee River Collective in 1974. (Go look it up. Black feminism basics!) Barbara and her twin sister, Beverly Smith, grew up in Cleveland; Barbara went to Mount Holyoke and The New School and became a writer and an activist, later writing essays compiled in The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom. Her newest book, the winner of the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Memoir/Biography, is Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith, co-edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks. In the mid-1990s I interviewed Barbara Smith while researching feminist presses, trying to figure out how to publish my own first book, and discovered she was smart, witty, and a book nerd — like me.

As part of my reading through another important black feminist book, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (co-edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith), I discovered Alice Dunbar Nelson. Born in 1875 in New Orleans, Alice Ruth Moore (later Dunbar and Nelson, after her two husbands) was another smart, witty writer. (Wait! I thought. I’m from New Orleans! My last name is Moore! Could we be...?)

I wrote a paper for one of my classes about Alice; she wrote and published poetry early on (poetry with “homoerotic tendencies,” as they say), and was a syndicated journalist during the Harlem Renaissance, often writing for the Pittsburgh Courier, the black newspaper of record. But after reading Gloria Hull’s Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar Nelson, I realized that, yeah, she was married to men — and so were a lot of other women who loved women back in the day. In her diaries, Alice recorded her affairs with women. (One of whom, Edwina Kruse, was a principal at the school where she taught.)

Hmmm. Maybe there were more women-loving black women than I saw in books in the early ’80s.

“You! Inez!”
Orange gleams athwart a crimson soul
Lambent flames; purple passion lurks
In your dusk eyes.
Red mouth; flower soft,
Your soul leaps up—and flashes
Star-like, white, flame-hot.
Curving arms, encircling a world of love,
You! Stirring the depths of passionate desire!
—Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, 1921

Just a few years ago, I learned of a couple of other early black lesbian writers of that time period: Angelina Weld Grimké and Mary P. “Mamie” Burrill. I put them in the category of “black lesbians who wrote but were never published as black lesbians.” Angelina (born in 1880 in Boston) was a poet, teacher, and playwright, and came from a family of well-known white abolitionists. (Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké were her aunts.) Angelina was the first black woman to have a play put on in a public theater (Rachel, produced in 1916, about lynching), and she was in love with Mamie Burrill when they were teenagers. At 16, she wrote this to Mamie:

“I know you are too young now to become my wife, but I hope, darling, that in a few years you will come to me and be my love, my wife! How my brain whirls how my pulse leaps with joy and madness when I think of these two words, 'my wife.'”

Angelina’s heartthrob, Mary P. "Mamie" Burrill, born in 1881, was also a teacher and a playwright. Two of her best-known plays were They That Sit in Darkness (about reproductive rights) and Aftermath (about lynching, both in 1919). Mamie and notable Howard University educator (and co-founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority) Lucy Diggs Slowe lived together in Washington, D.C., for 15 years.

Shortly after reading Home Girls, I set out to get my hands on any book that was black and gay. One of the first I bought was Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde (1982). Her “biomythography” (now it would be called creative nonfiction or memoir) let me be immersed in a black lesbian life that was not my own. It must have created a splash, as it was reviewed in the New York Times (a black lesbian writer critiqued in the New York Times?!): “To read [Zami] is to feel, at least for a few hours, that one has lived, not merely intellectualized, Audre Lorde’s life. ... Her works will be important to those truly interested in growing up sensitive, intelligent and aware in the second half of the twentieth century in America.”

Being the research fiend that I am, I began searching for Audre’s other books, and found lots of poetry, some from the 1960s and ’70s that had even lined my mother’s shelves (talk about a home girl!); and essays. Audre Lorde was a powerful writer, speaker, and activist; she and Barbara Smith were cut from similar cloth, as co-founders (with Cherrié Moraga) of Kitchen Table Women of Color Press. Those three women inspired me to be all of my burgeoning selves: black, lesbian, smart, book nerd.

After Zami, I found other black lesbian books that white lesbian feminist presses had begun to publish in the ’80s: For Nights Like This One (1983), and later, Lover’s Choice, both by Becky Birtha (1987); Dyke Hands & Sutras Erotic & Lyric, by SDiane Bogus (self-published in 1988); Narratives: poems in the tradition of black women (1982) — and later, Living as a Lesbian (1986) and Humid Pitch (1989), all by Cheryl Clarke; Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, by Michelle Cliff (1980); Black Lesbian in White America, essays by Anita Cornwell (1983); Womanslaughter (1978), Movement in Black (1978) and Jonestown & other madness (1985), by poet Pat Parker; Loving Her (1974), The Black and White of It (1980) and Say Jesus and Come to Me (1982), by Ann Allen Shockley (who does not now identify as lesbian); and Black Lesbians: An Annotated Bibliography, compiled by a white lesbian, J.R. Roberts, pseudonym of Barbara Rae Henry (1981).

Looking back now, I would say I came out in the 1980s in a sort of heyday of black lesbian writing. These books helped me know that I wasn't alone in my own head — there were others like me out there. I heard about magazines such as Azalea and Aché, and later, in the ’90s, saw actual copies. I attended black lesbian support groups in different cities when I traveled, seeing others black lesbians in the flesh. Little did I know there was going to be an explosion of gay and lesbian books in the 1990s, when more celebrities came out, it became more acceptable to talk about gay issues, and mainstream publishers — seeing dollar signs — printed more gay books.

That’s not to say that black lesbian writers saw their work published in equal numbers in the ’90s, but still, I remember reading more work by black lesbians from feminist presses. Her, a novel by Cherry Muhanji (Aunt Lute Books, 1990). And the vampire novel The Gilda Stories (1991) by Jewelle Gomez, and later, her essays in Forty-three Septembers (1993), Oral Tradition: Selected Poems Old & New (1995), and her short fiction in Don’t Explain (1998), all published by Firebrand Books. Firebrand also published Kate Rushin’s poetry, The Black Back-ups (1993). (Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem” was the opening piece in This Bridge Called My Back, referenced above: “I do more translating than the U.N.”) I remember loving Penny Mickelbury’s mysteries, Keeping Secrets (1994) and Night Songs (1995), published by Naiad Press. It seemed I could look for a book from a black lesbian writer once or twice a year.

"These books helped me know that I wasn’t alone in my own head — there were others like me out there."

And then...a mainstream press, Anchor Books (Doubleday), printed Afrekete: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Writing, edited by Catherine McKinley and L. Joyce DeLaney in 1995. It made quite a splash in my little world — a book of writing by out black lesbians? In hardcover? In that collection were more names of writers whose work I could look to as a reflection of my black lesbian self. Writers such as Helen Elaine Lee, Jacqueline Woodson, Alexis De Veaux, Carolivia Herron, Linda Villarosa, and Evelyn C. White.

It was about that time that I started working on my own book, does your mama know?: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Coming Out Stories. I was driven to do so after talking with a classmate of my sister; she’d come to my house looking for black lesbian coming-out stories — thus coming out to me. I searched through my bookshelves, sure that there was such a book already; I remember reading a few coming-out stories in various places. I found that, somehow, there wasn't. I set about collecting the anthology in 1995; I interviewed feminist presses, researched the publishing industry, learned how to solicit stories, edit and lay out and design and promote. I connected with Terri Jewell, author of the self-published poetry collection Succulent Heretic, who encouraged me to keep going, that the world needed Does Your Mama Know?. I stumbled over Conditions: Five, co-edited by Lorraine Bethel and Barbara Smith back in 1979, and realized I will always be learning. By 1997 I’d printed Does Your Mama Know?, and the next year fell in love with publishing.

My history ends with my own present, as I still consider Does Your Mama Know? as part of my present. I published a second edition with 17 new stories in 2009. I’ve co-edited (with G. Winston James) Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black Gay/Lesbian Identity, essays by black gay men and lesbians on religion and spirituality. I’ve published 19 other books, notably the performance novels the bull-jean stories and love conjure/blues by Sharon Bridgforth; Where the Apple Falls and Gospel, poetry by Samiya Bashir; Erzulie’s Skirt, a novel by Ana-Maurine Lara; and most recently the 2015 Lambda Literary Award-winner for Best Lesbian Fiction (yes, I’m proud!), Yabo by Alexis De Veaux. Just released (as in, new new) is For Sizakele, a novel by Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene.

But this is only the start of black lesbian writer history. What’s the rest of it? Can you create a literary genealogy? Do you know who came before you, who helped create your identity, which books let you know you’re alive and well and here?

I challenge you.

Read more stories from Lesbian History Week