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Black Women Writers Reclaim Their Past

Family Plots: Black Women Writer Reclaim Their Past
March 1987

When I was in grammar school, a friend of my father’s gave me a copy of Paule Mar­shall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. He told me a Negro woman had written the novel and it was about a young girl. I was shocked. I’d never seen a book about a black girl — ex­cept, that is, for a weird little volume called The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God by G.B. Shaw. Unfortunate­ly, in the years since then, books like Mar­shall’s still come as a surprise. Like a number of other black women writers, I have made it a point to speak of our “tradition,” yet I know that no such tradition is assumed by the rest of the world, primarily because our books have not been read or taught.

During the controversy over The Color Purple, this was particularly evident. No one seemed to make even one cogent obser­vation about the books black women write. Yet much was said about black women writ­ers and our work. Contemporary writers are being accused of pillorying black men, pro­moting homosexuality, ignoring sociological overviews of black oppression — and they’re often pegged as the first black writers to commit such sins. Mel Watkins, for in­stance, asserted in The New York Times Book Review last spring that black women writers had broken a silent pact among all black writers to present positive images. He even dared to trace the portrayal of hostility between black men and women to a 1967 novel by Carlene Hatcher Polite, which is like saying black writers started to expose racism in 1940. It’s obvious the finger point­ers don’t know where we’ve been, much less where we’re coming from.

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Any defense of black women should take into account the priorities laid down by black women writers over the years — it should assert the place of black women’s tradition within the larger black literary tra­dition. This women’s tradition — which shows that Alice Walker’s impulses are much the same as those of 19th century black women writers — has been, until now, barely charted territory. There is a body of literature by black women that hardly any of us has been able to study. The reclamation of this work has begun, and there are new editions of four landmark novels: Plum Bun (1929) by Jessie Fauset, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, and The Street (1946) by Ann Petry. These older novels will undoubtedly put the current con­troversies into perspective.

Black literature comes from peculiar roots — a proliferation of narratives written in isolation by former slaves, unaware of themselves as a literary community. The personal narrative became popular — it still is — and the works came to the larger black community often by way of oral renderings for people who could not read. Black women share these roots and this isolation. Until 10 years ago, we couldn’t read much of our foremothers’ work; the books went out of print almost as soon as they appeared. Fic­tion by black women — going back to the 1859 novel Our Nig — shows certain disjunc­tions that suggest an ignorance of forebears unusual among American writers. The works do not form the kind of linear pro­gression one might ascribe to fiction by black men, white men, or other American women.

Black male writers of several generations have been repeatedly described by critics as being involved in “father/son” conflict: you guessed it, the son rebels against the father. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, the dad­dies of them all, evidently had no daughters. Their sons were heralded as they appeared: James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Ernest Gaines, William Melvin Kelley, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. And in flurries of es­says and articles, the critics debated as Elli­son battled Wright’s troops. Baldwin railed against Wright, Jones railed against Bald­win. This was the pattern until the ’70s, when the hegemony broke down and others began to appear who went their own way­ — people like Ishmael Reed, who railed against Jones, was railed against by Jones, made up with Jones, and started railing against wom­en. Clarence Major, David Bradley, and Charles Johnson seem to be minding their own business.

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Ellison wrote rather pointedly of the father/son dilemma, acknowledging that he and Baldwin were viewed by Irving Howe as “guilty of filial betrayal” because they re­jected Native Son’s naturalism and “while actually ‘black boys,’ they pretend to be mere American writers trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predica­ment.” This is much the fate that has met black women. Having never really been in­cluded in the family, they’ve still been charged with stepping outside the tolerated boundaries of the black literary tradition. And they have done so, precisely as Ellison put it, “trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predicament.”

While the father/son crew developed its tradition through critiques of previous work and the appearance of various schools and philosophical perspectives, fiction by black women shows signs of being improvised with materials taken almost exclusively from personal experience. It’s as if those books the novelists had read barely served as models for style, structure, narrative ap­proach, or content.

Imagine a John Coltrane who had only heard one 78 by Charlie Parker, one LP by Billie Holiday. Imagine a Cecil Taylor who did not grow up with the sounds of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and you have some idea how amazing it is that we have writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Toni Morrison.

Each generation of black women has cer­tainly taken ideas from known forms, yet in the matter of content — the telling of black women’s stories — the same impulses appear time and again, with little revision over the decades. Only lately have we seen work that makes conscious nods to the past. And no wonder: Morrison, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Sherley Anne Williams, Ntozake Shange, and others are the first generation to have a body of work on the black woman’s condi­tion readily at hand.

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Morrison, Walker, and their sisters laid claim to the ’70s and ’80s, and these decades will be looked upon as a time when a signifi­cant number of major American works were created by a relatively small group of wom­en. Ranging in age from about 30 to 50, these same writers also produced works that will last in poetry, theater, and nonfiction. In so doing, they have prompted the resur­rection of their own tradition.

This is no small accomplishment. Though the first black writer ever published in this country was a woman, the first black novel­ist and poet to win Pulitzers were women, we have remained outside the accepted (or expected) ranks. Our critical essays went unpublished until the ’70s and no collection of essays by a black woman writer was ever published until Alice Walker and June Jor­dan broke the ground five years ago. Only one diary by a black woman writer — Char­lotte Forten’s Journal — appeared before the early ’80s, when Audre Lorde put out The Cancer Journals and Gloria Hull released Give Us Each Day, the journals of poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Whatever writers have had to share about their working process or their understanding of tradition has been in shoe boxes in the closet.

So the reemergence of our lost books is not only the unearthing of roots, a map of past travels, but for generations of younger writers, the work will be a motherlode of images and sounds, choices laid open to the sky. To know this is so, you only have to look at what happened when we found Zora Neale Hurston — imagine a Jelly Roll Mor­ton of the Harlem Renaissance.

***

Exactly a decade ago one black woman writer emerged — alone — from the shadows, and her impact has been stupendous. Rob­ert Hemenway’s 1977 work, Zora Neale Hurston, as the first in a chain of events, may have been the most important thing to happen to black women writers in modern times. Had Hurston and others like Fauset, Larsen, and Petry been widely known, the publication of a Hurston biography would merely have been part of a timely response to the social and political events of the ’60s and ’70s. Instead, the book opened a flood­gate of possibilities, both for the imagina­tions of writers and the aspirations of black scholars and readers.

Zora, as writers affectionately call her, be­came the woman to whom black women writers are most often — rightly or wrong­ly — compared, because she was the first foremother to become a hot item in book shops. But she became a major influence on all contemporary black writing because her work is rich in African-American folk material (and maybe just a little bit because her colorful life is a natural subject for rumor and legend). There is much to discover in Hurston and her rootsy writing appeared at a time when blacks were digging the African bedrock.

Zora shows up as an influence in inter­views with black women writers more often than anyone else, with the exception of their mothers and grandmothers. Ntozake Shange and Sherley Anne Williams still describe reading Hurston as a revelation, a discovery of language and feelings close to home. Kristin Hunter and Gayl Jones speak of attempting to incorporate ideas gleaned from Hurston into their fiction. The im­prints of Hurston’s folklore research in the Deep South are palpable in fiction by Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. Hurston worship has taken such hold that Hortense Spillers says, “Hurston is like the Bible.”

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Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston’s most widely read book, is a poetic novel written in black Floridian dialect. I vividly recall how this book lit up the con­versations of women who shared it, as it passed from hand to hand in the late ’70s. The novel’s heroine, Janie, is an unusual one for the ’30s, or any other decade. Janie’s tale fits squarely in the flow of the black storytelling tradition, but in it she is the primary agent of her own destiny.

By making her African-American story­teller the primary agent of her adventure (in a universe nearly as animated as an African forest), Hurston sets herself apart from ear­lier novelists who chose to diminish the power of their characters’ decisions by em­phasizing the effects of racism and oppres­sion. Janie strikes home with women be­cause she experiences traditional roles and then moves beyond them, and as many have put it, “creates herself.” She’s a singular figure in a fiction landscape full of reluc­tantly self-sufficient working black women who struggle, usually in vain, with a dream of race and gender equality, independence of mind, love, and a decent quality of life. Ja­nie does not gain it all, but she exercises a greater portion than had been given to any of her foremothers.

For nearly every heroine in the black women’s tradition, isolation, hard labor (if not poverty), disappointment, and lack of self-esteem are the battles. Janie suffers all of these, and walks back from her odyssey a complete woman. Janie is The Color Pur­ple’s Celie and Shug in one character; while they find wholeness in making love with one another, Janie embraces the world. The gift of self-love showed Celie how to take the patriarchy out of God and see the color pur­ple; the same gift, 50 years earlier, showed Janie “God in herself’ (as Shange would put it) and in the birds fleeing an Everglades hurricane.

***

Hurston’s canonization does skew the pic­ture. She did not become a novelist until 1934; before that she was known as a folk­lorist and a “live wire” who often debunked what she called the Harlem Renaissance “niggerati.” She was not exactly revered, and many of the Renaissance men striving for white acceptance looked askance at her unmediated public “signifying.”

Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Ann Petry were also in this literary community, but they too found themselves either critical of the Ebony Tower folks, or outsiders. Re­viewers in black newspapers and magazines like the NAACP’s Crisis, all members of the “niggerati,” granted these three grudging re­spect as the most able black women novel­ists of their time. Occasional reviews in the Times or The Nation were usually favorable. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry, however, were never considered the equals of black males. Their continued marginality is proved by the fact that they barely appear in antholo­gies of any (race/gender) orientation. All three pop up as Renaissance figures in liter­ary histories like From the Dark Tower by Arthur P. Davis (yes, we’re related), and When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Le­vering Lewis. But their work has been large­ly ignored for almost 50 years.

Jessie Redmon Fauset, who worked with W.E.B. Du Bois at the NAACP and Crisis magazine, took up novel writing in reaction to the popular trend of “primitive/exotic” novels about black life. She said the tenden­cy among writers to concentrate on the black “underworld” posed “a grave danger” to black writers. Because she admirably rep­resented the Renaissance’s genteel intelli­gentsia in this aesthetic standoff, she was promoted in all the little magazines and col­lections they put out.

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But this probably discouraged later schol­ars from taking her seriously. Fauset wrote four novels in nine years: There Is Confu­sion (1924), Plum Bun (1929), The China­berry Tree (1931), and Comedy, American Style (1933). In his 1958 study, The Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone designated the most published black woman of the Har­lem Renaissance a front-runner of the Re­naissance’s “Rear Guard.” (No, I don’t know what that means, I’m just telling you what the man said.)

Nella Larsen, an intriguing figure, was part of the literary community for only 10 years, during which she wrote novels, and was, like Fauset, encouraged by Walter White and the NAACP crowd. Usually dubbed a Harlem Renaissance writer, she is to my mind a transitional figure: her novels use the “tragic mulatto” theme popular at the time but depart from the Renaissance’s optimism and race pride, instead anticipat­ing the concerns of the Depression.

Quicksand, Larsen’s first novel, won a Harmon Foundation prize and was hailed by Du Bois as the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the hey­day of [Charles] Chesnutt.” Her second novel, Passing, was also well received, and shortly after its publication she became the first black woman writer to win a Guggen­heim. She was accused of plagiarism in 1930 in a dispute over a short story, and though exonerated, she did not get over the accusa­tion and the scandal. Larsen went back to a nursing career and died in Brooklyn in 1963 — like Hurston, virtually forgotten.

Petry, who at 76 still lives in Old Say­brook, Connecticut, has the distinction of being perhaps the best-selling black woman writer ever. (Of course Walker may yet over­take her.) The Street, which she is proud to remind folks has never been out of print, has sold over a million and a half copies. Her readership is so consistent in part be­cause critics put her in the “Richard Wright school of naturalistic protest writing,” and she does belong in that school. But she was deemed by some to be Wright’s poorer sister because she did not conform strictly enough to the conventions of the protest novel.

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Fauset’s Plum Bun is a novel of unful­filled expectations, told in almost fairy-tale fashion. It is one of the few books by a black woman to borrow from the romantic tradi­tion popularized by European women. It’s not hard to imagine why — we have so few idealized, so-called feminine women in our mythology or experience. Fauset uses the simplest, most familiar devices of romance fiction to make exactly this point. She shows the mythic nature of traditional fe­male socialization and emphasizes the reali­ties that defy blacks to participate in the equally mythic American culture.

Fauset is associated with those Harlem Renaissance writers who sought to prove that middle-class blacks were barely differ­ent from their white counterparts except for “reduced opportunity.” As a result, the folks in Plum Bun are indeed rather colorless. The children play games popular across America, but none of those traditional for black children. It is an odd, raceless envi­ronment where people talk about race but don’t reflect it much in their behavior. An­gela tries passing to escape from racism and at the same time rejects traditional women’s roles to become a painter.

She later chooses to abandon her artistic dreams for a man, and becomes “dependent, fragile… ‘womanly’ to the point of inepti­tude.” Nearly every naïve assumption with which the character ventured out into the world from her cozy row house — particular­ly those having to do with power — must be relinquished in her struggle with the reali­ties of sex and race.

Actually she has many more counterparts among young postfeminist buppie women these days than she probably did in the ’20s, when her class was minuscule and her prob­lems more rare. Some of the pathologies that plague her understanding of the race situation are painfully evident any time Rae Dawn Chong or Whoopi Goldberg opens her mouth. The homogenization of American culture has produced a new breed of passers, blacks who simply reject any black group identification at the same time that they ignore stigmatization.

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Nella Larsen’s novels also use the passing theme, but probably because she was a bi­racial person, she shows a deeper under­standing of the ambivalences of the mulatto character than Fauset. And in her stories, the secondary theme is a search for autono­my and sexual independence that would be taken up by Morrison’s Sula, Shange’s Sas­safras, Cypress and Indigo, and Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, to name only three. As editor Deborah McDowell points out, Larsen was in conflict with the mores of her time. Like Fauset’s Angela, Larsen’s heroines must return to the black fold to be themselves, yet they are suffocated there by an inability to be independent or to escape marriage and motherhood.

At the opening of Quicksand, Helga Crane, a young woman of mixed race, sits in her room in the faculty quarters of a south­ern black college. She is in fact in a corner, one of many she will back herself into in the course of the novel. Helga runs off from each haven she finds — first in the black world, then the white world of Scandina­via — in a vain search for racial identity and unnamed adventure, which McDowell identifies as sexual independence.

While Hurston’s Janie may have simply decided to run off with her lover, Teacake, Larsen’s Helga Crane, socialized to be out of sync with her sexual drives, must lunge this way and that, toward her desires and then away, before giving in to the adventure. And unlike Janie, she pays a heavy price for following her impulses, descending into a hell­ish fate. The episode of madness in which Helga manages to do as she pleases presages events in Alice Walker’s early fiction, and later themes in the work of Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones. Larsen also creates one of the few literary portrayals of the fetishism for exotics so widespread in the ’20s.

Passing, considered by most critics a slight novel, reworks the passing theme through a less sympathetic heroine, Clare Kendry, whose willful abandonment of her blackness is opposed by her old friend Irene Redfield, a smugly bourgeois young black woman full of “positive” but patronizing no­tions about blacks. She considers herself a “race woman.” Irene is something of a fraud, though; she only encounters her old friend because she happens to be doing a little tea-time passing herself in a downtown Chicago hotel. This “harmless” occasional diversion for light-skinned black women is important to Larsen and Fauset; for them it makes credible the logic of characters who cross the line permanently.

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McDowell says the passing theme is also a parallel for sexual passing. Irene, refusing to acknowledge that she’s sexually attracted to her friend, deflects Clare’s attention onto her husband. Irene, then, is passing for a happily married woman. Reading the novel now, you have to wonder if readers missed the lesbian theme 50 years ago, or chose to find Passing innocent of sexual content. Al­though Larsen appears to have been wary of making the theme overt, its presence is sig­nificant to the tradition.

Ann Petry’s novel The Street is a bleak tale of a black woman’s failure to stop the crushing hand of a hostile environment. Lutie Johnson’s decline is set in motion right at the beginning when her husband loses his job and she takes a live-in domestic position to support the family. Lutie finds she must protect herself from exploitation, sexual as­sault, and her own dreams of upward mobil­ity. Trying to get better-paying work, she ends up killing a man who wants sexual favors in return for a job, and has to aban­don the son she tried to keep off the streets.

The writing in The Street is grim, unre­lenting, and contrived to strip the environ­ment of the lively, beautiful motion that also comes with a black neighborhood. Lutie lives like the women of Brewster Place — or perhaps I should say the Brewster Place women live like Lutie, since Gloria Naylor acknowledges a debt to Petry. But there is a crucial difference between Petry’s charac­ters and those of recent novels: Naylor’s women live with a sense of female commu­nity, and so do the characters in nearly all the novels written by black women in the ’70s and ’80s. The stories of younger women in Brewster Place or Corregidora, for in­stance, belong in a continuum going back several generations. And yet the tales of women who have gone before do not en­snare their daughters like the “sins of the fathers visited upon the sons”; they stand as warnings. So we see Petry revised by a gen­eration which has found a community not perceived by Petry and her characters.

Books written from the ’20s to the ’50s offer portraits of isolated, powerless women with little self-esteem and little mobility. Their troubles are much like those of Frado, the heroine of Our Nig, and Celie in The Color Purple. Their concerns are personal, racial, sexual, and economic. They struggle against class and color consciousness among blacks and against the destruction of once supportive communities. They sometimes lash out with violence against the violence wrought against them. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry wrote about the women who stand in the shadows or do the ironing in novels by Wright, Baldwin, Williams, and other men of this century. They shift the eye’s focus from the street to the interior, throw light from the preacher to those silent women swaying in the back row, and the scene we’ve seen before becomes complete.

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***

A small group of scholars who have poli­ticked with presses and written some excel­lent studies have managed to get the most significant works by black women lined up to come back into circulation. Fauset, Lar­sen, and Petry’s books are part of a major reclamation. With the combined efforts of Beacon Press, the Feminist Press, Rutgers and Oxford universities, virtually all the fic­tion (and lots of everything else) written by black women will soon be available.

Henry Louis Gates, who found Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, is a one-man cottage in­dustry specializing in black literature — and he’s been turning up more books by black women. He is currently working on two ma­jor collections: The Oxford Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers, and a 30-volume series to be produced in collabora­tion with the Schomburg Center for Re­search in Black Culture. Gates is also editor of The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature.

Oxford is bringing out two pioneer novels by Emma Dunham Kelley: Megda (1891), to be edited by Molly Hite, and Four Girls in Cottage City (1898), to be edited by Deborah McDowell. This last was located by Gates’s Periodical Literature Project at Cornell, and members of the black bourgeoisie will be amused to hear it is about four young black women who move to Oak Bluffs on Mar­tha’s Vineyard. Iola Leroy, the highly re­garded 1892 novel by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, long assumed to be the earliest nov­el by a black woman, is being reprinted by Beacon. Beacon has republished Petry, Marshall, and others, and clearly has made a commitment to this retrieval process. Deborah McDowell is editing the Frances Harper book, and has overseen the reprint­ing of Fauset and Larsen. And Hazel Carby is editing the serialized novels of Pauline Hopkins, which have never been collected. Taken together these books will publicly establish the tradition — a literary tradition created by black women.

In the late ’70s and the ’80s, the work of Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, and a number of others has seemed like an intimate conver­sation, swirling around these questions which we now find resonating back through the tradition of black women’s fiction. The conflicts arising from color and class differ­ences among blacks are carefully dissected in all of Morrison’s work, suggested in Walker’s, and assumed in Shange’s.

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What is new in recent fiction would seem to be a greater freedom to experiment with form and style, artful uses of the kinds of folklore resurrected by Hurston, and a growth in the complexity of characters. The books share a concern with madness, dreams, and the woman’s psyche often found in work by other contemporary wom­en — European and American. (Schizophre­nia is almost the signal metaphor for breaking loose from repression in the novels of the ’70s.) While sexual liberty is often at the core of earlier novels, now it is the “outward journey” for the black female character.

The contemporary black woman writer is more skilled than most of her predecessors. In the ’70s she showed off an ecstatic lan­guage unique to the work of black women, full of poetry, dreams, hallucinations, mag­ic, recipes, potions, song, fire, and flight. The language is often body-centered, as in Shange. Or one finds passages of seemingly improvised narrative, as in Alexis DeVeau, unimaginable in Petry. And then there are writers like Morrison and Gayl Jones, who exert extreme control over the language to capture the rhythm or flavor of blues, or to emphasize the fantastic. Styles vary from safe to adventurous, but they can all be said to acknowledge a reading of some parts of the tradition. The connections between the works of so many women who were both reading Hurston and writing fiction at the same time could not be linear. They cross each other like threads on a loom.

It’s difficult to know what we’ll find — the conversation is really just getting started. We will be talking about the prevalence of issues such as personal independence, racial struggle, the criticism of traditional roles, the use of folklore and myth, and female bonding. We may ask if women aren’t mov­ing toward holistic forms that embrace the objective and subjective at once, to escape the narrative confines of naturalism. We will be able to argue about whether writers have conformed to the expectations and conventions of their time, and how they have differed from the male writers in black literature. What it is to be black and woman will be shown in the colors and textures we have been weaving. We will define ourselves by our own processes. ■

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MOTHERLODES

QUICKSAND & PASSING. By Nella Larsen. Edited by Deborah McDowell. Rutgers Uni­versity Press, $25; $7.95 paper.

THE STREET. By Ann Petry. Beacon, $8.95 paper.

PLUM BUN. By Jessie Fauset. Pandora, $15.95; $8.95 paper.

CONJURING: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Indiana Uni­versity Press, $29.95; $10.95 paper.

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Sunday 8/6

[Festival]

Rhyme and Reason
Poetry festival celebrates women

One hundred acclaimed and emerging female writers will celebrate the life and work of influential poets Mina Loy, Audre Lorde, Barbara Guest, Muriel Rukeyser, and Gertrude Stein at this five-day readings series titled Finally With Women. Each day will be devoted to a different poet, with about 20 readers per day, including experimental poet Elaine Equi, transgender activist Kate Bornstein, National Book Critics Circle Award winner Marie Ponsot, spoken-word artist Tara Betts, and essayist Vivian Gornick. The event kicks off on Sunday with the poems of Dadaist and surrealist Loy; Monday features the work of African American writer Lorde; Tuesday showcases the work of Guest (including “The Next Floor” and “The Hungry Knight” from The Red Gaze); and Wednesday is Rukeyser. A performance of Gertrude Stein’s History or Messages From History closes out the festival on Thursday. “It’s full of tongue twisters and rollicking text,” says Jen Benka, a festival organizer who will be performing the Stein piece with seven other women. “But it also has powerful things to say about how history is made and how we hope history isn’t made.” Visit finallywithwomen.blogspot.com for details. At 6, through August 10, Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia Street, 212-989-9319, $6 ANGELA ASHMAN


[GLBT]

Sandy Pleasures
Black pride goes to the beach

There’s Gay Pride and then there’s Black Gay Pride. Two months after the city was taken over by queer crews from everywhere imaginable, the flags get whipped back out for the first week of Afrocentric Pride in the City. Actually a four-day event, the festivities culminate in the best way possible—in the sun and on the sand. It’s happening in Far Rockaway, but fret not, the 2 train to Flatbush Avenue and the Q35 bus to Fort Tilden brings you right there. Once oceanside, prepare to get bare ’cause there’s a hot-body contest at noon. First prize is Ginch Gonch underwear and the crowd gets to judge the winner. DJs Friend Pierce (of U-Men Entertainment) and Unknown, house vocalist Oysha Kai, and a surprise guest provide music for the throng. There’s also HIV testing and counseling via a coalition of 10 community and health care agencies, and vendors selling everything from food to jewelry. With lots of skin, safe-sex tips, live beats, and good eats, this party has all the bases covered. From noon to 9, Jacob Riis Park, baseball field in Bay Areas 1 and 2, Brooklyn, 718-230-0770, prideinthecity.com, free KEISHA FRANKLIN


Brazil didn’t do so well in the World Cup this time around, but at least Brazilians can take pride in their advancements in the arena of film. Last year alone, the South American country produced over 200 movies, and tonight the fourth Brazilian Film Festival of New York, which highlights the cream of that crop, kicks off in Central Park. Latin Grammy–winner Lenine starts the evening off when he brings his samba-rock skills to the stage before a screening of Paulo Thiago’s in-depth documentary This Is Bossa Nova: The History and Stories (2005). The rest of the eight-day fest takes place at Tribeca Cinemas (54 Varick Street), and highlights include new films by renowned Brazilian directors Nelson Pereira dos Santos (Brasília 18%) and Ruy Guerra (Evil in Hour), as well as screenings of Sandra Werneck and Gisela Camara’s critically acclaimed doc Teen Mothers and Roberto Gervitz’s Underground Game. Aside from over 20 movies, the festival offers several panel discussions and parties as well. Check the website for more info and full schedule. At 7, through August 13, Central Park SummerStage, Rumsey Playfield, mid-park at 72nd Street, 877-273-4563, brazilianfilmfestival.com, $8–$12 KEN SWITZER

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Choreographers Contribute to Tribute for Black Lesbian Writer-Activist

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, setting out to pay tribute to her mentor, black lesbian writer-activist Audre Lorde, worried about making Lorde’s often densely layered poetry accessible. Lorde’s work, she admitted, sometimes “went right over my head.” But “Audre Lorde in Motion” turned into an absolute success, exploring a dozen well-chosen poems with a generous range of voices—from tenderness to insightful prophecy, from eroticism to cold, sober anger—with dramatic performances by Boyce-Taylor, Roger Bonair-Agard, Abena Koomson, and T’ai Freedom Ford. Dance was handsomely represented by Ronald K. Brown (Litany for Survival) moving like the wind and a wind-driven cloud, the storm and the storm-tossed. Christalyn Wright embodied all the defiant resilience and sly joy in the rhythm around Marvin Gaye’s dismal lyrics in “Inner City Blues/Mercy, Mercy Me,” the poet’s favorite song. During the follow-up Q&A, Brown remembered Lorde’s simple challenge to artists, activists, all of us: “Are you doing your work?” She’d be proud of everyone here.

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Ode to a Bridge: Wordsmiths Are Inspired by a Landmark

There are moments when poetic ecstasy trumps reality and remakes the thing forever: “O Sleepless as the river under thee,/Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,/ Unto us lowliest sometimes sweep, descend/And of the curveship lend a myth to God.” Though the Brooklyn Bridge was Hart Crane’s towering metaphor, he wasn’t alone in finding inspiration there (see also Bishop and Kerouac). Yet, for some, it’s hard to walk it and not imagine his potted progress “onward and up the crystal-flooded aisle.” For the ninth consecutive year, poets and devotees will take a similar walk, from Manhattan’s Municipal Building to Fulton Ferry Landing, stopping to read poems inspired by the bridge and the city from the likes of Audre Lorde and Charles Simic. Bill Murray reads Frank O’Hara’s “Steps”; Manhattan Borough Prez C. Virginia Fields reads Langston Hughes’s “Subway Rush Hour.” Later, there’ll be a dinner at St. Anne’s Warehouse at which Robert “Iron John” Bly will receive the Elizabeth Kray Award for Service to Poetry; but the highlight’s sure to be Galway Kinnell’s recitation of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” a connection scribed across time on a loved city: ” . . . Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,/I too walked the streets of Manhattan island.”

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On Purpose

As local channels further dilute the news and companies consolidate and homogenize our media, we look to documentaries like Horns and Halos, Bowling for Columbine, and The Fog of War for what goes on behind closed doors. Since 1967, Third World Newsreel has been promoting activist filmmaking—flicks with purpose. This all-day event celebrates those 35 years through four segments of panels and screenings. From noon to 2 p.m., “Activist Media: 1968 to 2004” offers a roundtable on progress and participation. Panelists include directors Christine Choy (Who Killed Vincent Chin?) and Tami Gold (Another Brother), who are followed by a screening of Spike Lee’s We Wuz Robbed, about the 2000 election. From 2:15 to 4:15, “Neocolonialism, Imperialism, and Cultural Identity” discusses the on- and off-screen battle to reclaim national and cultural distinction with filmmakers Manthia Diawara (Bamako Sigi-Kan) and Ada Gay Griffin (A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde). “The War at Home and Abroad” at 4:30 looks at independent grassroots efforts in media and legal defense on behalf of those underrepresented in the “war on terror.” Attendee Jason DaSilva’s film, Lest We Forget, depicts 9-11’s impact on immigrants living in the U.S. Finally, from 7 to 9 p.m., TWN considers the country demonized by Bush as part of his “axis of evil” in “North Korea: The Next War?” In North Korea: Beyond the DMZ, panelists J.T. Takagi and Hye-Jung Park paint a humanistic picture of North Korea through a young Korean American’s search for long-lost relatives. Concurrent screenings run from 2 to 7 p.m. The whole thing is free; nothing can be more for-the-people than that.

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Gay & Lesbian Services

The revolutionary bookstore, café, and activist center known as BLUESTOCKINGS (172 Allen Street, 212-777-6028), a mainstay for forward-thinking, literary sapphists (among others), hosts readings, forums, film viewings, performances, and workshops daily. Step in for fair-trade eats or flip through over 2,000 of their titles while taking in the socially conscious environment.

EMPIRE STATE PRIDE AGENDA (212-627-0305, prideagenda.org) is perhaps New York State’s most productive advocacy group geared at protecting the rights of the queer community on political and legislative levels. They welcome volunteers to lobby, organize, educate, and fundraise.

THE LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER COMMUNITY CENTER (208 West 13th Street, 212-620-7310), a home for innumerable organizations, programs, and meetings, is the community’s hub. Besides offering aid through Center Care (substance abuse, gender identity, and HIV/AIDS services), cultural series, and much more, they also host regular benefits, galas, and parties.

MICHAEL CALLEN-AUDRE LORDE COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER (356 West 18th Street, 212-271-7200)—New York’s only facility specifically handling the medical needs of the LGBT community and those with HIV/AIDS—provides nondiscriminatory primary health care, including dentistry. Accepting all types of health insurance as well as sliding-scale payment for the uninsured, the center promotes overall wellness and health education with teen outreach, counseling, support groups, and more.

The grassroots advocacy organization MARRIAGE EQUALITY OF NEW YORK (877-772-0089, marriageequalityny.org), a branch of Marriage Equality USA, is out to make same-sex marriage in our fair state a reality. The group has monthly meetings at the Center and is organizing a February “Civil Marriage Trail”—a trip to Canada for couples desiring to wed legally.

Working to obliterate discrimination toward transsexual, transgender, and gender-variant New Yorkers, the NEW YORK ASSOCIATION FOR GENDER RIGHTS ADVOCACY (212-675-3288, ext. 266, nyagra.tripod.com) played a large role in amending the city’s human rights law to include gender identity and expression. Membership is $20 annually.

Among the largest gay and lesbian groups in the city, NEW YORK FRONT RUNNERS (212-724-9700, frny.org)—a running, track-and-field, triathlon, and cycling club—is staffed solely by volunteers. Participants are granted access to coaching, weekly indoor and outdoor training runs with occasional post-workout dinners, along with socials and annual trips.

NEW YORK GALLERY TOURS (212-946-1548, nygallerytours.com), led by Kean University professor Rafael Risemberg, offers monthly walking tours for art enthusiasts looking to view exhibits by queer painters and photographers. Frequently visiting Chelsea, the two-hour tour has included in past visits the works of Danica Phelps, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ross Bleckner, and Isaac Julien.

Co-ed participants in the NEW YORK GAY HOCKEY ASSOCIATION (212-252-4351, nycgayhockey.org) are divided into teams from the novice to the highly skilled at the Chelsea Piers Sky Rink. All games are free and each player may join in international LGBT tournaments held throughout the country.

SERENDIPITY DATES (212-591-2503, serendipitydates.com) is an online service that gives you the option to register by selecting specific LGBT events, mate preferences, and a number of dates at differing intervals. With up to 12 rendezvous in one evening, you might find true love, plus 5 to 10 percent of the proceeds benefits LGBT causes.

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Bearing Witness

Writer, activist, and professor June Jordan’s final essay collection serves as a barometer for the last four decades of radical humanitarian thought. Some of Us Did Not Die is comprised of new works and excerpts from four previous books: Civil Wars (1981), On Call (1985), Technical Difficulties (1992), and Affirmative Acts (1998). From anti-affirmative-action Proposition 209 to the 2000 presidential heist, Jordan has thought, and fought, about the difficult issues. At turns hortatory, critical, and ruminative, Jordan’s disquisitions are not thematically organized. They are framed by something looser, namely her unflagging quest for equity for oppressed people.

Jordan rose to prominence during the ’60s Black Arts and women’s movements, both of which bolstered and stultified her pluralist impulses. Black Arts’ cultural nationalism stifled her individualism and gender critiques, while feminism failed to consistently recognize race as an oppressive agent.

Jordan’s insider/outsider status—as a black, bisexual, feminist writer—helped her cultivate a global conscience. Being simultaneously a part of and apart encouraged Jordan to think outside the obvious boxes and caused her to identify with the oppressed “other” anywhere. In these essays, as she searched for justice, she derided Reagan’s support of the Contras and inveighed against Israeli occupations. She constantly stared fear in the face: wandering Nicaragua’s streets; worshiping at a Berkeley synagogue following a shooting at a Los Angeles Jewish community center. She demonstrated her allegiance with Jewish Americans when she asserted, “You’re looking for me!” in her essay “Hunting for Jews?” As well as offering herself up as a potential target, Jordan sought out “enemies” who shared the same skin. From Dr. to Rodney King, from O.J. to Mike Tyson, Jordan challenged African American men for their misogyny and oppression of women. “Can anyone imagine those years (from 1955 to 1968) without Dr. King?” Jordan writes in the essay “The Mountain and the Man Who Was Not God,” while she simultaneously acknowledged his adulterous behavior.

In the occasional essay “Requiem for the Champ,” Jordan sympathetically explored the brutal milieu that gave rise to heavyweight champ and convicted rapist Mike Tyson: “Poverty does not teach generosity or allow for the sucker attributes of tenderness and restraint. . . . He was given the choice of . . . the violence of defeat or the violence of victory.” Throughout much of her childhood, Jordan’s father treated her like a punching bag, yet she explored Tyson’s rape conviction without mala fide knowing that “Tyson’s neighborhood and my own have become the same no-win battleground. And he has fallen there. And I do not rejoice.” Her words for Tyson were hard-earned. In “Notes Toward a Model of Resistance,” she recounted being raped twice: Of the vomit, the isolation, she wrote, “It was more than a year before I could tolerate any man . . . closer than ten feet away from me.” Jordan used her pen and her demoralizing personal pain to catalyze women into activism.

In the essays “Besting a Worst Case Scenario” and “I Am Seeking an Attitude,” comparable to Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, Jordan wrote candidly about how her body faced its final opponent: breast cancer. Throughout her difficult personal meditations, Jordan employed her signature mixture of anecdotal vulnerability (“you never want to undress in front of anybody”) and statistical vigilance (“Over the past ten years, roughly 140,000 Americans have died of AIDS while close to 600,000 Americans have died of breast cancer. . . . Of course, breast cancer kills only women”).

Jordan did not use her radical tenacity solely to confront or condemn, but rather to illuminate. As a child she was taught that the truth was painful; as her personal and political convictions deepened in adulthood, not telling the truth became the unbearable act. Whether it was her blunt portrayals of an abusive father or her candid descriptions of being raped, Jordan bore witness and demanded that of those around her.

Jordan’s personal ferocity and rectitude compel me to doff my critic’s cap and break my own decade-long silence about a violent act that I committed. A woman I loved hurt me with incessant barbs of “Leos have thicker dicks.” She even joked about it as we made love. I vomited repeatedly, had nightmares about these men. Following an argument one evening, we fooled around. After I entered her, she asked me to stop. I didn’t. Jordan’s eponymous essay “Some of Us Did Not Die” intimates that, because living is not a given, we owe something to those whose lives have been taken. Jordan succumbed to breast cancer on June 14, 2002, but her words continue to rattle in my psyche. So I offer my admission as an initial payment on a long-overdue debt of silence, both mine and other men’s.

In this aforementioned essay, Jordan ruminated on the 9-11 tragedy and a 1999 Pacifica Radio interview with Auschwitz survivor Elly Gross. Gross’s family was waved to the left—to death; she to the right—to life. But rather than wallow in these horrors, for Jordan, the radical humanitarian, the question invariably becomes What do we do next, what do we do now? How do we address “ugly”? How do we confront “the other”?

Jordan was a populist who engaged in a wondrous and troubling struggle with the world and herself. At times, she was a mother without a husband, or poet without a publisher, but she could never be accused of being a woman without vision. Her reflections on Dr. King’s legacy mirror her own: “How could anyone quarrel with the monumental evidence of his colossal courage?” Jordan’s days were spent in constant revelation. Read her words, risk your own unveiling.