Archives for category: lesbian

I have been writing about ways I learned who I am, trying to write moments in the moment. I was hoping to approach questions of race,  gender, and class. These moments happen in context: the grid and grids of power within which I exist. In the end, understanding myself is not enough. I have to see and work to change the context in which I exist.

 

I. HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?

 

1. DEFINITION

When I was twelve, my mother explained homosexuality: Remember those two drunk men you saw on Christopher. You said they were up against one another, fighting. They were not fighting. They were homosexuals.

 

2. DON’T TELL

 

I was a school child

Don’t tell  jobs and work.

not even your best friend

 

and if you ask why,

there is something wrong with you.

 

Don’t tell about, you know.

 

Someone could use it against

 

We could be eaten alive.

 

 

 

3. FILL IN THE BLANKS

Another piece of instruction about homosexuality and lesbianism from my mother:

I was in late high school or early college. She told me about The Well of Loneliness. She said it was about lesbians. She said it was about unrequited love. She said in the end the main character kills herself.  She said it was a good book. I never read it.

 

4. HIGH SCHOOL FOLLIES

We were painting at our easels, the room redolent of oil paints and turpentine. Nancy went to wash out her brushes and the classmate at the next easel said, “She and Lisette were kissing at the party last Saturday.”

“Siciliano?” as if there were more than one Lisette.

Another easel said, “They were making out.”

The easel next to me said, “It was disgusting.”

 

Thursday. We sat in a horse shoe, working on contour drawings. The door opened. Harry of course. Late of course. People sniggered, yes, actually sniggered, as usual when Harry appeared. He was a pimply sixteen year old with a shock of hair as red as an abrasion, and he wore a soft green crew neck sweater. Everyone knew, if you wore green on Thursday, you were queer and anyway Harry had never made any attempt to conceal his lisp or muscle up on his wrist. He entered classrooms alone. He ate alone in the lunchroom. Some times, he wore a bow tie. I had heard he lived on The East Side, which in Manhattan tended to mean money, tended to mean WASP.

He pulled out his pencil case and set to work. Maybe it didn’t help that he was unskillful and timid as an artist.

“Faggot,” someone said, not too quietly, but below the teachers’ radar. Maybe we wouldn’t have treated him any better if he’d been an artistic genius. It was the late 50s. Though some of our classmates were openly funny, they were otherwise conformist. No one stepped forward to advocate for him. We left him alone as if he were poison because he was flagrant and defenseless and alone.

 

There was the gym teacher, tall, lithe, with sleek dark hair, gold skin, olive dark eyes. She was a “Mrs.,” but she and another woman teacher were always together and I think maybe someone had seen them kissing or someone had said they had seen them.

There was my classmate Joaqin, tall thin, his shoulders bony, his eyes dark and haunted. It was the era of the female model Twiggy. Joaquin’s art was wispy, more line and inference than the abstract painted blocks and buxom Matisse imitations so many of us produced.

At the senior varsity show, Joaquin brought down the house when he appeared as the popular gym teacher. He did it so convincingly, piling cliche upon cliche. In those days, to declare you were queer, you flamed and ignited the imaginations, hopes, and fears, of the rest of us in our shocking pink turtlenecks and button down shirts and denim skirts and bohemian black tights. Joaquin and Barry, Nancy and Lisette: the faggots burning among us chicken shits, most of us “liberals,” but afraid to step up.

 

5. COLLEGE

I was at Barnard College when two women were expelled. Two Columbia “men” had scanned the windows of the Barnard dorm with a telescope and seen the two women “in bed together.” The men talked about it in The West End Bar and were overheard. The two women were gone, expelled, sent home. There was no outcry. No one came forward and said, “These are my friends. This is wrong,” or, as was the case for me, “I didn’t know these two, but this is wrong.” The fear of being tainted by association? The fear of retaliation by the college? In this era, a Barnard classmate, not someone I knew, was reportedly sent home. She had brought her horse with her to college and stabled it near Central Park. The college heard that she was dating a groom, or perhaps he was a riding instructor. Quel horreur. Shades of Lady Chatterly. Acting in loco parentis, the college expelled her( and, I assume, her horse).

From at least high school forward, I was schooled: homosexuality was something vague and awful, despite the popular gym teacher and Joaquin’s open and affectionate parody. Its consequence could be life-destroying, even when the particulars of what homosexuality might actually be, were vague in most of our minds. It wasn’t simply high school pecking order and a college’s exercise of power. I was a child of the McCarthy era. I knew that adults had lost their livelihoods and their reputations, never to be regained, simply because it had been alleged that someone was, you know, fill in the blank.

 

My god-mother grew up in vaudeville, where her father was a star. He sang and danced with a coquettish young woman from France. The French singer spoke no English, so my teenage godmother was charged with teaching the singer English. They remained inseparable, one might say bosom (somehow the theatrical secrecy, both fraught and silly, from a distance lends itself to amusement), friends from my godmother’s adolescence, through her many-decades marriage, until the singer’s death in the 1950s. I remember a Christmas when I was in early elementary school when the singer gave me a child’s sewing machine and I remember the magnetism of her small, elegant person, the choreographed strands of black bangs over the dark saucer eyes, the pearls gleaming at ears and on her hand. The entire apartment, and especially my godmother who usually paid great attention to my sister and me, was focused on the singer.

I remember my godmother standing in the hospital room where my mother was dying, although, that death, too, was unspoken. The setting sun from the Hudson was enameling in gold and red the banks of apartment windows facing us. My godmother said, “The night She died. I knew.” And I, by then a declared and “practicing” lesbian, knew whom she meant.

A decade or so later, I spent a week at my god parents’ apartment in New York City. My Godfather was out of town. He asked me to come up from West Virginia to be with my godmother who was now legally blind. It was the week I ate duck for the first time, sitting over trays in the very French living room which was two steps down from the small platform which was their dining room, outside the minute kitchen where you could stand in one spot and simply twirl around to go from sink to fridge to counter to window to stove and arrive back at the sink without ever taking a step.

After dinner one night, maybe that dinner of Chinese duck, my godmother began to of her mid-teens years, around WW I. She had a friend, a girl her own age and they were very close, inseparable in fact, in their bourgeois childhoods on the West Side of Manhattan. I had known this girl’s name (so talented, so gentle, so fine) from my mother, but never in connection with my godmother. I, the West Virginia outlier, the out but quite ordinary school-teaching lesbian in the room, the mother of two, pricked up my ears. A younger girl, maybe an eleven year old, entered the picture. This younger girl was star struck by my godmother’s friend. This younger girl was my mother, my god mother told me, turning to me with her unfocussed eyes swimming in her lenses. And then the girl, the object of both my mother’s and my godmother’s affection, caught diphtheria and died. My godmother sighed and said no more.

 

Both my mothers, knowing I lived as a lesbian with a woman in West Virginia, never said a word to me. By 1979, both had died.


II. WHERE ARE WE IN THE MACHINERY OF THE WORLD? 

LESBIANS ASSAULTED AND/OR KILLED FOR BEING LESBIANS

 

To counter this history of concealments, I had in mind to finish with an inspirational list of queer women, including my mothers. I began by listing a few writers and musicians like Bricktop, figures like Gladys Bentley, but wasn’t satisfied.

I googled, lesbians assaulted and/or killed for being lesbians. This was not research. This was a ten second button push and yet, here they are,  important and human members of our community: people brutalized for who they are. We’ve not come far from that classroom of adolescents frightened by Harry’s undeniable queerness. I want to un-deny and embrace lesbians assaulted and/or killed….

An overwhelming number of people on this list are trans women, and/or  African American trans women.

Just one hit. All these names. You know there are uncounted more.

 

Eudy Simelane, Rebecca Wight, Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill, Julianne Williams and Lollie Winans, Gwen Araujo, Saskia Gunn, Brandon Teena, Chanelle Pickett, Fred Martinez, Nizah Morris, Terrianne Summers, Nireah Johnson, Emonie Spaulding, Ruby Ordenana, Stacey Brown, Ebony Whitaker, Duanna Johnson, Ashley Sweeney, Sanesha Stewart,  Angela Zapata, Nahkia Williams, Ruby Molina, Lateisha Green, Tayzia Elzey, Caprice Curry, Patti Hammond Shaw, Dee Green, Maria Malina Quails, Myra Chanel Ical, Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar, Toni Alston, Dana A. “Chanel” Larkin, Sandy Woulard, Victoria Carmen White, Stacey Blahnik Lee,  Chrissie Bate, – Chrissy Lee Polis,  Rosita Hernandez, CeCe McDonald, Lashai Mclea, Camila GuzmanShelley Hilliard, Cassidy Nathan Vickers, Dee Dee Pearson, Githe Goines, Crain Conaway, JaParker “Deoni” Jones, Coko Williams, Paige Clay, Brandy Martell, Mollie Olgin, 19 years old, and her girlfriend, Kristene Chapa, Tracy Johnson, Tiffany Gooden, Kendall Hampton, Deja Jones, Kyra Cordova, Janette Tovar, Sondra Scarber,  Sasha Fleischman,

 

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Kai Lumumba Barrow

Gallery of the Streets installation. Because of the art, Kai is being evicted. Because of who she is — insurgent, intransigent, irreverent, principled, warrior — her art has become her house, filling every room with a shifting floor of mulch and sand and pebbles, making each doorway a difficult gateway, lowering the ceilings with ropes and wires from which images hang by clothes pins (“I don’t want my art stuck ON THE WALL”), propping books against the walls in stacks, placing books strategically, bringing in pansies (yes) and other growing plants, banners and scrolls of quotations. Even the closets have not escaped.

All quotes are from Kai Barrow, Swan Song Manifesto http://www.organizingupgrade.com/index.php/modules-menu/community-organizing/item/57-kai-barrow

 

1. kai in magnolia

3B. kai lumumba

3A. kai outdoors smile

Picture it: A multiracial, multi-gendered, intergenerational group of about 250 people are marching down the middle of the street in a neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The people are a loud bunch, carrying signs that read “Free Mumia Now!” and “Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal.”  Community members come out on their porch to wave at the group or raise a fist in solidarity.  There is a pick-up truck with a loud speaker rigged to a megaphone. People are reciting chants that rhyme and have each phrase and pause dedicated to memory. This performance has become ritualized.

There is a lull.  The speaker/chant leader is tired and needs a break.  He hands the megaphone to me. I am known for my energy. I hold the dubious title of “Cheerleader for the Movement.” Holding the megaphone, I wanted to see if we could transform our ritual. Could we inspire spontaneity and surprise within ourselves and each other? Could we share with this Black, working-class community whose neighborhood we entered, an expansive vision—one where Mumia’s freedom was tied in with their own liberation? I placed the megaphone to my lips and faced the crowd.

 Me: What do we want?

Chanters: Free Mumia!

Me: When do we want it?

Chanters: Now!

[reprise.]

Me: What else do we want?

Chanters: [silence.]

Me: No really. What else do we want? Shout it out. It doesn’t have to rhyme. It doesn’t have to be scripted. Let’s make a cacophony of sound, shouting out our visions of what we want. [pleading] We don’t even have to do it for more than 60 seconds.

Chanters: [silence.]

Actually, there wasn’t complete silence. 

 

 

6. kai I would rediscover

 

5. kai hanging red lavender

 

4. kai waiting room

 

7. kai yellow african

 

 

A culture of resistance, protest politics and institution-building by people of color, feminists, queer people, and poor people in the 1960s and ’70s filled me with pleasure and purpose.  It was a period of design and imagination—a period where people re-envisioned and re-structured their lives. Even as a kid, I knew that things were changing. I saw and felt the electricity of change. Nothing was static.  It seemed to me that everything was in question: from diet to living arrangements; interpersonal relationships to altered identities, from the ways that people asserted and responded to power to a new articulation of labor and production.  During this period, people reached beyond national boundaries and re-defined themselves as members of a global community (and in some cases, interplanetary community—see Sun Ra). And though these shifts were taking place on different scales and at a different pace, corresponding to class, race, gender, age, geographic location and sexual orientation, everyone was influenced by this cultural, social, political and economic re-imagining. This was a transformative moment, one that unleashed our imaginations and spurred our actions. We saw what we could be….

 

 

8. kai asylum surgery

 

9. kai black white alter

 

10. kai alley

11. kai sassafras

 

 

We were unprepared for the brutality of the State. As beautiful as this period was, we were also powerful enough to pose a threat so significant to the functioning of the State, that it systematically set out to squash our burgeoning revolution. Individual leaders were discredited, driven into exile, imprisoned, and murdered. Intra-and inter-organizational conflict resulted in a weakened movement that we are still recovering.  Culture was depoliticized and exploited….

 

 

13. kai wolverine hanging

14. kai jade alter

15. zogi indoors 2

My fifth grade school year was also the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As is the tradition, many young people from throughout the country arrived in Chicago to protest the War and other repressive policies and my family and other residents of the co-op apartment we lived in, agreed to house several of these protestors, among them David Dellinger.  After Mayor Richard J. Daley gave the order for the Chicago Police Department to “shoot first, ask questions later,” my new out of town “friends” arrived back at our house broken, bloodied, and angry at the police, the mayor, and a system that shoots and kills its children.  I was heartbroken to see people in pain and I too became angry. Later that night, I was awakened by gunshots as the police surrounded our apartment and forced Dellinger out of the building. That day I experienced grief, anger and terror—all directly linked to the violence and abuse of power by the State….

 

 

16. zogi outdoors

 

17. kai libertad

18. kai bricktop

19. kai ayanna red

20. kai femm cave quilt

22. kai hoop in tree

21. kai malcolm x

 

This contradiction creates a “raw opposition” that is explosive.  It can change the terms of a space.  As organizers, our challenge is to identify the nature of our raw opposition and build/create within the space between oppression and freedom. We are charged with entering the space of raw opposition with clarity, precision, and analysis, passion, energy, and generosity. In Black tradition, this is known as the “Cool.” Think Miles Davis.

 

23A. kai shirlette

 

23B. kai pam kagele?

 

24. kai erin

 

25. kai erin cath

 

 

 

 

26. kai Jess

 

23C. kai Nia painted

Video trailer by film-maker and organizer Jazz Franklin, a preview of Kai Barrow’s “visual opera,” entitled “Gallery of the Streets,” installed in Durham, NC April 3-6, 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YA0CKj2cncg

 

 

Amina Rachman and I worked as organizers in the early 1960s with the Harlem Brotherhood Group (National Conference of Christians and Jews) and SNCC. In her rich and complex life, Amina was known at birth as Sherron Jackson, Sherron 10X within the Nation of Islam, Amina Abdur Rahman within Islam, and Amina Rachman within the community of Kolot Chaiyenu where she celebrated her Bat Mitzva in her 50s. Amina made the transition in September 2011. With her children Josh and Sabra and others I was fortunate to be by her side when she passed. I was also fortunate to speak at her funeral.

Good Morning.

SNCC the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is in the house. I bring condolences from:

Mary Britting, New York Office

Gloria Richardson Dandridge, the Eastern Shore of Maryland

Ivanhoe Donaldson, Harlem Brotherhood Group and SNCC at large

Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Southwest Georgia, Alabama, and Detroit

Penny Patch, Southwest Georgia and Mississippi

Peggy Dammond Preacely, Harlem Brotherhood Group and Southwest Georgia

Carol Rogoff, NY office and Mississippi

Fannie Rushing, Chicago

Kathie Amatniek Sarachild, Mississippi (and NY Redstockings)

Muriel Tillinghast, Mississippi (and NYC labor politics)

Dorothy M. Zellner, Atlanta Office

We offer our condolences to Sabra and Josh, Amina’s sisters, her uncle and her enormous family by affection. Our sister Amina never turned her back on the struggle.

It is significant that Amina had such a beautiful voice, whether she was a teenager singing 50s hits like “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,” or the adult chanting at her Baat Mitzvah decades later. She was a person to be heard.

There were ugly, haunting truths and entrenched cruelties in our 1950s. These truths flickered across our televisions and filled the newspapers: segregation and racial violence including the murder of Emmet Till, a boy our own age. Inspired by the southern sit-ins, Amina who was then known as Sherron Jackson and I worked with the Harlem Brotherhood Group which was affiliated, tellingly, with the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Amina would become a one-woman conference of Christians and Jews, with two Muslim journeys sandwiched in between.

At that time, Amina and I fell into the habit of calling one another, “Sis.”

The year I went south Amina was a freshman at New York City’s Music and Art Public High School from which I had graduated. She was the first M & A student to wear her hair in an afro. Any time she met a teacher who had also taught me she would say much to that teacher’s consternation, that she – Amina – was Faith Holsaert’s younger sister. She was also moving toward the Nation of Islam and as a teenager presided over the Nation’s meetings at the Audobon Ballroom. In her pragmatic politics and understanding of racist power she was affected when Minister Malcolm X said it was foolish for demonstrators to lay their bodies down nonviolently before earth moving equipment. Amina was one of the people who formed a bridge from SNCC to Minister Malcolm X. She went to Africa with him on his final trip to that continent. On her return she spent a night at my family’s apartment, filled with the hope and danger of those last months of Malcolm X’s life. At dawn she rose and said her prayers on my mother’s rug.

We were out of touch for a while, but in 1974 my mother died. One night in West Virginia I answered my phone. “Sis,” a voice said, “I just heard about your mother,” and we picked up where we had left off, moving into our years of motherhood, our lesbian lives, our adult work. Our love endured five decades, an attachment honored by Amina’s daughter Sabra who was the one to tell me “Ma has had some bad news.” When I walked into Amina’s hospital room a week ago, she broke into that Amina smile. “Sis,” she said, “you came.”

Amina told this story about Chicago SNCC. SNCC workers had underestimated the power of gang turf. There was a confrontation between raw SNCC recruits and a local group. The gang leader opened his razor-sharp switch blade. Softly as an expelled breath he passed the open vertical blade in front of the face of a recruit, cutting the recruit’s eyelashes.

Amina knew danger. Amina knew hardship and she loved people whose lives were hard. She never stopped believing a better world

is possible. She never stopped believing that within the powerful entanglements of race, gender, religion, and class, she would let no one else define her. She was her own woman, lost too soon to the world.

When I was nineteen I knew a woman, a stalwart of the Movement in her southern community. She was summoned to the local Board of Education and warned that if she became involved in the protest marches, she would be fired. In the high school classroom where she taught, she would announce a march into segregated downtown was forming at that moment. She would turn her face to her chalkboard and her back to her students. When she turned around, as she had wished, her students were gone. To the march. To jail.

She came from a family of community minded people. Her father was a minister who preached to those in the alleyways and back streets of their small town, a man who campaigned to register voters before the 1960s and involved his children in the work. Her mother was a teacher, one of that august and learned Black sisterhood who  taught and raised up the children of their South. My friend and her sisters became teachers, some returning to the high school they had attended. When offered a job in the newly integrated high school, my friend preferred to stay and teach the children on her side of town.

The brutality of Movement days caused her such pain. Following the federal trial waged against civil rights activists in her community, my friend could not get out of bed for a year. Then, she arose and into the 70s, 80s, and 90s, despite chronic and severe illness, like many who had been active in the 60s southern struggle, she kept on. She was involved in local Democratic Party politics, city politics, civic endeavors like the establishment of a local Civil Rights Museum.

I had come into her community at 19 and worked there for a year. Following a week in the city jail for one of those marches (above), I became so ill I could barely work. Under segregated medical care, I went undiagnosed. My friend, told me I was moving into her family’s home where I could be cared for. One evening when we were talking in her bedroom, she said there was a man in Florida who wanted to marry her.

I went home. Was diagnosed with hepatitis and confined to bed for a month. Over the next decades, I went on, organizing, marrying, moving to New Mexico where I was when the 1967 Six Day War occurred in the Middle East, had a son in New Mexico and a daughter born in Detroit, moved to West Virginia to follow the mandate that white anti-racists organize in the white community. And came out. More organizing, writing, and by then, like my friend, teaching school. At first when I taught in the public schools, each year I signed a statement affirming that I was not guilty of moral turpitude. That is to say: I was not violating community standards of behavior. I signed, knowing that according to prevailing “community standards” I was lying, because I was living as a queer. Well, in those days about as far as we could imagine and get our tongues around, was to say: lesbian.

Many decades after we had met and worked together, I returned to interview my friend. She introduced me to the younger woman with whom she lived, though I think the standard in her community was for single daughters, no matter how old, to live in the parental home.

On a whim, during the interview I asked, “What happened to that man in Florida?”

She laughed and wrinkled her nose in amusement. “Faith, there was no man in Florida.”

Only later, back home in West Virginia did I dare think: Was she telling me she was like me?

She has since died. Her legend is quite enormous, but it does not mention what we may have shared. For the youth in her community and the broader community, for all of us, there may be more we could learn from her. But it is not a light matter to question a family and a broader community’s portrait of a beloved figure.

No photos this time for obvious reasons.

My sister Shai and I were raised by two remarkable women, Eunice Spellman Holsaert, my Jewish mother by birth, and Charity Abigail Bailey, my mother by affection who was African American. At age four, I fell in love with Charity who was my nursery school music teacher. I spoke of nothing else. When my parents went to their first PTA meeting, they said, “Faith wants you to come live with us,” and that is what happened.

The picture of Eunice was taken by my sister’s friend Mehli Gobhai in my mother’s apartment where she was living alone after my sister had moved to India and I to New Mexico. The picture of Charity was taken in Haiti, where we all lived when I was seven.

We four lived together in Greenwich Village in the 1940s and 1950s. At the end of their lives my mother Eunice lived around the corner from Charity who had married. Eunice died in 1974 and Charity in 1979.