“Varied Voices of Black Women: An Evening of Words and Music” #writinginpublic Spring 2016

From Roadworks Archive

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Writing in Public Explained

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Culture and Coalition

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In October of 1978 Boston women were treated to a concert of rock n roll inflected, jazz riffed, bluesy songs written and played by three Black musicians from California.  In between they were regaled by the spoken words of poet Pat Parker.  From Gwen Avery’s sensual Sugar Mama to Linda Tillery and Mary Watkin’s anthemic Freedom Time, the performers reveled in an sonic black women’s culture summed up in Parker’s poem, Movement In Black.  Writing in the New Women’s Times Feminist Review, Black lesbian poet Becky Birtha recalled:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0  I felt fortunate to have the chance to hear her in person during the tour of the Varied Voices of Black Women” concert, in the fall of 1978. For me, her surprise reading was the high point of the concert. Among the works she performed was “Movement in Black”… a saga of many black women’s stories throughout the development of this country, … written to be performed by five different black women’s voices.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Varied Voices of Black Women: An Evening of Words and Music toured the east coast  in the fall of 1978, following similar performances on the west coast [1. Planned to visit the following cities.  Boston, Kingston, RI, NYC, Philadelphia, New Brunswick, NJ, and DC.  Been able to confirm only Boston Poughkeepsie New York City, November 7, 1978. Had previously toured together on west coast.]  The Boston-based group that organized the tour, known as the Bessie Smith Memorial Production Collective, consisted of  “black, other third world and white women.” [2. program, Varied Voices of Black Women, October 20-21, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Tia Cross Papers, Schlesinger Library]  Membership in the Collective was not predicated on a common racial identity, but rather on the shared belief that “black women’s culture [is] a politically transforming force, buried under white male rule.” [1. draft statement by the Collective. In 1976 the four biggest names in women’s music, all white women, launched a national “women on wheels” tour. Varied Voices was a response to show that women’s music included black women too.]An essay in the Varied Voices program linked this black women’s culture to both “black feminism” and “a consciously anti-racist women’s movement” and the Collective presented itself as a model for a feminist anti-racist practice. [1. Varied Voices program, np] From 1978 to 1981, women active in the Collective were astoundingly productive in ways that contributed to academic feminist discourse but have long since forgotten as boundary keeping has relegated many of their contributions to the footnotes of history.   They not only staged a multi-city performance tour, but also edited and contributed to a special issues of Conditions on black women, organized a city-wide response to the the murder of  black women in Boston, and facilitated multiple anti-racist workshops, including those at the now infamous 1981 NWSA conference Women Respond to Racism. [1.  Rachel Corbman graciously shared her unpublished doctoral work on this conference with me]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This ongoing coalition work flies in the face of histories that dismiss women’s culture as a racist and essentialist concept and that depict the women’s movement itself as dominated by white, middle-class women.  Writings about activists in women’s culture often exclude women of color from condemnation of “cultural feminism,” [1. Alcoff] but there were frequent overlaps between communities of women involved in exploring, disseminating, and documenting women’s culture.  Feminist activists created this common ground through hard work, earnest gestures, and commitment to sometimes painful conversations.  In her study of the separate roads to feminism taken by women of different ethnicities, Benita Roth describes coalitions as instrumental groups formed to address specific issues for limited periods of time and that kept participants within their “already-established identities and political investments” and ensured “organizational boundaries were recognized and maintained.” [1. Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism, 221]   The example of the coalitions formed in Boston suggests a different analysis, even if they never constituted “a long-standing multicultural feminist group.” [1. Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism, 221]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 These “already-existing identities” were joined by a variety of strategies represented typographically by the use of / to represent not division or disjunction, but an affinity.  / stood in for the “shared oppression” and “common differences” that facilitated their work on “common causes.” [1. Common Differences refers to both title of lesser known 1981 book, as well as Common Differences: Third World Women and Feminist Perspectives” conference held April 9-13, 1983, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The title of Cheryl Johnson-Odim’s essay “Common themes Different Contexts” reflects the resistance to this rhetoric as she explicated “conceptual and practice differences between Third World and Euro-American First world women in relation to feminism”  Common Cause has been borrowed from Elly Bulkin, An Interchange on Feminist Criticism: On “Dancing through the Minefield” Shared Oppression, discussed below comes from Beverly Smith] The use of / in this way derives largely from the writings of Barbara Smith where she used it to address the interdependence of racism and sexism and to create a flexible conjoining of lesbian/feminist.   Gloria Hull, arguing against the rendering of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider as a conjoined but distinctive connection, describes the “diacritical slash” as “the line between the either/or and the both/and.”  The reading here explores lives lived on that line in the late 1970s [1. see also Unghosting Apparitional Lesbian Histories for more discussion

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In her introduction to Feminist Coalitions, Stephanie Gilmore highlights the ways that histories of feminist coalitions challenge the “conventional wisdom” that the women’s movement was “composed predominantly of white, middle-class women.”  Instead, the essays in Feminist Coalitions revolve around “diverse, multifaceted” groups of women largely outside academia. [1. Stephanie Gilmore, ed. Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-wave Feminism in the United States, 2]  These women engaged in early, important, and deeply influential work that has largely been written out of histories of feminist thought. [1. see Apparitional Lesbian Histories]  The theoretical position now known as “intersectionality” emerged from such grassroots activists’ praxis at least a decade before its articulation by feminists in academia. [1. Kimberly Springer discusses this Barbara Smith in an interview published in Ain’t Gonna let Nobody.  Agne-Marie Hancock makes a similar point tracing a path from activist efforts to end violence against women in Intersectionality: An Intellectual History. Jyoti Grewal uses the term “organic intellectuals”  http://bit.ly/1TMcBB7] The label I apply here, grassroots theorists, acknowledges the important intellectual contributions made by individuals whose activist praxis informed their analysis. It is not meant, in anyway, to diminish the academic qualifications of the individuals but rather to highlight their travel across the boundaries and hierarchies imposed by academia. [1. 1. Smith received a master’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh (1971) and during this time was enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Connecticut.  From 1975-1978 Barbara served on MLA Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession. She taught in various colleges throughout this time period and was central to the formation of Black women’s studies]  At the first NWSA meeting in 1979 Barbara Smith pointed out that “the impetus [for women’s studies] comes from the grassroots, activist Women’s Movement. …The grassroots/community women’s movement has given women’s studies its life” [1. in Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Smith has also spoken candidly about the painful divides within CRC between women with more education and those with less] That life giving sustenance is traced here from one important location, Boston.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Members of the Combahee River Collective formed the core of the Bessie Smith Memorial Production Collective.  [1. Five Combahee River Collective participants worked on the Varied Voices tour: Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, Ellie Johnson, and Mercedes Tompkins.  The Collective created to organize the tour built on their prior experience in Boston coalitions that had addressed “sterilization abuse, battered women, abortion rights” as well as facilitating “workshops on racism.” Varied Voices Program, n.p. On these coalition efforts see Barbara Smith, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, 56, 279.  Duchess Harris points to CRC’s involvement in the case of Ella Ellison as crucial (25) Marlene Fried recalled “the Abortion Action Coalition, which was a group in Boston that had — some of the members were people who were in the Combahee River Collective as well. Marlene Fried Oral History Interview, Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College]  The Combahee River Collective statement, generally attributed to Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier, contains five instances of /.  Looking at the grammar of women’s liberation, the / functions in several ways, denoting both “and/or.”  Linguistically / indicates variants, but also can be used to conjoin. In this sense it functions a a typographical equivalent to Latin word cum meaning “being along with” or “together with.”  The / then works in more complex ways than a hyphen, which prioritizes the second term, modified by the first.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The / appears five times in the Combahee River Collective Statement (written c 1977, published 1978). A  quote in the CRC statement alerts us to earlier uses of /.   Taken from 1971 black nationalist document, these / function as metaphorically “house/nation,” with the home being the nation writ small, and “house/family” with home standing in for kinship.  Formally alike, but semantically dissimilar are the other three uses by the authors of the Statement.  Here the meanings are slippery, the / functioning as a slide between.  Pick which feels right from “working/economic” plain talk versus socialist terminology, “talking/testifying” the latter reflecting a religiously inflected discourse and “revelation/conceptualization” depending on preferred ways of knowing. The / seems to indicate then not a juxtaposition or a conflation, but rather an openness in the text, not only to facilitate the reader’s entry, but also, as  Grace Kyungwon Hong notes, to denote awareness that things are not “stable, fixed, or preexistant.” [1.The Ruptures of American Capital, xxv].

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Barbara Smith expands the use of / in  Toward a Black Feminist Criticism (1977). She quotes Ishmael Reed on “the powerful “liberal/radical/existentialist” influences of the Manhattan literary and drama establishment.”  Here the / serves to elide the differences these labels obscure. The effect is the same despite ideology, the tokenization of black authors. Smith instead turns the / into a signifier of identity, indicting “and/or”  The brilliance of / as and/or is that it provided a way to simultaneously indict both racism and sexism while allowing a flexibility of female subject positions.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0  Black women’s existence, experience, and culture and the brutally complex systems of oppression which shape these are in the “real world” of white and/or male consciousness beneath consideration, invisible, unknown.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Smith’s first “white and/or male consciousness” is shortened subsequently to “white/male literary structure” and “white/male cultural rule” as she explicates precisely how and racial hierarchies submerge black women’s identities. The / then denotes elements that are “inextricably connected” in a simultaneous and mutually reinforcing “common oppression” that created “common differences,” which individual women depending on their identities experienced differently [1. ain’t gonna let] By joining them via /, Smith creates a “common cause” for all women, dismantling the intertwined systems of patriarchy and racial hierarchy, while also making clear that white women benefit from white skin privilege.  

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 This flexibility of identity proved crucial to the success of multiracial coalition work.  Members of the Combahee River Collective were joined in the Bessie Smith Memorial Production Collective  by white feminists active in women’s music, like Tia Cross, Barbara Smith’s partner at the time, who had organized the 1975 Boston Women’s Music Weekend and Emily Culpepper, then a Harvard Divinity student who was active in the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and in the women’s music scene.  What drew these activists together was a common analysis of oppression.  In the now-well known words of the Combahee River Collective Statement, written just a year before Varied Voices

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 “[T]he major systems of oppression are interlocking.”

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 These oppressions shared a common root, deviation from what Audre Lorde once described as the mythical norm.  While not all women felt the consequences of “racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” in the same way or to the same extent, an understanding of oppression as systemic committed women to challenging them all.  Working with white, often lesbian, women to challenge racism as well as sexism and homophobia was part of the feminism envisioned by Combahee and at the root of the Bessie Smith Memorial Production Collective. [1. see example Mimi Iimuro Van Ausdall’s discussion of Pat Parker and Willyce Kim, Cheryl Clarke’s consideration of Judy Grahn and Pat Parker’s collaboration in special issue of Journal of Lesbian Studies, Julie Enszer writes frequently about this same subject and I’m indebted to her for sharing early, pre-publication copies of her work with me]

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 In an essay about that time, Beverly Smith highlighted the way that a shared “bond” of sexism and homophobia facilitated the multiracial Collective.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 “I know that one of the reasons we can work together is because we’re lesbians. It’s a bond that perhaps makes it possible for us to accomplish this although we are Black, Third World and white women. The affection we feel is part of our woman-identification. The solidarity results from our shared oppression as women and as lesbians.” [1. Beverly Smith, “Diane,” Common Lives/Lesbian Lives 1, no.1 (Fall 1981), 62.]

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Smith’s notion of a”shared oppression” that crossed ethnic identities proved pivotal to coalition work.  Feminist anti-racist praxis insisted on holding two ideas simultaneously and equally, acknowledging a common gender oppression that had divergent consequences for women based on ethnicity, sexual identity, and classes.  As the multiracial editing team of and Gloria I. Joseph  and Jill Leis pointed out in Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, only by acknowledging the differences, racism, in how the commonality, sexism, is experienced could “anti-racist and anti-sexist” strategies for “fighting oppression, power, and exploitation” emerge. [1. 4]  As Barbara Smith noted in 1978 “the comparing and ranking of oppression is insupportable” [Howard Univ. talk reprinted ]

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21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Women’s Culture as Common Ground

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 While the idea that women’s culture helped cause the demise of movements for women’s liberation has become widespread, the example of Varied Voices of Black Women tour reveals that women’s cultural events often provided a common meeting ground for diverse groups of women.  By the late 1970s, feminists across the United States could decorate their walls with the same posters, dance to the same records, and read the same poetry and novels. This culture of women’s movements provided not only expressions of individual commitment to the causes, but a vehicle for the cause itself.  As Alison Clarke argues “material goods … embodied choices, values and moral integrity.”[Material Culture, Volume 3, Tupperware entry. See also Things That Liberate: An Australian Feminist Wunderkammer edited by Margaret Henderson, Alison Bartlett]  The creators of women’s culture rejected the arbitrary distinctions between art and activism to perform artivism. [1. worked my way through various phrasing before settling here, where Sandoval and Latour landed, on art as activism signified via this neologism.]

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 The creation, production, distribution, and promotion of the material of women’s culture relied on a well developed, albeit very recent,  network of feminist businesses including book stores, women’s presses, music labels, event production companies, and performance promoters.As Julie R. Enszer and Cheryl Clarke note, just two years earlier, when Parker organized her first cross country tour, she had to make all the arrangements herself.  ” [1. Julie R. Enszer and Cheryl Clarke, introduction, Journal of Lesbian Studies, 278]  The Bessie Smith Memorial Production Collective included Boston area women’s event producers like Polly Laurelchild of Allegra Productions and Diane Sabin of Artemis Productions, who had worked on Sweet Honey in the Rock’s concert earlier that year, in addition to Betsy York of Women’s Music Distribution. [1. For more on Betsy York see Lucy Diamond,”Behind The Scenes,” Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture, Vol 1, no 2 (March 1985), 52, Polly Laurelchild is discussed in  Lucy Diamond,”Behind The Scenes,” Hot Wire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture, Vol 2, no 1 (November 1985), 56-57, For Diane Sabin see Everyday Mutinies: Funding Lesbian Activism. By Esther D Rothblum, Nanette Gartrell Two members of the only collective have proved difficult to find out much about.  Barbara Nesto and Emily Blake.]   The Collective also tapped into the national network including Olivia Records and Roadworks, a feminist tour production firm. [1. Tillery, Watkins and Avery were all involved in the 1977 album protest album Lesbian Concentrate: A Lesbianthology of Songs and Poems that was a response to Anita Bryant’s attack on gay rights.  Tillery had a recorded an album for Olivia, and produced for them and Avery was signed to do one, although it was never produced  The performers of the Varied Voices tour had histories of prior collaborations.  Hailing from the West Coast, their world revolved around the Bay Area, which had its own history of feminist antiracism work.  See Bonnie Morris Journal of Lesbian Studies 300.  Linda Tillery and Pat Parker with both members of Gente, a support group for lesbians of color.  Mary Watkins]

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Black Women’s Culture

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 By the late 1970s, a rich body of work exploring, expressing, and documenting black women’s culture was beginning to emerge, produced by feminists inside and outside academia.   Barbara Smith’s “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1977) came into being because, as Smith explains, Black women’s writing had been left out of “what is called ‘women’s literature.'”

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 a redefinition of the goals and strategies of the white feminist movement would lead to much needed change in the focus and content of what is now generally accepted as women’s culture.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 The essay which “attempted to define the field” also highlighted the challenges, noting specifically that “Black woman-identified art” was a necessary prerequisite for “a much needed change in the focus and content of what is generally accepted as women’s culture.” [1. Smith, ] Due to the lack of writing about black women authors, Smith had little to build on and confessed “I do not know where to begin,”  The resulting essay sketched out the foundations for what became an entire field of academic study, based in large part on Smith’s subsequent work.  Smith  took on not only the huge task of drawing together the writings of black women, but also outlined the important theoretical foundation for understanding how they fit together in something she described as black women’s culture.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 The insights and analysis of the now classic essay carried through to the Varied Voices of Women Tour the following year.  Some of the lines from “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” appear verbatim in the concert program” “we have a distinct Black women-identified folk culture based on our experiences as Black women in this society” [1. essay and program notes.    During a radio interview, Varied Voices performers spoke about the experience of “black women’s culture” at their concerts ranging from “our mannerisms” to the “way we dress.”

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30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 The multiracial coalition dedicated to the spread of black women’s culture used the collective voice of “black women,” however the relationship of black women’s culture to both white culture and black culture involved shifting identities and alliances that appear framed in different ways. Lorraine Bethel’s essay on Bessie Smith referenced, like Smith’s earlier work”dominant white/male culture” but also pointed to “sexual/racial politics” “Black/female struggle”  “Black/female struggle” allowing for identity as black women to remain most visible, while joining the Black and feminist struggle and providing a way for white women to read themselves into the text.  This latter strategy flipped the process required by Black women to insert themselves into feminists text by mentally adding “black” before instances of woman, unmodified.  However, this did not mean that the racism of some white women went unremarked upon. In the concert program  Lorraine Bethel uses / to join identities it was that will continue in her co-authored introduction to Conditions 5 which she and Barbara Smith edited.  Bethel  criticized both “white and Black male and white female musicians” for neglecting the “Black female experience.” [1. program]   This dynamic use of language and moving targets of their systemic analysis reflects the fluid matrix of shared oppressions that the Collective sought to highlight through music and poetry.  The concert program and promotional materials reflected the interlocking aspects of felt oppressions and the realities of black women’s experiences with both sexism and racism.  An emphasis at one point on a particular form of oppression did not attenuate the others.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Lesbian/Feminist

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 The language that seems to have caused the greatest dissent within the Collective concerned sexual identity. The Combahee River Collective statement rejected lesbian separatism as a theory, while members still often worked in groups comprised of lesbians.     This particular form of what might be described as a de facto lesbian separatism reflected the intense affinities created by multiple forms of shared oppression, particularly by black lesbian feminists.  However, the refusal to adopt a lesbian separatist stance acknowledges what  Combahee River Collective member Cheryl Clarke noted in “Lesbianism as Resistance.” “There is no one kind of response to the pressures that lesbians labor under to survive as lesbians. Not all women who are involved in sexual-emotional relationships with women will call themselves a lesbian.” [Clarke, in This Bridge Called My Back, 130]  The essay written by Lorraine Bethel for the Varied Voices program,   Bethel rejected the “purely sexual identification of the “term” lesbian and parsed out the nuances of “sexual politics and politics of heterosexuality in Black women’s songs” to offer a broader notion of “emotionally intense primary relationships between Black women.”  Ultimately, the documents produced by the collective relied on multiple descriptions of identity, including “black lesbian feminist,” but but also “woman-loving” and “women-identified.” Linguistically, these descriptions in Varied Voices of Black Women created many entry points for both participants and audience members.  This flexibility allowed women to avoid aligning themselves rigidly with the many factions within both the women’s community and the Black community.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Lesbian/feminist offered a way around the limitations of labeling. While “white/male” is rather unusual and largely confined to Barbara Smith’s writing, “lesbian/feminist” appeared more frequently.  Olivia records, for example, founded by women associated with the lesbian separatist group The Furies, used lesbian/feminist.  Documents by The Furies frequently used the / to denote the necessary connections between lesbian and feminist.  Here the / indicates even more than the conjunction and or modifying hypen would, as a signifier of interdependency. [1.  at times the / between lesbian and feminist was used to indicate the well known “split. In the movement press of this time it can indicate the need to join two disparate communities.  However its use as an interdependent signifier is seen in descriptions of The Lesbian Tide, “the voice of the lesbian/feminist community,” Lavender Woman “a bi-monthly lesbian/feminist newspaper,” and  the Atlanta Lesbian/Feminist Alliance]

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 In writings by Combahee and women involved in Varied Voices however, lesbian/feminist signaled an opening up of identity space, allowing for women who claimed one or both identities to read themselves into the text.  At play here was more than labels, but rather what identify positions could be spoken of in both feminist discourse, but also in the discourse of Black culture and the differing stakes women had in claiming the word lesbian. This space proved crucial not only for coalition success, but also to achieving  the central goal of Varied Voices of Black Women, which was to celebrate black women’s culture while increasing its visibility.   As the Collective Statement concluded “we hope that by our working together … the music of Third World Women will be heard, will be appreciated, and will flourish.” [1. program]

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Accounts of the era are dotted with fond recollections of the concert. Urvashi Vaid counts bringing the tour to Poughkeepsie as one the highlights of her college years and recalls “we had discovered a lesbian culture.” [1. In 1977, my friends Susan Allee and Betsy Ringel met Amy Horowitz of Roadwork and decided to produce a women’s music concert. The result wasOlivia Records‘ Varied Voices of Black Women Tour, which we brought to Poughkeepsie in  account of concert in vassar news paper Miscellany News, Volume LXVIII, Number 6, 13 October 1978] Amy Hoffman, who took her younger sister, wonders if it helped pave the way for her coming out years later.  A review of the first concert at U Mass Amherst captured the emotionally resonant performance.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0  “They spoke, sang, played with power and excellence; their voices speaking directly to the issues of being black and lesbian.  The music and poetry was beautiful, sometimes soothing, romantic; sometimes disturbing, reaching directly to the anger that comes from living on the boundaries of this society.”

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 However, after the concert at the University Massachusetts, Amherst,  the Collective learned that some members of the Black community had encouraged a boycott of the concert because the performers were “feminists and out lesbians.” [1. Letter from collective to college administration dated Nov 16, 178 Tia Cross papers]  After bemoaning “the small number of Black people in the audience of over five hundred,” the Collective deplored the boycott and the “undermining [of] black women’s culture,” and offered an explicit challenge to “homophobia” which is a “grievous an act of political and social repression.”[1. Letter from collective to college administration dated Nov 16, 1978 Tia Cross papers]  This rejection by their own community hurt particularly since one of the goals of the concert tour was to “reach black and other third world women.” [1. letter October 2, 1978 ross2666.jpg]

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 This lack of support for black feminism and frequent homophobia faced by Black lesbians provides some crucial context for understanding why activists creating black women’s culture continued to see at least some white lesbian activists as necessary allies and more than that, to find in them dedicated collaborators and dear friends. This sentiment is perhaps best captured in the album by Pat Parker and Judy Grahn titled  “Where would I be without you?,” an album recorded, because as David B. Green, Jr. put it  “Grahn frequently leveraged her white racial capital to rebuff anti-black racism that was often a problem of the mainstream white feminist movement.” [1.“Out of This Confusion I Bring My Heart” Love, Liberation, and the Rise of Black Lesbian and Gay Cultural Politics in Late Twentieth Century America 130]

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 While the Varied Voices performances were life changing for some audience members, the concerts did not draw the same large crowds that white performers did. [1. Arlene Stein claims “albums by Black artists Mary Watkins and Linda Tillery sold little; a 1978 tour, “The Varied Voices of Black Women,” featuring Tillery, Watkins, and poets Pat Parker and Gwen .Avery, was sparsely attended (223) Sales for Pat Parker and Judy Grahn’s spoken word album for Olivia Records were similarly disappointing.  Olivia’s first album, Meg Christian’s ”I Know You Know,” was released early in 1975 and sold 60,000 copies. Its second release, Cris Williamson’s ”Changer and the Changed,” sold 180,000 copies and remains Olivia’s biggest seller. To date, Olivia has put out 23 albums. Its album sales average around 150,000 a year NY Time 1983 article]  Linda Tillery, who was a staff musician and producer at Olivia Records,  addressed this issue head on.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 What I … have felt for a real long time is, the women’s community does not support non-White women’s music: financially, emotionally, or in terms of concerts. But, that’s not Olivia’s fault! They are responding to a demand from an audience that they feel accountable and responsible to. That, to me, is business. I can’t force the women’s community to like Rhythm and Blues or non-folk oriented music. But, at the same time I want to know why they don’t support it, when I get feedback that they love me and love my music. Linda Tillery Interview with Joseph Beam Blacklight Online. 

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42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Cathy Lee, the jazz critic for Sojourner,the Boston-based women’s newspaper, reviewed performances at Boston University.  She  makes vague references to  “unspoken but intense feelings of distrust or outright hatred” and to  “unexpected hostility.” [1. Lee a “music historian” wrote frequent jazz criticism for the women’s press. She founded Studio Red Top, a nonprofit dedicated to the history of women in jazz] Lee may mean a negative dynamic between the audience members and the organizers, who were perhaps wary of “trouble from hostile outsiders.” However Lee also complained that the production collective took “best seats” for themselves and their friends not ticket paying public, which is perhaps what led to hostility, or maybe it was the technical difficulties,which she concludes led some women to feel “abused and cheated.”   She exempts the  “performers .. [who] seemed to understand the conflict … between spoken love and sensed fear,” and covers it all up with a generous serving of sisterhood  “those beautiful black sisters used their ingenuity and musical energy to turn unfavorable working conditions to their best advantage: they made the atmosphere into an affirmation of truth and necessity of their vision and unity” and “Parker revealed the key to understanding her own act – which could have been so threatening, especially to the white women – when she asked … “is she not my sister.”  In general, the message of black women’s culture seemed as largely lost on the critic as it did on the audience she described as “unwilling students”  

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 In an interview just days after the concert poet Pat Parker addressed head on the stereotypes that Lee’s review evoked, primarily that black women in the movement were “threatening” because they were seen as “aggressive” or as too “direct.”  She also reflected on the ways that black lesbian butch bodies were received in “all women” spaces ranging from bars to bathrooms. [1. interview The Lesbian Hour  Oct 23, 1978 WBAI, from Pacifica Radio Archives]

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 A second article “Varied Voices of Black Women in Retrospect” by Laura Koplewitz reviewed a latter performance at U Mass on Octobter 29 noted that audience members who associated both “rock and disco” with “male music idioms of Western culture” seemed unhappy with the deviation from the “folk and folk-rock idioms” that dominated the women’s music scene.  Other audience members reportedly rejected the musicians “mocking of male performers joking titillations from the stage” labeling them as “masculinist” or inhibiting “a feminist rapport” between the performers and the audience. As she concluded “the levels of expectation at any event run deep,” and for a pathbreaking event like Varied Voices of Black Women, meeting them all was an impossibility. [1. still another controversy emerged when some members of the audience realized there was a man playing in the back up band]

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 This reaction was at least partially anticipated by Beverly Smith and Barbara Smith in a co-authored article they wrote for Sojourner.  “Although we feel tremendously positive about these artists we know that some women will have various  reactions to their work.”  However, they ended on the triumphant note that “what we’re most excited about is the phenomenon it represents, the building of black lesbian feminist culture.” emphasis added. 

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 The discomfort with both the form and content of the performance revolved around this black lesbian feminist women’s culture. What made the material culture of movements so important was articulating the existence of groups marginalized by white/male culture.  Rena Grasso Patterson explained in 1982 “cultural activity is significant to feminists because it is a medium through which women are different from one another can express and legitimate the many dimensions of their lives” [1. 655] while recognizing that “the non privileged are silenced … control of cultural activity  remains largely within the grip of those women and men whose class and racial backgrounds often foster classist and racist attitudes” [1. 655]  Tillery expressed this sentiment succinctly as “those people who have power need to move over a little bit so somebody else can be heard” [1. (60) hot wire march 1985]  The stereotype of women’s music was lampooned in Off Our Backs as woman alone sitting at a piano, the iconic singer songwriter infusing “white American folk music” with feminist themes [1. OOB]

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 In addition to being influenced by this vision of women’s music, the resistant listeners in the audience MAY HAVE BEEN influenced by SOME feminist critiques of mainstream music.  By late 1978,  activists had not only attacked the sexism of mainstream rock n roll and postulated the role of music in a revolutionary women’s culture, but some had also moved on to condemning the mainstream industry as a whole.  Led by Women Against Violence Against Women in Los Angeles, some women launched a boycott of certain record labels for their glorification of violence against women, exemplified by the Rolling Stones song and eponymous album Black and Blue [1. as Carolyn Bronstein carefully details in Battling Pornography, WAVAW was distinct from later and better known anti-pornography groups such as WAP. The group in Los Angeles was comprised of many artists from the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles.]  Boston had an very active WAVAW chapter. Sister Courage, a Boston area news journal had extensive coverage of their position during the summer of 1978 and local women’s groups and college campus women’s centers had used their slide show of violent images in the music industry. [1. northeastern archives]

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Voices of Black Women reflected this noting that the women are not singing sexism and highlighting the

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 In this context, for some women, listening to female performers play  rock n roll style felt like a betrayal of their feminist values, even if the lyrics themselves weren’t abusive toward women.  However, musician Linda Tillery associated Rock and Roll with “music created by my ancestors, my family” and felt that women who insisted women musician eschew the genre were “racist.” [1. listening to the Sirens, 160].  In a 1985 interview she recounted an incident at Olivia Records’s offices where a woman objected to her listening to The Commodores, disparaging it as “cockrock.” Tillery’s response was “I’m not just a woman. I’m a Negro, a black woman. I need to hear stuff by other people like me.” [1. hot wire March 1985]

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 In addition to the rock n roll vibe, audience members reacted negatively to the performative aspects of black lesbian sexuality produced in Varied Voices, especially Gwen Avery’s swagger.   Avery, who was meant to record an album for Olivia never did, because of her performance style. She recalled in an November 2011 interview

 Linda Tillery herself came to give me the good news that I wouldn’t be recording. She was part of Olivia at the time … Well, the audience loved me. I’m saying that the people that backed Olivia, or had power, decided that was I guess unclean or indecent, or put them in the mind of Elvis Presley, … if you were dancing onstage…[Something suggestive]…would mind that if you’re singing rhythm and blues (laughs)…again, I can’t understand, I mean, it’s so insulting when I think of it, to defy my culture, that’s what they wanted me to do, and I guess, sit there with my legs crossed and my arms folded. [1. http://queermusicheritage.com/nov2011s.html]

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 However, it also seems that the audience member who desire “feminist rapport” running along sororal lines may have been taken aback by Avery’s frank sensuality. As Maria V. Johnson discusses in her analysis of Avery’s performance of “Sugar Mama,” her “theme song,”  “Avery uses blues techniques and imagery to boast about her love-making skills, celebrate her passion for women, and affirm sexual bonds between women  …  Sensing the audience holding back, Avery gently admonishes them for being self-conscious and initiates a reprise of the call and response vamp without the piano.By involving her audience, Avery allows them to glimpse the potential of their erotic power. Her communal performance celebrates and models for her audience the power of erotic connections between women [[1.  First released on the album Lesbian Concentrate on Olivia Records in 1977]

Barbara Smith and Beverly Smith connected Watkin’s music to Audre Lorde’s use of the erotic as well “creative energy… which we are reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our music, our lives”



SERIES OF LETTERS IN RESPONSE TO LEE’S REVIEW MAKE IT CLEAR THAT MANY WOMEN WERE SHOCKED BY HER REVIEW AND REJECTED HER DEPICTION OF THE CONCERT, holding Sojourner responsible for publishing it.  One noted “Lee’s apprehensions over dealing with black women” while another woman indicated she had already raised issues about Lee’s treatment of black musicians with the staff of Sojourner at editorial meetings.  A woman who attended both performances the opening week, argued that “I didn’t discover any hostility …  I … recall a very positive experience … a great womyn’s event ”  In a discussion that carried on until March 1979, only one woman, a frequent contributor, wrote in support of Sojourner.  Lee, like Sojourner  staff, failed to respond directly to the charges made by letter writers.  The staff as a whole signed a “Wider Discussion of Racism Needed” in which they announced plans for two special issues devoted to racism and to Third World Women. Lee’s letter in response only exacerbated issues by insisting on the validity of her view, that women should emphasize that which they had in common rather that which divided them,

The negative review did not deter the collective. In fact as the letters flew back and forth on the pages of Sojourner, they moved to organizing anti-racism workshops.   Four women, three of whom were members of the Bessie Smith memorial production collective co-authored guidelines for Anti-racism CR that appeared in the Sojourner issue on racism that May.

Continuing the Coalition

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 The coalition that produced emerged as a success. Participants had expressed the hope that “the energy we have generated with the production of this concert will … open up dialogue among black, third world, and white women, whether it be about women’s culture, racism, or feminism” [1. undated draft for Varied Voices Program Tia Cross Papers]   Their hope was affirmed in February of 1979 when some members of the Collective organized an “Open Discussion on Racism” in Boston.  The event was explained as part of  “exhaustive work we must do to get a clearer understanding of how racism functions in the women’s community and the larger society.” Tia Cross’ handwritten notes for the discussion sketch out a basic connection of gender, class, sexual identity, and race.  The facilitated conversation seems also to have drawn on the well established procedures from consciousness-raising, going around the group and the first outcome listed for the event emphasizes the opportunity to share feelings.  [1. There is also a tantalizing mention of a skit, which given my earlier discussion of the function of plays (and the other skit scripts I’ve found and not yet written about), is so intriguing.  Only the briefest descriptions appear of the skit topics but they seem to revolve around addressing how white guilt prevents women from addressing their own racism and modeling ways to address racism.]  This first workshop gave rise to a series of discussions that took place in several Boston locations on March 4, 1979.  At least one group was reserved for Third World Women only, while another was meant for working class women.  The goal of the subsequent discussion was to spin off groups that would continue to meet on their own without the Bessie Smith Memorial Productive Collective as facilitator or organizer. [1. Although the collective did not formally continue to be responsible for continuing discussion, Cross’ archives contain information about a “forum” Continuing Work Against Racism dated to April 1979 held for women who participated in the March event.]  Barbara Smith and Beverly Smith led the workshop on Racism and Feminism, but women outside the collective seem to have also participated as session facilitators, which given the eight groups created, was necessary.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 The relationships formed during these events proved powerful and long-lasting. Just after the antiracist workshops were organized, some of the same women were involved in large scale protests to highlight the murders of black women in Boston. The connections between coalition causes in this moment indicated by the image of 9 black women why did they have to die placed alongside the reprinted CR guidelines in Oct 1982 issue of Heresies Racism is the Issue

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 Photo by Tia CrossPhoto by Tia Cross

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 Barbara Smith, who wrote the pamphlet that described the action, tied the murder of these women to the racism and sexism both Varied Voices and the anti-racist workshops had sought to address.  As she reflected in diaries entries, later published,

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 It just occurred to me that I’m saying we (meaning feminists and Lesbians), but I am as a Black woman a part of both we’s.” If white feminists ever needed to have their act together it’s now. I have faith in a lot of women, because I know their politics, their commitments. But it all has got to be proven. … [T]his is new. Black and white, feminist and non-feminist, women have never come together to work on a woman’s issue, and issue of racial-sexual politics, at least not in this era. I’m thinking about the antilyching movement

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 On April 1 1979 1500 people marched to protest what was at that point the murder of six black women.  The number of victims would double by May. [1. Smith, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, 85]

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 March to protest the murders of black women in Boston, photo credit Tia Cross

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 The photograph taken by Tia Cross shows women marching behind the banner “3rd World Women. We cannot live without our lives.”  The line came from a poem by white lesbian feminist Barbara Deming, who borrowed it, as Martin Duberman documents, from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. [1. line there is “I cannot live without my life”]  The line is better known however through Audre Lorde use of it her poem for three voices Need. Yet, as Robert McRuer has argued, Deming’s line becomes part of a malleable identity deployed by “the women behind the banner” as they come out in a “collective and shifting identity.” [1. Robert McRuer, The Queer Renaissance: Contemporary American Literature and the Reinvention of Lesbian and Gay Identities, 61]  As Amy Hoffman recalled in her memoir, knowing that the line was written by a white woman encouraged her to believe “that other white people, even I, might have something to contribute to the struggle. [Amy Hoffman, An Army of Ex-lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News, 56]

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0  

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 The pamphlet Black women why did they have to die employed the / in new way, as a visible indicator of outrage that another black woman had died.  This may have been an expediency, rather than resetting the typeface to update the number of murdered women the original was modified.  The effect however of the first number crossed out with a bold /, visually emphasized the rising count of the dead.   (Similar strategy evident in protest placard depicted above)

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0  

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 Conditions 5 

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 Edited by Bethel and Barbara Smith, completed  July 1979, their inroduction employed the / extensively.

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 volume includes X members of the Varied Voices group

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 Conditions first published Smith’s Toward a Black Feminist Criticism.  Although by 1977, academic journals of women’s studies existed, including Signs, Frontiers, and Feminist Studies, the pathbreaking piece first appeared in the grassroots journal Conditions in October of 1977 and then The Radical Teacher (March 1978). [1. published as a chapbook by Out &Out, distributed by The Crossing Press (1978), reprinted in All Men Are Black, All The Women Are White, But Some of Us Are Brave,  and then widely anthologized]  Smith presented the work at the second Black National Writers’ Conference (May 1978) where it received a hostile reception and none of the other black women writers present defended her. [1.  June Jordan’s essay on the conference for Essence is the best known account of events.  See also Tom Dent “1978 Howard Writers Conference and SBCA” in Callaloo. Although Alexis Gumbs interprets June Jordan’s remarks during the hostile Q &A as a defense of Smith (141)  Smith makes clear that she did not feel supported by Jordan. Barbara Smith Oral History Transcript, Voices of Feminism 63-64]  Smith was prompted to write the essay when the white, lesbian editors, following the suggestion of Adrienne Rich,  invited her to contribute something on Black women’s literature.  As Julie Enszer has documented, the editors of Conditions were determined to create a multiracial periodical and the space it provided, for this essay, as well as the later Conditions 5, edited by Smith and containing pieces by several women involved in Varied Voices, were important venues for publishing grassroots theorists. [1. Julie R. Enszer, American Periodicals]  These periodicals was important sites, as Tucker Pamela Farley has noted, for publishing early lesbians studies as well, long before academic feminist journals. [1. Tucker Pamela Farley, NWSA Journal 2002]

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 In 1979 turned over journal for Black Women’s issue

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0  

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 Anti Racism 

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 Among the earliest and most visible efforts to address racism vial coalition occurred in 1976 when Sagaris,a radical feminist independent school and the NBFO organize a “racism-sexism conference” sagaris NBFO

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 On April 4, just three days after the march in protest of the murders of nine black women,  Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Tia Cross and Freada Klein created CR guidelines for women’s groups discussing racism. [1.Klein was an activist working to combat sexual harassment.] While other feminist groups across the US were also discussing racism in the movement, the group in Boston was unusual in that no crisis had provoked its work.  In his account of California-based Califia, Clark A. Pomerleau details how white women were challenged by the few women of color in their group to figure out their own racism. [1. Califia included among others the poet doris davenport until 1981] The Boston group was also unusual in that it was made up of women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.  More typical of this era was the northern California  White Women Against Racism, organized to educate themselves and other white women, and to form coalitions with women of color. [1. WWAR influential in LA working with Califia and the Woman’s Building around 1980]

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 In Boston, based on the strength of their personal connections and prior experiences in working together, four women, two black, one white, and one Jewish,  a pair of sisters and a couple, wrote what became the most influential CR guidelines that addressed racism.  They circulated widely via the grassroots feminist press and the mimeograph, first appearing in Sojourner, then reprinted in OOB and Women’s Studies Newsletter before being published in Some of Us Are Brave (1982), and later  in Heresies (1982) and New Directions for Women (1984) [1. Face-to-Face Day-To-Day — Racism CR May 1979 Sojourner by Barbara & Beverly Smith Tia Cross Freada Klein,Women’s Studies Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), pp. 27-28].

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 The article first positions the authors and offers their expertise for writing these guidelines:  “all of us … have had experiences as white and Black women thinking and talking about racism in the women’s movement. .. through leading workshops for white women or through participating in ongoing racism groups ourselves.”[1. Sojourner] After explaining their process, a tape recorded conversation to generate the content, they moved on to outline both context for CR, but also crucially, the context in which these discussions must take place, recommending that groups first spend a “substantial amount of time sharing personal  histories and feelings in order to build trust.”  they refer to “white-male rule.” The shift here from / to – joining identities which is what also appears in introduction to Brave where it denotes the interlocking systems of oppression rather than variant identities  The guidelines explicitly connect CR to action noting that “it is important for women to show other women what is possible.”   This last a subtle reminder that it was the responsibility of white women to educate other white women about racism. Hear historical echoing of SNCC’s suggestion a decade earlier for whites to work their own communities

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 the group can find out about and publicize the resources which exist in its area, such as other CR groups, study groups. Third World women’s groups, and coalitions of Third World and white women. Th egroup can compile reading lists about Black women, racism, and white women’s anti-racist activity. It can spread the word about the CR process through writing articles, and by giving workshops and talks. It can also compile its ownCR guidelines.

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 Amy Hoffman, who attended one of the workshops at Harriet Tubman House, recalled joining a small group of Jewish feminists as “unexpectedly moving.” However Hoffman she also noticed that black women were expected to prioritize race over other aspects of identity.  [1. Amy Hoffman, An Army of Ex-lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News, 54.]

83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 Elly Bulking with whom Smith co wrote Yours In Struggle adapted them for anti heterosexism CR

Heterosexism and Women’s Studies
Elly Bulkin
The Radical Teacher
No. 17 (November 1980), pp. 25-31

84 Leave a comment on paragraph 84 0 The guidelines made their way into academia via Women’s Studies newsletter in 1980 as well as through Brave which was often taught. They were also implemented in NEWSA and the 1981 NWSA although stripped from the very process they advocated. then extended in guideline for feminist literary criticism based on them created by Elly Bulkin


Source: https://politicsofwomensculture.michellemoravec.com/about-2/collaborations-on-womens-culture/varied-voices-of-black-women-an-evening-of-words-and-music-writinginpublic-spring-2016/