Cheryl Clarke: The Never-Ending Resource that is Black Queerness

“There is queer activism in the African diaspora and wherever that movement is, there is always cultural production.”

I was introduced to the iconic Cheryl Clarke while organizing a conference on spirituality and sexuality with writer and scholar Ashon T. Crawley for the Newark Pride Alliance in Newark, NJ in 2008. Ashon and I marveled for days over the fact that we had engaged in a few contentious planning meetings with Clarke, and survived! Our meeting spurred an instant love affair with the black queer literary luminary whose voice, work, and life has continued to make space for our own. Since 2008, Clarke and I have been involved in several projects and after each I end by asking myself: “Why have we—black folk, queer folk, feminist folk, and other folk—yet to fully recognize this genius among us?” This is my second interview with Clarke. The first was a conversation captured between Clarke and Amiri Baraka in Newark, NJ. In many ways, this is my way of turning attention to a black queer artist whose work deserves increased attention.

Clarke was born in 1947 in Washington, DC. She received a B.A. from Howard University and an M.A., M.S.W. and Ph. D. from Rutgers—the State University of New Jersey. She is the author of several books including her collection of prose and poetry, The Days of Good Looks, and her critical work, “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement.  Clarke’s “After Meccais the first scholarly work investigating the role of black women poets/writers situated within the ten-year period of 1968-78, a decade encompassing the Black Arts Movement (BAM). BAM was a political, aesthetical movement that was spurred as a result of the Black consciousness/Black Power movement as a means to further the development and transmission of black expressive culture towards the end of radical communal change. Clarke’s work demonstrates that women (including lesbian-identified women) made important feminist interventions in a staunchly sexist (and heterosexist) aesthetical space and used some of BAM’s tactics to advance their own movement.

Since 2009, Clarke has been the Dean of Students for Livingston Campus at Rutgers. Prior to that position, she was the Director of the Office of Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities at Rutgers.

Moore: In your book, “After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement, you claim Black Arts Movement (BAM) tutelage and “blackness” as that which awakened you to poetry in the 1960s and feminism and lesbianism in the 70s. Can you say a bit more about both as modes of inspiration and preparation for your work?

Clarke: I was studying literature at Howard University during this time (1965-1969) and saw first-hand how provocative words are as poems. I had also studied the Harlem Renaissance (which I continue to study) and had read of how instrumental writing, publishing, and public readings— “salons” then— were to shifting the notions people had of black people, especially white people’s notions but also black people’s. During the sixties, we spent quite a lot of air time critiquing the “New Negro Renaissance” as bourgeois; however, we used some of its tactics to once again build a movement of new writing. As I say in my book, the Black Arts Movement was not the first time black people “reinvented themselves ‘new.'” So—we, i.e., lesbian-feminists—black lesbian feminists, black gay feminists, as well as the gay liberation movement used the “voice” strategy to inspire changes of attitude, to teach, and to critique. During the Black Power Movement, young people calling themselves “Black” refused to stand upon the politics of black respectability and deference to white people. White people were called out for their racism, specifically for their Eurocentrism; and backsliding black people were called out too. We got “loud” on us if you know what I mean. I remember being in any number of conversations on campus and being corrected by well-read activists—men and women—on historical sources, on who was trustworthy and who was assimilationist or paternalistic. Anyway, education is always a chief factor in developing a movement, especially a movement around identity: Where have you been?  Where are you going? And what the hell are you doing presently? As Wahneema Lubiano says about Black Nationalism as common sense in her article in the edited volume (by Lubiano) The House That Race Built, that Black Nationalism gives us history. So, we used its tools to give us the awareness, history, and voice we needed to foster our movements for sexual and gender identity.

Moore: BAM was concerned with the politics and aesthetics of blackness. It was, at once,  a black literary and cultural expressive movement that provided space for the penning of prose and performing of the poetic. BAM also prompted the creation of Black theater groups and literary journals. In many ways, BAM represented the dismantling of barriers that tended to neatly separate poetry/prose and performance/written expression. What was the benefit of this intervention? How did it mess up, in good ways, the artistic landscape in the 1960s-70s? And, what are the implications for the work of the artist today?

Clarke: In a certain way BAM showed us that there are no neat separations of artistic forms, especially if we were to cast aside the Western lens. However, at the same time, nationalism insisted upon such purity of identity and polarities of political allegiance: “You are either with me or against me.”  Theater and poetry, particularly, coalesced. The poetry reading. The production of  someone’s play in a local venue. This was all possible in the early days (1965-1970). The re-use of old buildings as cultural spaces also as political spaces—spaces in which people organized to change the quality of life in their communities. In this way, the Black Power and Black Arts Movements were very much like Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, which touched so many local black communities throughout this country—and the world. But also, Black Power and Black Arts activists had been involved in the Southern movement and knew the potency of grass roots organizing. And so, in the era of gay, lesbian, feminist liberation, the tools of voice, first projected by Malcolm, then Black Arts, then Black Power, stood us in good stead.

Moore: Kalamu ya Salaam credits BAM for instigating the “multiculturalism movement” in America. He argues that BAM challenged “cultural sovereignty” and encouraged non-majority populations to do their “own thing.” Do you agree with his assessment?

Clarke: Yes, I agree. The challenge to “cultural sovereignty” is key. Always, because it rears its ugly head constantly. Address the West, a “grey hideous space,” as Baraka says. However, have these “non-majority movements” routed out their sexist, homophobic, and heterosexist prerogatives? Kalamu is a good man, however

Moore: It could be argued that BAM had a similar influence on the emergence of the queer artistic voice, black and non-black. For example, you connect the writerly and activist trajectory of black feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde to BAM in “After Mecca.” Can you speak to similar genealogies among other queer artists?

Clarke: Probably. June Jordan. She had a similar trajectory as Lorde. Started out as a promoter of the Black Arts Movement. Edited a book of black arts poetry in the late 60s.  Called herself a feminist. Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker as well, though neither of them are lesbians, [Editor’s Note: Alice Walker discreetly revealed some of  her same gender loving relationships in the early aughts] but they both considered themselves more feminist than not.  I mean Alice Walker is a feminist. Toni Cade Bambara was more circumspect about what she called herself—other than “black woman.”  Interestingly, I can only think of women. I guess I count myself among those who had a similar trajectory, though I was not a Black Arts Movement activist. But I certainly was a witness. Samuel Delany has been writing since the 1950s, but he was not really a card-carrying member of the Black Arts Movement. But he has always been out as black and gay, even though it may have been easy for him to pass.

Moore: It is often noted that BAM allowed for the wide dissemination of Black Arts through the launching of independent publishing houses and nationally distributed periodicals that created new space for artists’ work. You even served as the editor of one such periodical, namely, Conditions. Are publishing spaces as readily available for the emerging political artist today? What challenges remain the same and what opportunities are present

Clarke: I served as a member of the editorial collective of Conditions Magazine from 1981 to 1990.  We were committed to an all-lesbian collective and a multiracial one at that. We were committed to the same diversity in our publishing of original work by writers, and we published some notable women:  Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Hacker, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Dorothy Allison, Jewelle Gomez, Michelle Cliff, Margaret Randall, A.J. Verdelle, Sapphire, Frances Negrón-Muntaner, the late Terri Jewell, Melinda Goodman, Jackie Woodson, Cherríe Moraga, the late Paula Gunn Allen, the late Pat Parker, Barbara Smith, Shay Youngblood, Cherri Muhanji, Breena Clarke, and many more. Seventeen issues of Conditions were published between 1977 and 1990. We published two international issues and a retrospective. Feminists and lesbian feminists came to understand because of the example of Black Arts that a movement had to control its means of cultural production. And for a while lesbian feminists did—presses, newspapers, journals, and bookstores. No, publishing spaces are not as readily available as they once were because the ways in which people read and produce are very different. We have the Internet.  We produce work through it. But we still need the bricks and mortar and the material object, the book, in our hands. The challenge, as always, is to write, and get the writing out there. We have the opportunity to create new venues for our work. I think of Lisa Moore of Redbone Press, who produces so much of the work of black queer writers in the diaspora. I think of the work Steven Fullwood does at the Schomburg with the LGBT, In the Life, Same Gender Loving Archive. I think of the work the black lesbian poet, Arisa White, does through her program “Out of Necessity” in California with pairing beginning LGBT writers with experienced LGBT writers. Then the programming done by Fire and Ink, the queer black writers conference that has occurred twice since 2002. We have the opportunity to write about our writers—which is always my project, writing about black queer writers. Blackness and queerness are never-ending resources.

Moore: Do we have a contemporary movement that is opening space for black queer artists? If not, what could and should that space look like? And, how might it take form as a global movement?

Clarke: Yes, we do. We do have a contemporary global movement. There is queer activism in the African diaspora and wherever that movement is, there is always cultural production. I learned from my work with Conditions that we have been a global movement from the beginning of this phase of queer liberation. But this question is too difficult for me to answer in its entirety—if that is even possible.

Moore: You have worked within and without the academy. In what ways has this “border crossing” impacted your writing/activism?

Clarke: I stayed in the academy so that I could do my work outside of it. (I needed to pay my rent and later my mortgage.) During the 1980s my work in the academy was more of a “job.”  Something I did so that, as I said, I could do my writing, my work with Conditions, travel, serve on boards that needed commitment (e.g., New York Women Against Rape, New Jersey Women and AIDS Network, Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, Astraea Foundation for Social Justice, and now the Newark Pride Alliance). So, Rutgers was not my primary identity for many, many years. For many, many years, it was the lesbian feminist work that kept me going. However, Rutgers was a good place to network, and I always liked and respected many of the people I worked with. And I always tried to have a progressive stance around issues of freedom of expression, that is standing up for my beliefs, job equity, disenfranchised students issues, public programming reflective of underrepresented concerns, teaching courses on black women’s writing, black queer writing, the black freedom movement, and introductory women’s and gender studies courses, establishing our social justice learning community, and for 17 years directing the office for services to LGBT students. So, Rutgers at once gave me a platform for my work as well as a place to be just an administrator. Being in the academy has enabled me to do my work for the most part, because I have never taken my place within the academy too seriously.  And believe me, I have had some setbacks there. Between 1998 and 2002 I worked for a very homophobic vice president and worked under the leadership of a very homophobic and conservative university president for 12 years. This was not fun. We had to deal with Republicans in Washington during the 1980s; and, at Rutgers, since everything comes to the academy later, we had to deal with Republicans at Rutgers in the 1990s. This was very impactful. During this whole time I, of course, continued to write, continued to study, and published my critical study of the Black Arts Movement, “After Mecca,” and my collected works The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry, 1980-2005.  I received my doctorate in 2000, which made me very happy. I worked for it from 1991 to 2000 in the English Department at Rutgers, but actually, I started in 1969 and stopped in 1974. Those nine years of study during the 90s were some of my happiest times. So, really it took me 15 years to finish, but I like to say 30 years.  I think that’s somewhat of a record. But writing that dissertation gave me the opportunity to make a contribution to African-American literary criticism.

The hardest part about writing is, as you know, to keep doing it. I have just finished my last edit of my manuscript of poems, which I have been trying to publish since 1993—well, only some of the poems; I have written new ones. I hope to have another book of poetry published before I die. I also hope to have another critical study of black writing done before I die. With all the work we have to do for our communities, taking that space to think and write is difficult, but must be done for it satisfies the soul—not just my soul but other souls as well. I have a difficult enough time trying to prepare for my classes. And teaching is another commitment of mine which I wish I could perform better.

Moore: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka is credited as the “progenitor” of BAM. I recently interviewed the two you. Was there anything said that opened up new understandings of BAM and its influence on your work? Was there anything left unsaid that you would like to note now, particularly as it relates to Baraka’s past sexist and heterosexist statements and present (presumed) silences on issues of homosexuality?

Clarke: Amiri is Baraka is LeRoi Jones is Chairman Baraka is Imamu Baraka. He is one of the most brilliant people alive. But also one of the most burdened and haunted. We can talk about his silences at another time. Meanwhile, let’s think about our own and how little they protect us. Thank you for the interview, Darnell. Always a pleasure to rap with you.