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By Pratibha Parmar
My own trajectory as a queer, feminist activist and filmmaker has roots in the 1980s when I first came across the writings of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Alice Walker, Angela Y. Davis, and Barbara Smith. Equally important were the publications of Kitchen Table Press, which published the 2nd edition of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, a feminist anthology edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, in 1984. A ground breaking book and a lifeline for many of us, this was the first time that a book was bringing together writings by women of color from diverse backgrounds in one anthology. Black, Native American, Asian American, and Latina were the first to express loudly, clearly, and passionately that “sisterhood” could not be color-blind. Another critical text was All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, a book that brought together voices of feminists of color and our critiques of white or mainstream feminism.
These books, along with Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and other essays and poems by Audre Lorde, were catalysts for many of us in the early 1980s, who, in our activism and personal lives in the U.K., were grappling with ways of articulating and understanding questions about differences based on race, class, gender and sexuality. While the references and experiences these women wrote about were within the U.S. context, the ideas, analyses and feelings they expressed resonated closely with our specific experiences as feminists of color in the U.K.
I first met Audre Lorde in the early 1980s when, as part of the Sheba Feminist Publishers collective, we were responsible for publishing The Cancer Journals and Zami. Sheba was independently run by a small collective who published about 8-10 books annually. Sheba, founded in 1981, focused on books about Black, Third world, working class, and lesbian women. While we were thrilled to publish Audre Lorde’s work in the UK, it was interesting that the other feminist publishers like the Womens’ Press and Virago were not. We had limited resources and could only reach small audiences with small print runs. Perhaps Audre’s outspokenness was too much for the more sedate feminist publishers, while we at Sheba devoured and were fed deeply by her honesty and radical will to empower women, especially lesbians of color.
The way Audre inhabited her lesbianism both moved and inspired me in owning my own sexuality. Audre’s loud, proud, and unapologetic declaration of her lesbianism was a lifeline at a time when the Black and Asian women’s movements were not fully embracing lesbian women. At the first national Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) conference in 1979 in London, attended by over three hundred women, we had the first Black lesbian group meeting. When the group reported back to the full conference, I remember standing next to a couple of women who were shouting, “Burn them!” In such a climate of aggression and exclusion, Audre’s voice was the refuge many of us needed.
One unforgettable key event where some of us witnessed Audre’s fierce and steadfast commitment to challenging racism within the women’s movement firsthand was at the first International Feminist Book Fair in London in 1984. Audre was one of few Black women invited to participate. She played a crucial role in confronting the racism inherent in the way the Feminist Book Fair had been organised by a white feminist network of feminist publishers. A group of us organized a spontaneous action against the organisers at the Drill Hall where Audre was speaking on a panel with other lesbian writers. The tickets sold out early, and there were no women of color present in the audience. When we demanded that this be addressed, we were physically barricaded. It was Audre’s intervention that changed the dynamic. She left the panel, and joined us. She stood with us in our anger at the all too familiar exclusion from white feminist events. She refused to speak on the panel because so many Black women were being turned away from hearing her that night. In discussing the events at the book fair later, Audre said to us, “The white women’s defensiveness that arose whenever certain questions were raised has to do with the fact that white women hide behind a guilt which does not serve us nor them. I would like to move beyond that guilt.”
While the idea of feminist movements and white gay communities perpetuating racism and exclusion is no longer a new one, it was indeed a harsh reality in 1984, one that burst our naïve, idealistic bubble. When a group of us sat with Audre one afternoon in our apartment in Islington, London talking and sharing deeply and openly, I remember her saying, “ I am who I am, doing what I came to do, acting upon you like a drug or a chisel to remind you of your me-ness, as I discover you in myself.” That is what we all did—discovered ourselves in each other.
Pratibha Parmar is an award-winning filmmaker, whose films and videotexts have been exhibited internationally at film festivals, in galleries, and on BBC Television (UK) and PBS due to their ability to shape the contours of popular discourse on race, representation, feminism, sexuality and creativity. Parmar’s most recent documentary, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, tells the compelling life story of American literary icon Alice Walker. Parmar is also an author and editor of several books, including The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, and Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation Sexual Blinding of Woman (with Alice Walker). Parmar was awarded The Visionary Award for her body of work from the One in Ten Film Festival in October 2007, and is a past winner of the Frameline Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. Parmar is currently a Visiting Artist at California College of Arts in the Film Department.