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African-American Literature: Lesbian  
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Ann Allen Shockley

As the first openly black lesbian novel published in the United States, Ann Allen Shockley's Loving Her made a significant contribution to the emerging field of African-American lesbian literature. This groundbreaking novel--which recounts the story of Renay, a young black female musician who, after falling in love with a financially independent white woman, leaves an abusive relationship with an alcoholic husband--contains a number of themes explored in later African-American lesbian literature, including the awakening of lesbian desire; lesbianism as an empowering form of self-love; racism among white lesbians; and sexism in black communities; butch-femme roles; and interracial relationships.

Yet Loving Her occupies a paradoxical place within the emerging field of African-American lesbian literature, for its depiction of Renay's relationship with her white, upper-class lover has been criticized for its visionary, depoliticized perspective. Still, Shockley's novel makes several provocative interventions into lesbian literature of the 1970s, which focused primarily on issues relevant to middle- and upper-class Euro-American women.

To begin with, by introducing black lesbian issues to a wide, multicultural readership, Loving Her served as a necessary corrective to earlier conceptions of U.S. lesbian fiction. Unlike many Euro-American lesbian novels and short stories--which often focus almost exclusively on issues related to gender and sexuality--Loving Her explores the intersections of sexuality, ethnicity, gender, and class.

One of the most intriguing yet rarely discussed effects of this multifaceted exploration can be seen in Shockley's depiction of the interconnections between black and white ethnic identities. As her light-skinned protagonist speculates on the mixture of European and African ancestry that accounts for her own coloring, Shockley challenges both the color prejudice within some black communities and commonly accepted beliefs concerning racial purity, miscegenation, and the binary opposition between black and white identities. Significantly, these themes are explored in more detail in later African-American lesbian writings by Audre Lorde, Becky Birtha, Cherry Muhanji, and others.

The 1980s and 1990s

The publication by mainstream presses of several works with explicitly lesbian and bisexual elements--including Gloria Naylor's critique of black communities' homophobia in The Women of Brewster Place (1982), Ntozake Shange's positive representations of black lesbians in Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo (1982), and Alice Walker's depiction of women's sexual and emotional love for each other in The Color Purple (1982)--signaled another important development in African-American lesbian literature.

Although these novels do not deal exclusively with lesbian and bisexual characters and themes, they complicate simplistic notions of African-American lesbian literature in several ways. First, by declining to identify as lesbian, Naylor, Walker, and Shange challenge the commonly accepted belief in a one-to-one correspondence between a writer's personal identity and the material she explores, thus opening the way for non-lesbian writers, readers, and critics to examine issues related to women's same-sex desire. Second, by depicting a spectrum of female sexualities and a variety of woman-identified relationships, they compel readers to reexamine restrictive, stereotypical images of black womanhood and lesbian identity.

The publication of these critically acclaimed novels indicates a growing acceptance of black lesbian themes among a wide readership; however, this acceptance did not extend to lesbian-centered texts, especially when written by openly identified black lesbian-feminists. Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, also published in 1982, and Barbara Smith's Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, published the following year, were not picked up by mainstream U.S. presses.

Both the erotic celebrations of lesbian sexuality in Lorde's autobiographical novel and the lesbian-affirmative perspectives in many of the pieces collected in Smith's anthology significantly challenge the stereotypes concerning black women by creating a continuum of heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual women-loving-women. Although these texts are highly regarded in feminist scholarship, they are rarely included in discussions of African-American or canonical U.S. literature.

Despite this continuing resistance to lesbian-centered African-American texts, the 1980s and 1990s saw a proliferation of writings by and about black lesbians, extending from openly erotic celebrations of same-sex passion, to imaginative revisions of history, to lyrical yet highly political essays indicting the homophobia and sexism both in black communities and in the dominant U.S. culture.

It is, of course, impossible to arrive at definitive statements concerning such a diverse body of writings; however, several recurring themes could be said to characterize African-American lesbian literature, including the use of revisionist mythmaking to invent culturally specific mythic, historic, and linguistic images that revise previous conceptions of lesbian identity; explorations of interracial relationships; and the creation of Afro-centric feminist perspectives that expand existing definitions of mainstream U.S. feminism. Coupled with an emphasis on honesty and direct speech, these trends illustrate the complex self-naming processes that make twentieth-century African-American lesbian literature such a vital, fast-growing field of study.

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