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literature

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African-American Literature: Lesbian  
 
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Mythmaking

One of the most important devices found in African-American lesbian literature is the use of revisionist mythmaking to create an empowering African-based womanist tradition that affirms lesbian identity. Audre Lorde's work provides a useful illustration of this process. Like a number of other twentieth-century North American women writers, she replaces the Judeo-Christian male God and other patriarchal myths that depict women as subordinate to men with positive images of female identity.

However, unlike those revisionist mythmakers who rely almost exclusively on the Greco-Roman mythic tradition and thus inadvertently reinforce Euro-centric concepts of womanhood, Lorde does not. By incorporating West African female creatrix figures like Mawulisa, Yemanja, and Seboulisa into her poetry, fiction, and prose, she invents culturally specific images of lesbian identity. In The Black Unicorn--her 1978 collection of poetry thematically unified by its references to West African orisha, or spiritual forces--she identifies her voice with Seboulisa's, both to underscore her personal ties with Africa and to establish her place in a transhistorical, cross-cultural community of African women.

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Again in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, she uses references to Carriacou, her mother's West Indian homeland, and identifies herself with Afrekete, a highly sexualized trickster figure. By so doing, she creates a culturally specific tradition of female bonding that includes both sexual and non-sexual relationships between women.

This use of revisionist myth serves several interrelated purposes. First, by associating herself with eroticized West African mythic symbols, Lorde naturalizes her sexuality and connects it with a long-standing Afrocentric tradition, thus challenging the homophobic accusations of cultural betrayal found in some African-American communities. Second, by replacing conventional Greco-Roman mythic images with those of West Africa, she simultaneously critiques U.S. feminists' ethnocentric concepts of womanhood and provides Western readers with alternative models of female identity.

Like Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, Ann Allen Shockley, and other self-identified black women writers also use revisionary tactics to create positive, Afrocentric images of lesbian identity. By incorporating culturally specific references to historic and mythic figures into their poetry and fiction, these poets and novelists invent self-empowering authentic black female cultural traditions.

For instance, in Living as a Lesbian (1986) and Humid Pitch (1989), Clarke borrows lyrics and lifestyles popularized by the blues tradition and creates erotic poems exploring physical lust, unfulfilled desire, and passionate sexual encounters. In Say Jesus and Come to Me (1987), Ann Allen Shockley draws on the southern tradition of gospel music and revival meetings to expose the , homophobia, and misogyny in patriarchal forms of Christianity.

In The Gilda Stories, a short-story cycle depicting 200 years in the life of a black lesbian vampire, Jewelle Gomez associates her protagonist with a long tradition of African women and alludes to culturally specific historical and mythic figures, including enslaved women, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and conjure women. As she retells history from a black lesbian-feminist perspective, Gomez explores the many forms of individual and collective resistance black women have developed.

Like Gomez, June Jordan revises conventional accounts of U.S. history and creates a long tradition of powerful foremothers. In a number of poems collected in Naming Our Destiny (1989), she simultaneously reconstructs and celebrates the lives of Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Winnie Mandela, and other black women whose accomplishments have been almost entirely ignored in standard historical records.

These revisionary perspectives on history and myth enable Lorde, Clarke, Shockley, and other self-identified African-American lesbians to replace ethnocentric concepts of womanhood with culture-based models of female identity, thus creating feminine, Afrocentric voices and collective identities that affirm black women's power. Significantly, this affirmation of black womanhood occurs simultaneously with attempts to establish various types of cross-cultural alliances, including friendships, political coalitions, and romantic, sexualized relationships.

Lorde's essays and speeches collected in Sister Outsider (1984) illustrate this willingness to create multiethnic communities. Indeed, both her desire to develop cross-cultural bonds and her ability to negotiate between diverse types of women have provided readers of all ethnic backgrounds with an invaluable model. By naming herself as "sister outsider" and thus emphasizing her membership in a number of apparently disparate groups, Lorde enacts a doubled movement enabling her both to reclaim her place in a community of black women and to establish new ties with others.

As she affirms the various components of her identity--black, female, lesbian, mother, daughter, feminist--she creates a holistic Afrocentric perspective expansive enough to encompass the many differences between herself and others. Thus in her often-quoted "Open Letter to Mary Daly" (in Sister Outsider), Lorde challenges Daly and other Euro-American women to recognize their own ties to an empowering African mythic tradition, or to what she calls "the Black mother in us all." Unlike the stereotypical black matriarch, Lorde's "Black mother" represents an inner-directed principle of excellence, enabling women of all ethnic backgrounds to develop new forms of interconnectedness.

Often, these explorations of cross-cultural connections include a visionary dimension. For example, in Loving Her and in many of the stories collected in The Black and White of It, Shockley implies that African-American lesbians can develop positive, self-affirming sexual relationships with women from other cultural and class backgrounds.

Similarly, Becky Birtha opens her 1991 collection of poetry, The Forbidden Poems, with an affirmation of her multiethnic heritage. By reclaiming her Irish, West African, Cherokee, and Choctaw ancestry, she rejects monolithic notions of black female identity and establishes alliances with diverse groups of women. Like Lorde and Shockley, Birtha attempts to develop multiethnic communities that do not negate the culturally specific dimensions of her African-American identity. Thus in her collections of short stories--For Nights Like This One: Stories of Loving Women (1983) and Lovers' Choice (1987)--Birtha emphasizes both the similarities and the differences between lesbians of African and European descent.

June Jordan takes this desire to establish complex collective identities even further, and in both her poetry and her political essays, she negotiates between diverse groups, including gay men of all colors, women of the African diaspora, unemployed black men, and Palestinian refugees.

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