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African-American Literature: Lesbian  
 
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Located at the juncture of several divergent literary traditions, African-American lesbian writing represents a provocative intervention into previous conceptions of lesbian, African-American, and canonical U.S. literature. Yet this tradition rarely included open affirmations of women's same-sex desire until the 1970s. Thus in her groundbreaking 1977 essay, "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism," Barbara Smith implies that the "massive silence" surrounding writings by black women and black lesbians has prevented readers from recognizing the unique contributions these writers make to twentieth-century literature.

Smith's essay, which itself represents a significant challenge to previous conceptions of literary scholarship, can be described as one of the first steps in the invention of an identifiable African-American literary tradition, a tradition that has made remarkable progress in recent years. Indeed, Smith's desire to construct a positive, self-affirming history and tradition of black lesbian artists has played a significant role in shaping African-American lesbian literature and criticism.

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The 1980s and 1990s saw a proliferation of writings by and about African-American lesbians, ranging from the inclusion of lesbian and bisexual characters in mainstream, heterosexually identified popular fiction by Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, and Alice Walker to erotic celebrations of same-sex passion in poetry and prose by openly lesbian writers, such as Audre Lorde, Becky Birtha, Cheryl Clarke, and Cherry Muhanji. Like Smith, these fiction writers and poets develop self-naming processes that simultaneously invent and reflect their black lesbian identities. They combine self-expression with culturally specific metaphors and create positive images of black lesbian identity that replace their historic and aesthetic erasure with a continuum of female bonding.

The Harlem Renaissance

Although African-American lesbian literature could be said to have its beginnings in the lesbian, gay, and bisexual culture that flourished during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s, black lesbians' self-naming process occurred only in an ambivalent, highly coded fashion. The increased sexual freedom and openness that made it possible for black gay and bisexual male writers like Richard Bruce Nugent, Wallace Thurman, and Claude McKay to produce gay-identified texts had a less obvious impact on women.

Although a number of lesbian and bisexual blues singers--including Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker, and Ethel Waters--attained a level of sexual openness in their music, these women generally hid their same-sex relationships behind a public guise of heterosexuality. Only rarely did their lyrics even allude to their sexual desire for other women, and generally all such allusions were tinged with an ambivalence suggesting an elusive sexuality. In "Prove It on Me Blues," for instance, Ma Rainey simultaneously celebrates and denies her sexual preference by daring her listeners to "prove it" on her.

This ambivalence is even more pronounced in texts by middle-class Harlem Renaissance lesbian and bisexual women writers. In addition to the sexism that made it difficult for early twentieth-century women of any color to adopt openly lesbian lifestyles and identities, the highly sexualized images of black women that developed during slavery to justify the institutionalized rape of enslaved women made it even less likely that African-American bisexual and lesbian writers would risk inadvertently confirming these stereotypes by depicting their sexuality in print.

The writings of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké, and Nella Larsen illustrate the effects of this culturally imposed self-silencing. Although Gloria Hull has uncovered journal evidence indicating that Alice Dunbar-Nelson was romantically involved with both women and men and that Angelina Weld Grimké had at least one woman lover, these signs of bisexual and lesbian desire appear only in highly veiled form in Dunbar-Nelson's and Grimké's published works.

A similar type of sexual encoding can be found in Nella Larsen's Passing (1929). Ostensibly an exploration of racial passing, this novella can also be read as an account of the growing sexual attraction between its two protagonists, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. As Debra McDowell notes in her 1986 introduction to Passing, the title has more than one meaning: Just as Clare Kendry passes as white, Passing itself passes as heterosexual, hiding its subtext beneath the more obvious racialized theme.

The 1960s and 1970s

Writings by and about African-American lesbians have made significant progress since the early 1900s, when Angelina Weld Grimké and others were compelled to bury their sexualities beneath a facade of Victorian propriety. Influenced by the black power, gay liberation, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, several self-identified black lesbians began publishing works with lesbian characters and themes.

These early publications--which included Pat Parker's Movement in Black (1969), Anita Cornwell's journalistic essays published during the early 1970s, Audre Lorde's From a Land Where Other People Live (1973) and New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), and Ann Allen Shockley's Loving Her (1974)--encompass a remarkable variety of thematic, stylistic, and generic concerns, thus indicating the multiple directions later African-American lesbian literature would take.

This variety is especially evident in Parker's and Lorde's poetry. Although both writers incorporate autobiographical experience into their work and explore a wide range of social issues, including racism, sexism, and homophobia, their styles are quite distinctive. Whereas Parker generally uses black English, concrete images, accessible language, and a conversational tone to convey her highly political themes, Lorde's early poetry is more formal; she develops complex metaphors that connect her personal experiences with an intricate web of local, national, and international events. As she integrates her aesthetics with self-discovery and social protest, Lorde creates highly polished lyrical verse.

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zoom in
Top Row: Cultural pressures led such Harlem Renaissance writers as Angelina Weld Grimké (left) and Nella Larsen to write about their sexuality in veiled terms.
Second Row: More recent lesbian and bisexual authors such as Audre Lorde (left) and Alice Walker have addressed same-sex attraction more explicitly.

  
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