Cheryl Clarke commands a room. She walks in, and she owns it—this is what I recall from my days in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Rutgers University, where she taught graduate courses. A decade later, during Friday night’s Kessler Lecture at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, it was clear that this type of energy has endured; Clarke still possesses that no nonsense charisma that has captivated her students, colleagues, and avid readers for decades.
Cheryl Clarke, poet, essayist, and scholar, whose “Lesbianism: an act of resistance” grabbed our hearts in the seminal collection This Bridge Called My Back, was named the recipient of the prestigious Kessler Award, given annually to an individual whose body of work has had a significant influence in the LGBTQ community, by The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS).
Her lecture, entitled “Queer Black Trouble: In Life, Literature, and the Age of Obama,” she joked, allowed her “to practically talk about anything”—and she nearly did, traversing the political, cultural, and academic landscapes of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that shaped her person and her work. More acutely, she spoke about how she engaged with the feminist community as a “black, butch lesbian” and how she raised a lot of “queer black trouble” in lesbian feminist circles—and not just because she never hesitated to express her frustration with the tried-and-true, communal centerpiece known as the “potluck,” which, she hilariously decried, “lesbian feminists took to new levels.”
While describing how African-American women writers “fed [her] desire for troublemaking,” Clarke’s own dialectical style of intellectual engagement shone. She repeatedly called out to the audience for names, voices, and ideas, as a way not just to create a feminist or sisterly community-like atmosphere in the lecture hall, but to emphasis—much like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur and other strong, activist sisters contemporary to, and/or who have come before, her—that her voice is ours. That we are a collective. Instead of pedantically speaking down to us, Clarke—who isn’t at all shy about raising her voice or calling people out—incorporated us, and it is in this regard that her humility is profound, affective, and effective.
The Q&A was particularly delightful. Sarah Schulman asked Clarke if she had any advice for Chirlane McCray, the new first lady of New York City, and Clarke, chuckling, offered “Chirlane doesn’t need my advice. We all know Chirlane. She worked on Conditions 5 [a Black feminist journal] with us.”
I couldn’t help but wonder, In what sense do you “know” her?
When asked why she opted to use the word “queer,” Clarke explained that it is a very useful umbrella term, not to mention that “we need to keep up with the kids’ vocabulary.”
On a serious note, she provided an anecdote about the resistance to “queer” that she encountered in dealing with Rutgers’s Gay and Lesbian Alumni in 1993. One gay man, infuriated by her use of the word, left her a voicemail on her answering machine saying that “if he couldn’t use the N-word—except he didn’t use the ‘N-word,’” she explained, “he actually said the word—then I shouldn’t be able to use ‘queer.’”
Regarding Nelson Mandela, Clarke praised his “devotion to a larger world,” and, specifically, how he dedicated his life “to shepherding voices into the struggle.”
“Revolution,” she concluded, “must be pursued. [Yet] I don’t,” evoking Toni Cade Bambara’s enjoinder to “make revolution irresistible, “find it irresistible; I find it hard, difficult, [and] disappointing.”
You can view Clarke’s lecture, including her introduction by Dr. Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins and the moment of silence dedicated to the late queer scholar José Muñoz, HERE.
A short biography, courtesy of CLAGS: Cheryl Clarke is the author of four books of poetry, including Humid Pitch (1989) and Experimental Love (1993). Among her many writings, she is also author of After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (2005) and The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry 1980-2005 (2006). Her essays “Lesbianism: an act of resistance,” appearing in the iconic This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color, and “The Failure to Transform: Homophobia in the Black Community” appearing in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, are both considered seminal texts in feminist and LGBT studies. She considers herself a scholar of Audre Lorde’s poetry and continues to write about its impact. Her article, “By Its Absence: Literature and Social Justice Consciousness” will appear in The Handbook of Social Justice (Routledge, 2014). She was the founding director of the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities from 1992-2009 and Dean of Students for the Livingston Campus at Rutgers from 2009-2013. She graduated from Howard University in 1969 and received a Ph.D. in English from Rutgers in 2000.