The Power of Sistahood – Black Lesbian Representation in ‘Sista!’

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Black lesbian representation is still novel enough to be hugely exciting. I can’t pretend to have read Sista! at a remove, nor can I feign objectivity whilst reviewing it, because it was an extraordinary experience to read a book that centred the lives of Black lesbian and bisexual women from start to finish. Its title – Sista!: An Anthology of Writings by Same Gender Loving Women of African/Caribbean Descent with a UK Connection – is a bit of a mouthful, but that act of naming gives visibility to realities that are commonly treated as niche rather than universally relatable.

Even within feminist publishing, we are typically made to choose: a collection of Black women’s writing, or a collection of lesbian women’s writing? And within those collections there is surprisingly little overlap – perhaps one lone essay embodying both a Black and lesbian perspective. So it was refreshing to find an entire anthology of writing by and about Black women. Sista! defies the idea of a single story just as much as it defies the notion that any of us are living single-issue lives with single-issue struggles. The selection of essays, poems, short stories, interviews, and plays within these pages highlight the many ways in which it is possible to be a Black woman, the variety of forms that love between women may take.

Though succinct, the anthology covers a broad range of themes, including coming out to friends and family, balancing lesbian sexuality and Christian faith, the importance of LGBT people of colour self-organising, loss and rejection, and lesbian motherhood. So many of the pieces in Sista! come from a raw place of radical honesty. It was impossible (at least for me) to read any section of this book and remain unmoved by the magnitude of the truths it contains.

Even though it demanded every last bit of my attention, I read Sista! in increments to give my mind the necessary time to digest the ideas contained, to sit with a complex emotional balance of the personal and the political. In years to come I hope Sista! makes its way onto reading lists and resources for women, because this anthology deserves a place in the Black feminist canon – it’s the sort of rare and wonderful book with the power to trigger revelations.

I myself experienced something of an epiphany reading Kesiena Boom’s Black Lesbian Lament about the messy politics of dating white women. After considering how she as a Black woman deserves to be loved, how any future Black children she might have with a partner deserve to be loved, Boom decides against pursuing relationships with white women. She writes: “I want to look at the woman I love and know that she will know, without a word passing between us, the peculiar pain of being Other three times over. Woman, lesbian, Black.” Reading those words, I realised with sudden clarity that even if a white woman consistently unpicks her own racism, it’s not the same as being truly seen and understood by another woman of colour. Like Boom, I refuse to centre my future hopes for love and family around whiteness.

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In subtle ways, Sista! demands an interrogation of the self, of the politics underpinning that self, of how those politics manifest in our desires. Stunning poetry explores subjects from lust to colourism. P.J. Samuels invites the reader to question how we understand radical politics in relation to Black womanhood, scrutinising ideas of ownership in liberation politics: “The fact that the only way a black woman can own herself is to be willing to be considered radical, is to be political, is an indictment of this world, and a further addition to the burden of being black and female.”

What stands out most in Sista! is the way every woman writes in her own voice, not modulated for white convention or the male gaze, and speaks entirely as herself. Such contexts are not always freely available to Black women, let alone lesbian and bisexual Black women. Sista! was edited by Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, the Executive Director of UK Black Pride, and is a sister anthology to Black & Gay in the UK. Perhaps because of Opoku-Gyimah’s background of community organising, it is shaped to capture the essence of community and truth that characterises British Black feminism. A broad selection of women contributed to Sista!, giving it variety in both form and content. It is home to writing from political veterans like Valerie Mason-John, who marvels over the unexpected joy of becoming an community elder among LGBT PoC, acclaimed poets such as Yrsa Daley-Ward, and a mix of new voices with plenty to say about living and loving as a Black woman living in Britain.

There has, of course, been a wealth of brilliant writing from Black lesbian and bisexual women before Sista! – even if finding that writing is harder than it should be. Work curated by women such as Barbara Smith, who edited the Home Girls anthology, or Ann Allen-Shockley, a pioneer in making Black lesbian love visible, was and continues to be of real cultural significance, inside and out of our communities.

That being said, the most visible articulations of Black lesbian and bisexual womanhood tend to be those originating from the United States of America. And like North America, the British LGBT scene is male-dominated and white-centric. For all of those reasons reason, it is heartening to see Black British lesbian/bi women’s stories take centre stage.

I would recommend Sista! to Black women searching for recognition, to non-Black women who want to learn more about our experiences, to feminists who enjoy dynamic approaches to new (and old) ideas, and to anyone who delights in women’s writing.

Sista! is available on Amazon. 

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