Artist and Activist Sharon Bridgforth

on







Photo credit: Daniel

Alexander Jones

How does a young, pretty

Catholic schoolgirl from a close-knit community of black Southerners go from being

married with a child to a well-known gender-bending butch artist? Ask Sharon

Bridgforth.

For the Lambda Award-winning

author, the hardest part of that journey was coming out to her mother.

"Once I came out, I

had to fight with her," she said. "And after that, there is nobody

that I feel concerned about around how they perceive me."

Growing up in the 1960s

and ’70s in South Central Los Angeles, Bridgforth said that words like gay, lesbian,

queer and feminist were not a part of her lexicon. Yet "those things

have always been in my world and a part of who I am."

The widely anthologized

Bridgforth is known as the author of two cutting-edge performance novels, the bull-jean stories and love

conjure/blues
, and is the founder of the now defunct award-winning root wy’mn

theatre company.

Her journey — from a being

a "buck-wild" girl running the streets of her beloved Los Angeles

with her mostly Latina homegirls to an artist who has received support from the

National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation — was a winding

road that included a wedding, giving birth, alcoholism, cancer and her fair

share of "pretty women."

Like many other black

Americans who landed in California

in the mid-20th century, her Southern roots "were very fresh and on the

surface." And as a child, she often visited her extended family back in Memphis, Tenn.

As the only daughter of a single mother, she learned to be self-sufficient in

the metropolis, yet was still under the protective eye of her "little

village."

"I felt very loved

and very protected," she recalled, "and very aware of the sacrifices

that had been made for generations past and by my own mother for me to be

there. I was always aware of that."

Even though the city was

beset with segregation, she relished the diversity of its population, riding

the city bus to school.

"I was a little city

rat," she said. "I could get anywhere in my city, and one of the

things that was great was that I was going from South Central L.A. to Echo Park,

so the cultural landscape of my bus ride was an education about the world."

Along the bus ride, "we

went in and out of so many ethnic neighborhoods, so the languages, the sounds,

the sensibilities, the people, the spaces changed a thousand times."

She was a "reading

son-of-gun" as a youngster and devoured many books on those long rides. During

her teenage years, she discovered Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes and James

Baldwin.

"Of course that just

changed my life," she said of discovering those writers. "I hadn’t

been exposed to them before, and it was like falling in love hard, like over

and over and over every time I found one of these young black writers. It made

living seem possible. It made my life seem valid, but it never occurred to me

that I could be a writer, an artist."

Her family encouraged her

to enter a more practical profession with security and benefits like teaching. "My

mother wanted to be a dancer when she was growing up and they squished that so

thoroughly," Bridgforth said, "and what I now understand is that they

were afraid for her."

Becoming an artist "was

never anything that was talked about or encouraged." Nevertheless, she

began writing when she was 15, tucking her creations away in a suitcase. "I

just kind of wrote ’cause it was a way of surviving, it was a way of breathing,

it was a way of making sense of my emotions."

It took the

self-described late bloomer several years — until she was around 30 — to even

show her work to others. In the meantime, she did the things good girls are

supposed to do: She went to college and got married. Shortly after her wedding

at 22, she became pregnant with her daughter, and that event changed her

perspective on life.

"I was like, I

really have to figure out what my life is about and who I am and what the heck

I’m here for," she said.

And she began coming out

to herself.

"That was when

without real language I realized that I loved women and wanted to be with a

woman, and got a divorce and ended up eventually going to the Catch." The

Catch is Jewel’s Catch One, a legendary black queer club that opened in Los Angeles in 1972.

"That was like

finding Jesus," said Bridgforth. "Everything changed after that."

At the Catch, she met "this

fine-ass poet named Michelle Clinton." So Bridgforth started going to

poetry readings: "I started going to poetry events, started calling myself

a poet, started asking her to help me with my poems."

But all the while, she

was battling alcoholism. She had started drinking at 10 years old, and the

fast-paced life of Los Angeles

was taking its toll.

"L.A. was just killing me and I was killing

myself in retrospect, and I just needed a change. I had a little girl and I

just felt like I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. And I didn’t know how to

do anything different."

Some of her friends had

moved to Austin, Texas,

and after hearing so many positive things about the city and seeing how her

friends had "chilled out completely" after moving there, she decided

to leave Los Angeles.

She had never been to Texas, but she just got

in the car with a friend and drove. "I don’t know what would’ve happened

if I would’ve stayed home," she admitted.

More you may like