Unapologetic: A Powerful Black Lesbian Feminist Manifesto

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Charlene Carruthers is an activist, organizer and vocal opponent of police brutality. Her work with the Black Youth Project 100 challenges the racism, sexism, and homophobia embedded in society. And now, with Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, her message reaches an even wider audience.

With Unapologetic, Carruthers gives a fascinating account of the Black radical tradition. But where the focus is typically on straight men like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Charlene highlights the work of the lesbian women and gay men who are often too overlooked. She raises vital questions about who is viewed as a leader in liberation politics, and why.

Her careful citing of Black lesbian feminists is a celebration as much as an education. By highlighting the work of Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective, Carruthers points out that their work is often a much more effective blueprint for freedom than that of their straight male peers.

Even today, homophobia threatens to undermine Black liberation politics. Drawing from her own experiences, Carruthers highlights ongoing injustices:

“I’m never more targeted by hatred from within the Black movement community than I am when our work is highly visible. I’ve been called out for being a dangerous lesbian and someone parents should keep away from their children…. Writing as Black women, lesbians, and feminists means contending with violence that no one should have to deal with.”

By foregrounding the work of Black lesbians and gay men, Carruthers addresses the homophobia and sexism that determine who is recognized within the movement. And, for the most part, she is successful. With great care, Unapologetic unearths the history of Bayard Rustin – the openly gay pacifist who played a key role in developing Martin Luther King’s nonviolent civil disobedience. Owing to his sexuality, Rustin’s work was all but erased from the civil rights movement. Carruthers’ writing about him is deeply moving.

And yet there are moments when Unapologetic falls short. The story of Stormé DeLarverie – the butch Black lesbian who incited the Stonewall uprising by calling on others to resist police brutality – would have illustrated Carruthers’ points about race, sexuality, and erasure perfectly. That Stormé is not referenced alongside her gay male and drag queen peers demonstrates the invisibility gender forces upon women.

Her account of how she and BYP100 dealt with sexual violence is also unsatisfying. According to Carruthers, the organization kept working with both the perpetrator (male) and the victim (female) of a sexual assault on the basis that “no one should be discarded or disowned.” By placing equal focus on the needs of the abused and abuser, Carruthers implies that BYP100 has the same responsibility to both. Nothing is said about the potential of further traumatizing the woman assaulted by keeping the perpetrator as part of the organization, where their paths are likely to cross again. No mention is made of the risk he presents to other women. This raises serious questions about accountability and safeguarding.

Despite these faults, Unapologetic gives readers cause to hope. By taking a practical, community-centric approach to organizing, Carruthers makes liberation politics feel not only sustainable but nourishing. Throughout the book, she invites readers on a journey of self-reflection, asking us to consider our commitments and politics.

This book acts as a portal to the world of radical possibilities that opens up when we stop treating straight white men as humanity’s default setting. Carruthers unlocks the full potential of a social movement by shifting away from the macho model of a single charismatic leader to focus instead upon collective, collaborative politics. Her Black lesbian feminist politics are fascinating. Unapologetic is not only an educational read but a powerful call to action.

 

Unapologetic is now available in paperback