by Jean Roberta
Please excuse me for this very, very late post, which was due on Friday, March 2. All I can say in my defense is that I actually had to send a book review of one of the books I’ve been reading to the editor of The Gay & Lesbian Review in time to get into the next issue.
Plus there was a big political convention followed by an after-party at the local gay club, for which my spouse Mirtha and I had to chop veggies, dill, black olives, jalapeno peppers, and make various munchies for the big, boisterous crowd that arrived in a state of exhilaration after a surprise win for the candidate of our choice, a medical doctor with a humanitarian agenda.
Before the political horde arrived in the midst of a late-winter storm, tracking snow all through the building, I had cleaned sinks, toilets, mirrors, swept and mopped floors, and taken out garbage.
After the after-party, Mirtha and I were whisked away by a friend to watch a play which began its run as part of Black History Month, which is now officially over. The play is based on real events in the Civil Rights movement in Durham, North Carolina, circa 1968-1971, and has only four characters. One of them was played by a very talented local amateur actress with whom I performed in a play about AIDS in the mid-1990s. I spoke to her afterwards, and she remembered me. It was a heartwarming conclusion to a moving performance.
Today it’s still storming outdoors, and spring is nowhere in sight. I’m sure the gay club looks as though a storm took place indoors. As soon as I finish posting this post, Mirtha and I have to pick up an old friend & fellow-veteran of the club scene so we can all go clean the place again.
Remember the setting of the play I watched on Saturday? When I get a chance to review books published by Duke University press (in Durham, North Carolina), I usually do. The ones I’ve seen are interesting and artsy, and have a lot of input by women, people “of colour,” and queer folks.
Several weeks ago, I agreed to review this book:
Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making, edited by Yvonne Welbon and Alexandra Juhasz (Duke University Press, 2018).
In her introduction to the “Sisters in the Life Project,” editor Yvonne Welbon explains the significance of the “minority group” under discussion:
“Since the 1922 theatrical release of Tressie Souders’s A Woman’s Error, approximately one hundred feature films have been directed by African American women. Almost one-third of those films were directed by black lesbians. Statistically about 4 percent of the adult American population is likely to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, but over 30 percent of the feature films have been directed by this minority population.”
Who knew? The editor goes on to say that Ava DuVernay’s current Hollywood film, A Wrinkle in Time, now has the biggest budget ($100 million) of any film directed by an African American woman.
This anthology is divided chronologically into two sections: Part I: 1986-1995, and Part II: 1996-2016. Essays in Part I include an analysis of panel discussions, visual art, and sculpture, as well as film, and all discuss the need for queer black female authenticity. In “Birth of a Notion,” Michelle Parkerson (filmmaker and academic) cleverly refers to the notorious 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, which featured white actors in blackface and showed sympathy for both the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan. Parkerson’s essay is subtitled “Toward Black, Gay, and Lesbian Imagery,” and it explores the challenge of overcoming the invisibility and stigmatizing of LGBT characters even within the African American community. She refers to a “new generation of gay and lesbian filmmakers of color.”
The last article in the book, “Creating the World Anew: Black Lesbian Legacies and Queer Film Futures” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, discusses two projects: the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project in San Francisco and the Queer Renaissance and Black Feminist Film School Project in Durham, North Carolina. Both projects are described as efforts to provide training in film production as part of a “futuristic movement.” In an effort to be “transparent,” Gumbs explains: “Yvonne Welbon, the editor and initiator of this book, and other contributors have participated in the activities of both or one of these projects, and this is as it should be. The future of Black lesbian filmmaking is not something about which we can be objective; it is something we do.” Some might criticize the bold lack of objectivity, but as some of the contributors remind the reader, those who are engaged in creating cultural visibility can’t afford to make critical distance a priority in their work.
Black-and-white photos of actors, artists, scriptwriters, directors, and panelists break up the pages of prose. Even a casual viewer of film and television dramas with largely-female casts is likely to see a few familiar faces in these pages.
Despite the academic tone of most of the individual articles, the collection as a whole conveys the energy and camaraderie of artists in the midst of revolutionary change. The anthology format allows the reader to dip into the book at any point, and therefore it can be digested in phases (on the bus, as I had been doing).
The flavour of life in Durham, North Carolina, seems to have changed beyond recognition since the early seventies, but to judge a town by the output of the local academic press is probably a mistake. When I have more time, I’d like to savour some of the articles in Sisters in the Life, instead of skimming them between other chores.
My reading lately has been fairly episodic, because that’s all I have time for. I’ve also skimmed two books of essays by Roxanne Gay: Hunger and Bad Feminist, but have no time now to do them justice. I’ll probably sneak references to those essays into my posts on other topics.