Monday, May 11, 2009

Women Among Us: Cheryl Clarke

(Cheryl Clarke. Jersey City, New Jersey; photo by Robert Giard)

Women Among Us: Cheryl Clarke

Cheryl Clarke is a Black lesbian-feminist poet and essayist whose work has done worlds to assert the voice of Black lesbians both in feminism and in Black arts/politics. Her poetry tends toward story-telling and blends sexuality with cultural and political analysis. Her essays and prose have repeatedly, persistently cleared paths or built on the trail-blazing of others.

Born in 1947 in Washington, DC, she began her education there (receiving a B.A. from Howard University) but completed her accession to academia at Rutgers with her M.A., M.S.W., and Ph.D. She read her poetry through the 1970s in New York, and her first book of poetry was published in 1983. From 1981 through 1990, she was an editor for Conditions, the ground-breaking and extremely important feminist magazine of writings by women with an emphasis on writing by lesbians.

Clarke continues to read her poetry and speak at venues throughout the U.S. She is also esteemed as an educator. Since 1992, Cheryl Clarke has been the Director of the Office of Diverse Community Affairs and LGBT Concerns and has specific responsibility for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning student life at Rutgers University, New Brunswick campus. She is currently on the graduate faculty of the Department of Women and Gender Studies.

In 1996, Cheryl Clarke had a cameo role (as "June Walker", a play on the names of June Jordan and Alice Walker) in Watermelon Woman, the groundbreaking feature film by filmmaker Cheryl Dunye about a young black lesbian working a day job in a video store while trying to make a film about a Black actress from the 1930s known for playing the stereotypical "mammy" roles relegated to Black actresses during the time period. Watermelon Woman was the first feature film by a black lesbian and was made on a budget of $300,000, financed by a $31,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a fundraiser, and donations from friends of Dunye. It won the Teddy Award for Best feature film at the Berlin International Film Festival, and eventually drew direct criticism from Representative Peter Hoekstra, then chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, for the NEA's funding of projects that "a majority of Americans would find offensive".


"Women are not taken seriously as arbiters of history, nor are poets." -- from essay "Knowing the Danger and Going There Anyway"

"Heterosexuality is a die-hard custom through which male-supremacist institutions insure their own perpetuity and control over us. Women are kept, maintained and contained through terror, violence, and the spray of semen...[Lesbianism is] an ideological, political and philosophical means of liberation of all women from heterosexual tyranny... For a woman to be a lesbian in a male-supremacist, capitalist, misogynist, racist, homophobic, imperialist culture, such as that of North America, is an act of resistance." -- from "Lesbianism, An Act of Resistance," in This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color

"The woman who takes a woman lover lives dangerously in patriarchy."

"poets are among the first witches
so suffer none to live"

-- from "Wearing My Cap Backwards"

"Lesbians and lesbian community have made it possible for me to call myself a poet. While I am privileged to write openly as a lesbian and to have my work appreciated and to sleep with a woman, I am still reminded that this ain't no place to love a woman." -- from "Living The Texts Out: Lesbians and the uses of Black women's traditions" in Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women

"A dyke wants commitment,
romance without abatement,
and unrelenting virtue--
all before the first show of flesh."

from Experimental Love

"Long before I published, I was reading my poetry and witnessing the transformative power of orality. Orality helps me mediate the silence of the blank page and the relentless din of memory. The poem's power is not only the poet's working of her craft but how that working connects with people's experience of the poet saying out loud what has been distorted, suppressed, forbidden." -- from "Living The Texts Out: Lesbians and the uses of Black women's traditions" in Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women

to work to the end of day
to talk to the end of talk
to run to the end of dark
to have at the end of it all: sex

the wish for forever
for more often
for more.

the promises
the absurdity
the histrionics
the loss of pride
the bargaining
the sadness after.

in wakefulness wanting
in wakefulness waiting.

(from "living as a lesbian at 35" in Living As A Lesbian)

Living as a lesbian underground, fin de ciecle

here under this pile of 20th century,
my ass is sore from
taking in air at the surface of this mask.
so close i have worn it since the defoliation
of 14th street. a highblown and wasted blues.
the same vamp after sorry vamp.
and burning indochine flesh.

(from Living As A Lesbian)


Corridors of Nostalgia: Poetry by Cheryl Clarke, Suspect Thoughts Press, 2007, ISBN-10: 0978902300
The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry of Cheryl Clarke, 1980-2005, Carroll and Graf, 2005, ISBN: 9780786716753
After Mecca: Black Arts Movement Influences on Black Women Poets, Rutgers University Press, 2005, ISBN: 9780813534060
Experimental Love: Poetry, Firebrand Books, 1993, ISBN: 9781563410352
Humid Pitch, Firebrand Books, 1989, ISBN: 9780932379665
Living As A Lesbian: Poetry, Firebrand Books, 1986, ISBN: 9780932379122
Narratives: Poems In The Tradition Of Black Women, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983, ISBN: 0913175005

Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983, ISBN: 0913175021
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women Of Color, edited by Cherrie L. Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldua, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1984, ISBN: 091317503X
The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, edited by Joan Nestle, Alyson Books, 1992, ISBN: 1555831907
Feminist Studies
The Black Scholar
Belles Lettres
Gay Community News
The Advocate
Blue Stones And Salt Hay: An Anthology Of New Jersey Poets
Gay And Lesbian Poetry In Our Time
Bridges: A Journal For Jewish Feminists And Their Friends
Inversions: Writing By Dykes, Queers, and Lesbians
Radical America
A Formal Feeling Comes
Dangerous Liaisons: Blacks and Gays Fighting Oppression
African-American Review
Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women
Black Like Us: A Century of Black Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Fiction
Long Shot Magazine: The Politics Issue
Bloom: A Journal of Writing by Lesbian and Gay Writers.
I Do, I Don’t: Queers on Marriage

Cheryl Clarke page at