A Conversation on Art, Activism and Black Feminism with Dr. Cheryl Clarke

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Photo: Ann Chapman
"Art is not only central, it is crucial."

Dr. Cheryl Clarke shared with me these words on the importance of creativity within social justice work and movement building during our conversation that covered art, activism, feminism, lesbianism and academia.

As the struggle for Black Freedom continues, it's always a joy to spend time in community with those whose work continues to inform my own.

Dr. Clarke was born in 1947 in Washington, DC. She received a BA from Howard University, and an MA, MSW, and Ph.D. from Rutgers the State University of New Jersey. She’s the author of several books, including her collection of Prose and Poetry, The Days of Good Looks, and her critical work, After Mecca, Women Poets in the Black Arts Movement. She retired from Rutgers University Division of Student Affairs in 2013, after more than 40-years with Rutgers.

-Kimberly Foster

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The role of art in the movement

Kimberly Foster: I’m really interested in the role of art in times like these, and I wanted to hear some of your thoughts about that. I think that we are at the beginning of a new Black Freedom Movement. And I often hear that art is frivolous, so I’m interested in your thoughts the place of art in movement building.

Dr. Clarke: Well, I think art is absolutely critical to movement building at all times. Even when we aren’t, so called “Building a movement.” But, I think we’re always building a movement those of us interested in change--or we’re enhancing it. I think we bring our art and culture with us to that movement building. I think art – well, I’m particularly interested in poetry and literature—I know both have been inspirational forces for me in my own development as a poet, as a thinker, and as an activist though I use "activist" advisedly.

I’ve seen its impact on others. I saw a whole generation of people motivated to create change in terms of the lives of Black people during the sixties. I’ve also seen its impact on women. I’m thinking primarily of its impact on Black women both as artists and writers but also as people who receive the work. When I think of the impact of or the influence of Black women writers in the late sixties and early seventies I’m thinking of people like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gail Jones the poet, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Sonia Sanchez.

When I think about their influence and impact on the work that many of us have done not only to continue the tradition of art but also to be inspired it, and to teach it, and to help it motivate others, I think art is not only central, it is crucial.

Kimberly: Do you feel like artists have a responsibility to address social conditions—that they have a responsibility to also be activists?

Dr. Clarke: I think some people would say unequivocally, “Yes, artists have a responsibility to be political.” But I feel that as an artist, a writer, and a poet, I am political. I want to be political, but that’s me.

And I know a whole lot of other people like me who feel that there are or must be politically valiant. You know what I mean?

But there are others who don’t feel that way. And, you know, if you don’t feel that way fine. Just don’t get in my way when I do my political thing with my writing.

Kimberly: You made a really good point about the fact that you are political, so your work is political. Sometimes there’s an expectation that any artist who is part of a marginalized group must create political work— that when things happen that they must speak out. Do you have thoughts on those expectations? Is it wrong to expect our artists to be activists on the frontline?

Dr. Clarke: I don’t know if it’s a question of right, or wrong. We can expect all we want to, and many people will be out there on the frontline.

We’re really using the "frontline" metaphorically, and it’s a line that’s really fluid because your frontline may be different from mine.

Because you’re Black, and you’re a poet, you may expect the person to be on the frontline. Well, that’s your expectation.

I’m trying to think of somebody like Robert Hayden.  He was a Black poet in the forties and fifties, and he was a lovely poet—an excellent poet. A beautiful poet with new poetry. I mean, you know, in the European sense of the word. Well, I shouldn’t say it like that, but he was well versed in Western poetry; let’s put it that way.

And he came under heavy criticism during the Black Arts Movement because people like Amiri Baraka, Don Lee and other Black nationalists didn’t think that his poetry reflected enough of Black life.

That wasn’t necessarily true. It wasn’t. He didn’t reflect it in the way they wanted.

To reflect it hollering, screaming, and carrying on, that wasn’t his way. Then you take somebody like Gwen Brooks who was his peer and who was just as well versed in poetry as he was. She really gave up her place as in the canon  to throw her lot with the Black nationalists who were doing independent publishing and stuff. She followed the lead of the young people.

There’s always going to be people who aren’t political and who aren’t going to reflect social needs or social and political demands; however, we still regard their work politically because it still reflects the politics. It may not be the politics we want.

Kimberly: I deeply appreciate the historical context that you’re adding to this conversation because I was thinking of a contemporary debate about music artists, particularly, Hip Hop artists. We think of Hip Hop as such an historically political music form, so there are conversations about the lack of activism within popular music today.  It’s really interesting for you to reference Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks here because I appreciate the historical continuity.
Doing the work where we are

Kimberly: I saw a talk that you gave in which you described yourself as a troublemaker, and I believe that many of us who believe in justice aspire to be troublemakers, but we are held back by our fear—many different sorts of fear, and I was wondering if you could offer any insight on how to overcome that fear, or how we can use that fear.

Dr. Clarke: Well, I don’t think you necessarily overcome it. I think you have your fear, and you do what you think you can do. I don’t think you overcome it.

Kimberly: Have you ever felt any fear in your activism?

Dr. Clarke: Well, yeah, but not like the people in Selma. Not like the people who were on the frontlines. I really am afraid to put my body out there like that. I really am, you know, so that’s why I’m talking about our frontline. Our frontlines are…

Kimberly: It’s all relative?

Dr. Clarke: Fluid. Yes, they are relative. But I think in terms of my personal troublemaking, what I have tried to do in my writing is to trouble what we call the canon, the Black canon, as well as, the European cannon. I suppose in my work, because I worked many years at Rutgers, I tried to cast my lot with people, groups, and departments that were rocking the boat. That were trying to change the administration, or change the ways things were and are done in institutions like universities.

Kimberly: So, what I’m getting is that you create trouble where you are.

Dr. Clarke: You said that beautifully because I’m beginning more and more to believe that our struggle has become more and more local.

Kimberly: I think one of the things thatt's lacking in my generation is knowledge of history. We have been given a very poor history of civil rights, and freedom movements through our history, and we have this idea that everything was large scale. That everything was national and that is the way to effective activism— that is the way to create change, by thinking big.

That changed for me when I was reading a book by Danielle McGuire called At the Dark End of the Street and she gets into the women behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and that was all community activism and community networks. So I love that point about local activism.

Dr. Clarke: I think that’s important; however, you do have to be really attentive to the Global and how what we do locally affects issues globally. I think we have to figure out what the connections are and what the impacts are. I really do.

But as a friend of mine used to say, “Now, why am I going to go to Kenya to feed the hungry? When there are people right here in New York City who can’t get food?”

Dr. Clarke: But, yes, we don’t look at those local networks, and we also don’t know about them, but I mean this country is like really not good on history. It's not only your generation that doesn’t know it.
Choosing lesbianism and the freedom to self-determine

Kimberly: Those of us who are engaged in digital feminism and who are deeply invested in continuing the work of our foremothers, we often talk about Black Feminism. But you specifically situated yourself within a legacy of Black Lesbian Feminism, is that right?

Dr. Clarke: Yeah, yeah, I’ve spent many years as a Lesbian.

Kimberly: That’s right and because I’m deeply invested, as a feminist, in justice and equity. I wanted to hear why it’s so important for you to explicitly state that as your identity, or talk about the importance of that work in Black Lesbian Feminism.

Dr. Clarke: Well, having been a lesbian since 1973. I became one. People say, “Became? Weren’t you always a lesbian?” No, I wasn’t always a lesbian. I have a really active heterosexual past. But as a feminist, I came to view heterosexuality as one of the principal oppressions of women. Men too but you know I’m thinking about women. And I also, on a more positive side, wanted to live an unconventional life as a woman. I did not want – well, at least after I left Washington DC —I did not want to live a conventional woman’s life.

That soon led me to lesbianism. I always loved the company of women emotionally and intellectually, and I was trying to make these decisions for myself at a time when the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movement was very much on the scene. I was in graduate school at Rutgers in New Brunswick which was right next door to New York and also a very gay friendly town. In a sense, it was, and I also was 26-years old. You see I wasn’t a child, so I didn’t have to deal with my parents.

So, at that time it was relatively easy for me to be a lesbian.There were lots of lesbians in New York, and lots of Black lesbians.

Kimberly: When you start to talk about choice with regards to sexuality, you know that people get very prickly…

Dr. Clarke: I know and you know I don’t give a damn. I don’t give a damn because you know what I say, “Well, I could have chosen to be heterosexual too.”

Maybe it is in the genes for some people, but that’s not necessarily my experience.

Kimberly: But you, as a Black woman, exercising the power to self-determine is revolutionary.

Dr. Clarke: Let me tell you something. You see this is the thing that comes out of the Black Power Movement which we forget. The whole issue of self-determination and determining your identity—who you want to be. You’re not supposed to do that, but that’s why you’re a feminist because you don’t give a damn what somebody tells youyou need to be doing as a woman—because you’re claiming your own agency.

Kimberly: Has the rejection of respectability informed your approach to Black female sexuality?

Dr. Clarke: Well yeah I guess so, but, you know, respectability you may reject it in terms of your sexuality but all groups have their respectability issues.

I’m not going to leave my garbage outside, uncovered, because I don’t want my neighbors to think I don’t have – that I’m uncouth. I still feel that way.

Kimberly:  I so appreciate you saying that, because it’s not black or white. We are all negotiating. We’re all making negotiation. We’re all trying to figure out way in the world as best we can. I always hate that conversations about respectability are so lacking nuance.
What revolutions looks like
Kimberly: What does revolution look like to you?

Dr. Clarke: A long way away.

Kimberly: We’re nowhere close.

Dr. Clarke: Well… I guess. Let’s put it this way. As some people would say, “It’s ongoing.” It doesn’t begin, and it doesn’t end.

Kimberly: There’s a quote that’s popular, and it’s popularly attributed to Martin Luther King, but it’s actually a quote by Theodore Parker, and it’s, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Dr. Clarke: You’re not going to bend towards justice unless you bend it. It doesn’t go there on its own. While some justice is revolutionary, some justice is just plain old reform. But, I don’t believe that anything bends of its own. Especially not an arc. I think you have to bend it, don’t you? I mean you have to work to bend it.

Kimberly: Absolutely, and the work is ongoing.

Dr. Clarke: Yes. It’s ongoing, and it stalls sometimes, and you’ve got to move away from it sometimes, and you’ve got enter at a different place. Things are changing. Also you can’t always do what is revolutionary. Many times, you have to be kind of strategic.

Kimberly: Yes, we have to live, and eat, and take care of ourselves so…

Dr. Clarke: And others.
Making space in the academy
Kimberly: And others, yes, absolutely. In talking about the strategy, you retired recently from Rutgers, after decades as the Dean there. I’ve always been interested in how black radical thinkers have been sustaining themselves in extremely conservative institutions. You mentioned a little bit earlier about creating trouble where you are, but how do you create space for yourself? How did you create space for yourself as a black, queer woman in academia?

Dr. Clarke: Well, first of all, Kimberly, I was a black lesbian in academia. A queer woman is far more radical than I am. Lesbians look good beside the queer woman. The queer woman might have been challenging gender too, so, you know, [they'll say] "Give me the lesbian." ***see below

Working there enabled me to do a lot of my lesbianism. Not necessarily at Rutgers, but outside of Rutgers.

I was always out. But I came to Rutgers as a person who got into graduate school because of affirmative action. I worked in an open admissions program. I taught in it for two years at Rutgers. When I got into student affairs, I was the person who was supposed to diversify my department's programming. So I was always involved in something that was change “oriented.” That led all the way up to me becoming a Director of Services for LGBT students.

But I also did services for accommodations for students with disabilities, so I always tried to do things that – I don’t want to use this phony word— "nourished" my constituencies and me too. As I said, I always found myself among people who were doing very similar things.
The ongoing work of young feminists
Kimberly: My last question is going to be, how can we remember, and honor the work of the Black lesbian feminist women that have come before us? What can we as young feminists do?

Dr. Clarke: Well, I think a lot of y’all are already doing that. Like that, list of 15 women poets on your website is really great. I think Alexis [Pauline Gumbs] does a lot of work around remembering, and honoring of Black feminists and Black lesbian feminists. You know, all the young feminists do a lot, and I think it’s important. I think that y’all have never not done it. You know what I mean?

Because there’s so few Black feminists, I mean relatively speaking, you need as many as you can get whether they're dead or alive.

So I think things like what Aisha [Shahidah Simmons] did on The Feminist Wire with Toni Cade and Audre Lorde—I think those kinds of things are absolutely great.

I think that your generation, frankly, is doing a very honorable job of remembering and honoring Black feminists of the past. And the thing is you just keep discovering Black woman who have made contributions.

You know it’s really amazing, and it’s really amazing how much we are forgotten. I just mean the lives of Black women, you know, like My Brother’s Keeper.

Why couldn’t it be My People’s Keeper, or My Children’s Keeper, or, My Young People’s Keeper?

Kimberly: I think we know.  We know that a lot of people really believe that patriarchy is the prescription for the problems of Black America.

Dr. Clarke: That’s a good way to say it. Because I was reading how patriarchal the program is, and it seems that – this is really funny— It seems that really President Obama is trying to create marriageable Black men.

And see, this is the thing. Heterosexuality and heterosexism will always rear its thorny head.

Kimberly: And people use that as an excuse. They say that liberation will circle down to Black women, because now we’ll have more partners.

Dr. Clarke: Oh, that’s like trickle down wealth isn’t it?

Kimberly: Absolutely.

After our discussion, Dr. Clarke sent this addendum to our discussion via email.

The cost of activism

***Kimberly, I enjoyed our interview. But I thought of two things after--community and cost. In order for me or anyone to achieve change through radical and progressive activism, there needs to be community.  I was fortunate enough to work within communities and to share my politics with some politically radical and progressive women (and men) throughout the '80's and '90's, e.g.,CONDITIONS Editorial Collective, New York Women Against Rape, NJ Women and AIDS Network, the Astraea Foundation, and for two years the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in New York City. And when some of us didn't do what we said we would, there were those who picked up the slack.  There were those to whom the spotlight, attention, thank you (thank you matters to me), and other kinds of recompense were of lesser concern.  They cultivated a larger picture. So, finding and staying with/in community are essential.  And knowing your limits and others'. 

You asked how I managed to be an out lesbian in the university.  I laughed it off and said something about being a lesbian now is nothing compared to the "queer woman," because of the issue of gender and also queerness--which are mutable states of being.  Yes, I was always "out."  But that has its costs, you know.  And I think one decides that in order to do change in the University (unless it's some place like Antioch or Hampshire or some place that has radical alternatives), one has to decide what it is going to cost. I know having a voice on educational equity issues for people of color, for African-American literature (in the English Department), for LGBT people and areas of cultural programming in Student Affairs, and whatever else would require giving up regular promotions.  1992 was the last promotion I received.  Can you believe it?  But you have to be prepared to pay a certain cost if you are going to stay there, earn a regular salary, and then do your thing in the communities that matter to you. A professor I had at Howard, an Africanist, Chancellor Williams said "if you are going to be a teacher, you have to be ready to give up comfort.  Don't be materialistic. Be ready to live on less because you may lose your job. . . "

That advice stuck with me in the sense, I came to learn you can't have it both ways and you can't have everything you want.

So, I say what is the cost of activism.  That's why activists need places of retreat.  Times of retreat.

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or

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