23 February 1996
Outside in the night, a full moon is shining, and in the moon glow, a mockingbird is singing the cadences of all the birdsong it has ever heard. It imitates the raucous jayjay of the blue jay, the locomotive slur of the redbird whistle, and a hundred other calls, day sounds that shock and entrance the ear as they echo through the silent summer night. Sometimes it mimics the nocturnal, the fugitive lament of the chuck-will’s-widow.
The mockingbird creates a rhapsody but not for love or money. It has a song of its own only by learning and repeating the liquid buzz, the hoot, the twitter, the triplets, the trills, the quavers, the queh queh queh, and the pure fluted tones, ascending, descending, of many others.
Inside, I am kneeling at my open window, listening. Outside, beyond the mockingbird in the crepe myrtle tree, beyond the pasture desiccated by summer heat, beyond the line of cedar trees that mark the farthest dark boundary of my sight, a pack of dogs is howling at I don’t know what, at I don’t want to know what. Outside and inside, it is 1955 in the Deep South, and I am surrounded by the unknown, which I have been taught to fear.
I know only the road into town, the road to school, the road to church. All along the way, there are signs posted to remind me that there is a strange other, unimaginably different. Even a substance as common as water is labeled with words that divide it into us and them; white and Black; mind, body; good, evil.
I am surrounded by other sounds, other voices in other rooms, that I cannot yet hear. But there are words that bridge the divide between me and the other, words that couple, bond, bind me to the other.
In Montgomery, there is the whisper of barely shod feet on dirt paths, Black folk walking to work in the bus boycott. At the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, Rosa Parks and Beulah Johnson are telling the organizers they had got tired of being run over; they say, “Well, let’s fight it out—if it means going to jail, then go to jail.” And then one recites from a poem by Langston Hughes: “I’m comin’ but my head ain’t bended low.”1
In New York, there is the swish of silk when Marian Anderson steps onto the stage of the Met for Verdi’s Masked Ball, her voice sweeping into the future, behind her those forbidden to stand there, and Dunbar whispering, “We sing, but oh, the clay is vile / Beneath our feet, and long the mile; / But let the world dream otherwise, / We wear the mask.”2
In Idaho, a gay man protests to the judge—“But I don’t think I’ve committed any crime. As far as I’m concerned, it was a natural act to me”—who later remembers, “They kept us locked up [in solitary] for six months. For six months I went through every book in the library. I was by myself in a cell maybe a yard wide and a yard deep.”3
In Georgia, a sing of white and Black women gather at Lillian Smith’s house up on the mountain; a stride piano gallops as they begin: “Lean-ing, lean-ing, safe and secure beyond all harm.” Theirs is a confidence not broadcast over any network, while Governor Talmadge campaigns by attacking racially integrated tv programming because it will lead to “a complete abolition of segregation customs.”4
In Washington, D.C., Harry Hay’s voice trembles as he practices with his attorney for an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, repeating, “My civil right to defend the integrity of my convictions.” But when the day comes, he resorts to the “real Gay consciousness” and “confuses them with all [his] gab” without admitting a thing. When he sees the committee member stand up and yell—“like the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, rising up out of the floor”—he defies their questions with “I’m not in the habit of confiding in stool pigeons or their buddies.”5
And in Los Angeles, locked up in the postmaster general’s files, confiscated by the authority of the Comstock Act, a short story condemned as “cheap pornography” murmurs silently about lesbian love, “Sappho Remembered.”6
Outside and inside, it is 1955. I am surrounded by the voices of the others who are like me and not like me, but I have not heard them yet.
I kneel at the window and wish I were a mockingbird, who can turn its body into pure sound and then fly away.
Instead, I grow up and read Shelley, who says of another night-singing bird, “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.”7 But I ask myself, “What if the singer, the poet, the writer, has been taught to fear the darkness? How do I sing in a language imbued with the most grotesque images of darkness, with a language in which solitude exists only in relation to a damned, damaged other?”
In the place I grew up, my sawmill county seat town in Alabama, the people who ran the economic sexual system, the racist state, were determined to damn mind, body, and imagination in every way.
There was always the danger that folks might decide to go back to raw data, to our sensual world and sensory experiences, to the immediate history and shared memory of our lives. Without walls, we might begin to make our own comparisons, draw our own conclusions, act individually and collectively, write poems and stories about what was not allowed.
So judgments were erected as partitions between us. The authorities put up signs, everywhere. These were the public words, relentless, repetitive reminders to convince us of the inevitability of white racial superiority, of the impossibility of escaping the fact that some were bosses and others servants, of the immovability of a whole system of category and metaphor.
Of course, almost every Southern child, white or Black, stopped at least once at water labeled “Black” or “white” and sneaked a sip. We said, “This is just like my water; what’s the difference between us?”
But this was a hidden secret, making of a bond between us; this was an unspoken metaphor. Any public speech or action that crossed the oppositions of “race” was discouraged by the authorities, to say the least. To say the most, people often died when, with their lives, they sought to imagine and then act on a way out of the categories imposed on them.
Public transgression was violently punished, while those who made the laws did their best to control what Trotsky has called “the physical power of thought”—the way an account of the ideas and deeds arising from one struggle for freedom might fire the imagination of people in other circumstances.8 The state of Alabama at one time even had a “literature ordinance” that made it unlawful to possess one or more pieces of “radical” literature, which was defined as antifascist or labor publications, and liberal magazines, like the Nation and the New Republic—a violent suppression of both words and people documented by Robin D. G. Kelley in his Hammer and Hoe.
Anything might happen if we began to question the words Black and white, if we began to question what we’d been taught about the other. Anything might happen if we went underneath the words, back to our bodies, and asked them to speak—or if we listened to the other speaking of her and his and their life.
Anything might happen if we took those horrors and wonders and claimed them with words and metaphors that refused to abide in the opposition of white and Black or, for that matter, male and female, normal and queer.
Queerness was not marked officially with any sign. But anyone who crossed white and Black was assumed to be queer; any lover across guarded borders, any challenger to the necessity of rich and poor, anyone who did these things was called queer.
Art was queer, and so were artists. And so was the innate human ability to create—the ability from which language itself arises: The power to see correspondences between two things and make a word from that; the power to find similarities between dissimilars and create language for what is shared; the power to make metaphor, to be a poet, writer, artist; the gift of carrying life back and forth, back and forth, between two distinctly different others.
That gift was the queerest act of all.
In a sweet gum tree, in the warm fall noon, a young mockingbird just this summer out of its shell is murmuring to itself, almost under its breath, little broken phrases, whispers, fits and starts. It is practicing. It is trying to remember the songs it heard all summer; it is piecing them together to make its own song.
I sit in the languorous heat of my car and look across to the side door of the windowless printing plant. Any minute it will be quitting time, and my lover will be mine for the weekend. She’ll walk across the gravel lot to sit with me and listen to the mockingbird; her fingers rough from chemicals will rasp against mine. The car will smell of ink and solvent and the spicy scent of the fallen gumballs, brown spiky pomanders.
We’ll drive across town through the red brick canyon walls of the tobacco warehouses, through the sweet poison of the curing smell, to my little shotgun apartment, where a tobacco worker used to come home at the end of the day to stand at the sink and strip black tar from her hands. I’ll stand at the sink and wonder how to get all of this into a poem.
Instead, I make a book, my first book. It’s 1981, and I make it almost completely with my own hands, the way my grandmother hooked rugs, the way my mother sewed all my clothes. I learn to burn words on the flimsy metal printing plates, to trim the printed pages with a blade like a guillotine. I’ve learned these skills from other women: we belong to a collective that edits a lesbian magazine in the South, Feminary. After it evolved from a twopenny women’s liberation mimeo into a newsletter, it had been given its name, from a passage in Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères, in which the women had small books called feminaries, made of pages with inscriptions and blank pages where the women wrote as they pleased.
Of this writing, several women said to a “great gathering of women,” “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. . . . You say you have lost all recollection of it. . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Failing that, invent.”9 When we expand this newsletter into a lesbian magazine for the South, we are the daughters of the great mass liberation movements of our century—the labor union battles of the 1930s, the Black civil rights and nationalist movements of the 1950s and 1960s, the anti–Vietnam War and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. We are creating in a space that has been cleared for us by these struggles, a space onto which different memories, histories, imaginations can be written.
We know that there was a time, almost within our living memory, when some of our grandmothers’ mothers were slaves, and some were not. We ask ourselves, What does it mean to recover memory and history under these circumstances? Whose memory? Whose history? What do we truly know about the past, about our past? How much of that memory is to be trusted? How much of it is institutionalized lies? How much of what we think has been made up, stories imagined by the owners to control the owned? How much is still buried in our psyches or lost to us because we have been separated from others who know truths and have memories that are not ours? How much of what we cannot remember is suppressed knowledge, the knowledge that is buried/driven deep within us when oppression suddenly intervenes at the moment of perception?
To invent, to imagine, means that you have to trust your memory, where stores of images and tales lie, waiting to be picked up and used to make new knowledge: “This, which is new, is like that, which I already know . . .”
If we are to invent, we have to burn off the debris of history, like burning over the straw and stalks of an old field to let it lie fallow and ready for the green shoots of spring. We have to find the foundation stones of another history, the tumbled stones of the old house and its choked wellspring hidden under honeysuckle thickets beside the field.
If we mean to be writers, we have to laboriously reconstruct our memories and our imaginations.
For me, this meant learning about those from whom I had been separated. To be a writer in the fullest sense, I had to reeducate myself about the ones who had been named as most different from me.
I had to do antiracist organizing and read literary testimony—like Toni Morrison’s novels of the 1970s—drawn from the mythic depth of African American lives. I had to read historical testimony—like the congressional proceedings to hear Southern Black folk testify about being terrorized in the 1870s by the Ku Klux Klan.
I had to gain something more than a new vocabulary. I had to begin to hear the voices of the others who had surrounded me all along.
I had to become suffused with new understanding, knowledge flowing like spring water through me. Then I had to be able to trust my imagination to go down into my unconscious and converse there, by the water, with those voices.
But my imagination had been trained not just in the white folkways of terror but academically, rigorously, in the literary ways of colonialism and imperialism. I feared my imagination was still possessed by the past fathers, mill bosses, plantation owners.
My literary fathers stretched four hundred years back to Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney. Both were directly involved in the English colonial “planting” of Ireland—forever linking the word plantation to colonization. Both these poets were directly involved in and defended the land seizure and mass slaughter of Irish peasants fighting for their commons and livelihoods—Sidney as aide to his father, an English lord deputy of Ireland, and Spenser as secretary to an Irish governor-general.
I was trained to admire Spenser, who wrote the epic Faerie Queen, for his imagination, which was a “Vein of fabulous Invention, his Political Magick.” And Sidney’s An Apologie for Poetry was the first defense of imaginative literature I ever read. Sidney believed the European Christian poet could use God’s gift of imagination to exercise an “erected wit,” to rebuild a world in ruins from original sin.
How could I not be suspicious of this sense of the imagination, with its larger implication that people of color were barbaric, uncivilized, and half human? This definition of imagination was based on an imperialism that saw oppressed peoples as the Calibans of the world, to be “raised up” only by an imagination trained in the economics, literature, and art of the Western world.
When I was a young poet, I knew all the allegorical interpretations of The Faerie Queen—except the relation between its epic struggles and my own life. Now I know the epic poem is an example of how brilliantly—and servilely—the imagination can be used to reinforce structures of oppression.
Now I know the epic stories of the enslaved farmworkers of my own country, my own region: the cotton-chopper day workers of the Southern Black Belt who struck the white plantation owners for better wages and a modicum of respect; the Black and white sharecropper farmers who waged bloody armed struggle with the owners in the 1930s; the history of how these battles fed the modern Black Panther movement as it arose in the 1960s and their connection to the urban rebellions, like Los Angeles, in the 1990s.
Now I know something of the queer life of the cities, the lives of the queer folk damned and doomed to hell by many who raised them and knew them. I know the grit of their rebellions—the drag queens, the real fairy queens, the Latinx and African American flamboyant fighters, the drag kings—who cleared with fists and stiletto heels another space: the new liberated space like a mirrored pool of light on the dance floor that I could come into and imagine a new life.
As I have recovered for myself the history of oppression, I understand more about the mechanisms of social control and its relation to literature and to the imagination.
We have all heard dehumanizing exclusion applied verbally to some groups on a regular basis in the form of a simple devastating disclaimer: people say of someone they believe to be fundamentally “different” from them, “Well, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be —— [and here a blank is filled in], to be Black, Latinx, deaf, a lesbian who has her children taken away, a person living with AIDS, a trans person.”
This is a commonplace unthinking language construction that places “the other” outside the bounds of humanity and human experience. This statement says there is no place shared by the two of you upon which to build a bridge of metaphor, likeness, simile—no way to construct a common bond.
As writers, because our imagination is a tool of our trade, used daily, perhaps we don’t usually make such a crude excluding statement. But I stood at a plenary at the very first OutWrite conference, in San Francisco, and heard poet Essex Hemphill hissed loudly from the audience because he asked, as an African American writer, that we simply consider what distortions around race might have limited white gay male Robert Mapplethorpe’s vision as a photographer.
Among that group of writers, there were certainly some who refused to extend their imaginations to include the lives of Black people.
Now Robert and Essex are both dead. We are left with their memory, their history, their art, and this fact: if we attempt to contain or dismiss the questioning of “others” in our lives, whoever they are, they will still live on in our psyches and in our art, enormous, invisible, present. They will dwell within us, and we will shape our lives in relation to them without even knowing it.
Without conversing with those others, we will still imagine them and write them, and the form of our images and stories will unthinkingly carry forward the structures of oppression.
But we know this unconsciousness does not have to be: Essex asked us a question. We can try to answer him, and we can ask each other.
We long to move forward toward each other; we long for each other’s voices. As we close the distance between us, our conversations grow more and more frequent, the Doppler effect of dialectic motion.
This dialectic is not about limitation of vision or language—but about expansion, about how to liberate imagination that has been held in thrall by oppression.
In this liberation, we refuse to appropriate the lives of others and use them as stand-ins for our fantasies. In this liberation, we walk, awake and self-conscious, through our own daily lives, present to all who travel there with us, alive and dead, asking ourselves what is our relation to them, for good or ill.
In Toni Morrison’s words about literature, “The subject of the dream is the dreamer.”10 The daytime work of questioning comes back in moon glow as dream work.
My daily task now—my day work—as a writer, before I release my imagination to converse with the so-called other, is to prepare myself by knowing the hidden histories of economics, art, music—to know the dialectics of oppression and solidarity between me and the other.
Then I can ask myself the dream questions of the imagination. Then I can sit by a silent hidden pool waiting for the feathered brushstrokes of water stirred by the breath of an answer or stand near an oily rainwater puddle watching for new images boldly reflected as people move past me on the street.
In 1981, I make my first poetry book, a chapbook, with my boy children helping me hand collate and trim and staple. In the end, we hold the finished book in our hands, and on one page are the lines “The mockingbird singing / cantata in a score of voices / from the angled boughs.” The voice of joy.
Later, I write a book about losing custody of these children because I am a lesbian. In one poem, a voice threatens me because I dare imagine the possibility of a life together with them: “Reality is flesh of your flesh taken. / What you want to last is fantasy, imagination.”11
This damning voice is familiar. It is, in fact, the voice of the current demagogue, U.S. senator Jesse Helms, who the year I made that first poetry book introduced a “Human Life Bill” to regulate women’s relation to sex, abortion, childbirth—to erect his imaginary purified nation on the silent field of our prone bodies.
Ten years later, Helms began investigating me, as well as other artists who are lesbians, gay men, and feminists—calling us pornographers, perverts of the imagination, underminers of morality—because we say it is possible to live another way than his.
The fear that gripped me during those attacks was familiar, out of childhood, a bone-deep memory of the sound of dogs howling across the silent fields, no way to venture out across a land marked off by unseen authorities, no human voice calling to me, only the mockingbird in song and terrible loneliness.
Helms’s assault is just part of the larger “culture wars” of the 1990s, a concerted attempt to eliminate, or at least contain, any art and information that crosses over those all-too-familiar lines laid down between “us” and “them.”
It is an assault in which all art is suspect as potentially queer, as the embodiment of dangerous connections between thought and feeling and action.
In this attack, overtly queer art, such as that of Audre Lorde or Holly Hughes, is spotlighted as having fulfilled that evil potential. This art, say the righteous men, should be trapped and crushed like the head of a snake under a boot.
All sorts of queer art get caught in this dragnet: segments of Marlon Riggs’s exquisite film Tongues Untied get used by presidential candidate Pat Buchanan in a political ad to illustrate the so-called homosexual threat to the country. At a radio interview, I’m told that I cannot read the word breast that’s in one of my poems because of federal regulations that forbid “indecent language” except during the midnight hours. No graphic drawings of sex are allowed in federally funded AIDS education brochures, even though it’s clear they contribute to safer sex and therefore less death.
The right-wing attack is not merely censorship; its consequence is not only the loss of artistic words or images. As with all bashing, ultimately the cost is human lives.
Meanwhile, the demagogues, the politicians and preachers, raise millions of dollars by shouting about the “disgusting” details of homosexual art that spreads corruption. And the assault continues, only two weeks ago resurfacing as a Decency Act that attempts to ban sexual discussion on the internet, using in part the Comstock Act, originally passed in 1872 and in force into the 1950s, to keep gay, lesbian, and feminist literature from traveling through the mail.12
All art is queer as it brings together dissimilarities. Some queer art is tolerated if it simply reproduces the unequally hinged relationships of things, peoples, body, that the powers that be put together in oppressive ways.
But the art that draws together dissimilarities to show relationships of forbidden solidarity and forbidden love—that art can be dismissed as corrupt pornography or dangerous propaganda.
Art moves out of these condemned categories only through a political struggle that redefines the boundaries of what can be lived publicly, out in the world. This political struggle is what makes it possible for creative work about forbidden lives to be called “art.”
Writing the poems that the demagogue condemned, writing as lesbian/mother/woman/poet, I connected selves that had been set in opposition to each other; I connected seemingly mutual contradictions.
I have had to free my art from the condemnation of my own mind, planted there by the demagogues. I have had to claim the gift of imagination I am giving to the world, even if many in that world don’t seem to want it—this gift I have received from the lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans communities.
In the grip of violence and condemnation, despite loneliness and isolation, we gather ourselves up and fight back to find each other, to love and be loved. We affirm the human dignity of our pleasures; we bless our gift of crossing man-made boundaries of gender, sex, and sexuality.
And out of the massive struggle of our daily lives, we emerge with a unique and specific intelligence. Because we are bound together as sexual beings, because we have had to struggle through oppression just to touch another’s hand, just to hesitantly voice one word or two about our sexual desire, we have developed, as a people, a brilliant self-consciousness about sexuality, about how people live out their variations of sex and gender.
We know these secrets; we are these secrets. We know all the queer details of everyone’s life. And our gift to everyone is that we tell. This is the gift of a revolutionary queer imagination.
We refuse partition into us and them; we refuse the degradation of the body and its desires. And we give that gift of liberation to the world with our lives, our political struggle, and our art.
The pressure on us not to tell, not to live as ourselves, is intense—the pressure on us to be self-effacing, to deny our gift; the pressure to deny ourselves, to say, “We don’t have a choice about what we do.”
And it’s true—we don’t have a choice about how we love. But we do have a choice about how we live. The writing of our lives visibly, audibly, visually into the daily chronicle of this world does have an effect on the world.
We give others an imagined possibility: that there is a way, many ways, to walk through the invisible confining walls and find the others.
In Jersey City, the mockingbirds imitate car alarms and sparrows and starlings. They imitate the signal whistle the boys use to gather on the corner, the call whistle the girls use to bring their friends down from the fourth floor next to me.
Sometimes on spring mornings Leslie and I lean out the window and imitate the mockingbird mimicking the car alarm. Sometimes at night I lean out the window over the grit of the city street and say to myself that these are my people now: the bodega owner who is from Cairo married to a woman from Italy, the gay Filipino poet around the corner, the Puerto Rican schoolchildren whistling in the street, and my African American mail carrier who teases me about adding an extra cart for all my letters and manuscripts.
All of us struggling to live, with too much work to do and not enough money. How do I write of our future together, the connections between us all?
I read Literature and Revolution, and Trotsky says, “The nightingale of poetry . . . is heard only after the sun is set. The day is a time for action, but at twilight feeling and reason come to take account of what has been accomplished.”13 What happens when we as writers use our dream imagination to work on the actions of the day?
The mainstream approach to considering the interaction of artist and the world is conveyed in the headline of a recent New York Times Book Review, “Holding a Mirror Up to China”: “The work of a . . . writer who refused politics for the sake of the purely human.”14 This language reflects the view that a writer who approaches literature with a political perspective is a flawed human who somehow sullies and damages literature. The language also uses the common metaphor of writer as mirror holder, the approval of someone with no point of view whose art consists of passively reflecting every detail of the world.
There is some truth, partial truth, in these concepts, enough truth for Plato to fear poet writers for our imitative skills: like the mockingbird, we tend eventually to repeat everything we hear and see. And Plato wanted writers who said not what was but rather what should be—that’s why he threw us out of his city.
No one wants to be thrown out of their city. As queer writers, we feel tremendous pressure not to look at and repeat how our art interacts with the life of the world. For instance, one metaphor for the socially concerned artist is that you are someone who wields art like a hammer—an image that suggests, Who wants to be bludgeoned with art, when we have enough blows in our life already?
But we know our relation to our work is more dynamic than blunt. And we know we are not merely passive mimickers. We know that the interaction between our experiences, our memory, our unconscious, and our imagination is intricate.
And we know in the censoring capitalist state, the reality is that our work has been confiscated, that we have been fined or imprisoned for writing it, that we have been denied access to publication, and literally sometimes the printing companies have refused to reproduce what we have to say.
Some of us have lost our jobs or our lovers or our children because of what we have written. We have been on the defensive; we have had to protect our imagination against these assaults, against those who have an agenda of what should be, which does not include us or our work.
But we, those of us gathered here, are not the state. We are the evolving revolution. And the work we make is part of the world that will come to be.
1. Documentation of this is available at the Civil Rights Movement Archive: “Mrs. Rosa Parks Reports on Montgomery, Ala., Bus Protest,” Civil Rights Movement Archive, accessed April 5, 2021, https://www.crmvet.org/disc/ parks_mbb.pdf.
2. Marian Anderson was the first African American to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in 1955.
3. Jonathan Katz documents this case in Gay American History (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976; New York: Avon, 1977; New York: Penguin, 1992).
4. Smith keeps on fighting racism, keeps asking “How Am I to Be Heard?” in books and letters collected in Lillian Smith, How Am I to Be Heard? Letters of Lillian Smith, ed. Rose Gladney (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), written to people ranging from her lover Paula Snelling to Richard Wright, Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and many others.
5. Katz, Gay American History, 108.
6. Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 146.
7. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments (London: Edward Moxon Dover Street, 1840), 14.
8. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1924), 104.
9. Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères, trans. David LeVay (Boston: Beacon, 1985), 88–89.
10. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 17.
11. Pratt references her poetry collection Crime against Nature, which was the 1989 Lamont Poetry Selection from the Academy of American Poets.
12. Peter H. Lewis, “Protest, Cyber-Space Style, for New Law,” New York Times, February 8, 1996, sec. A, p. 16. The Telecom Reform Act of 1996 contains a provision referred to as the Communications Decency Act that extended to the internet prohibitions to talking about abortion and ostensible protections for children.
13. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 19.
14. The cover of the December 17, 1995, New York Times Book Review featured a review of Shen Congwen’s Imperfect Paradise.
READ REMEMBERING THE QUEER LITERARY CONFERENCES OF THE 1990s by JULIE R. ENSZER & ELENA GROSS
READ WHAT FICTION MEANS by ALLAN GURGANUS