Note from Assistant Managing Editor, Anita Ballesteros: In this blog piece from Rochelle Spencer, she speaks with three women writers in the Bay Area, all women of color, about the role of art to create social and life-altering change. I love what Judy, Raina, and Melinda have to say in this amazing powerful piece, and I invite you all to feel the passion behind their stories.
Roundtable: Women Writers of the Bay
By Rochelle Spencer
I had the opportunity to gather Judy Juanita, Dr. Raina J. León, and Melinda Luisa de Jesús for a roundtable interview. I know and admire all of these women, living in the Bay, and their work — which has a strong interest in social justice — showcases what makes the Bay Area special: its passionate belief that art can transform lives.
Judy: Your writing, such as the essays in De Facto Feminism, references Oakland and your work with the Black Panthers. How do you see art and politics interacting in the Bay area?
The Black Panther Party started at Oakland City College in 1966 when it only cost $2 a semester and UC was $300 a year, as I detail in my novel Virgin Soul. The Black Student Union brought Amiri Baraka, a leading figure of the Black Arts Movement [BAM], onto campus. Today, some call BAM the cultural arm of the Black Power Movement. At the time there was a cleavage, a demarcation between the two. Huey even said put down the pen and pick up the gun. That said, one could not have existed without the other because each was changing consciousness on many different levels.
Eldridge Cleaver was released from prison in December 1966; he took up residence in the Black House, a Victorian on Broderick Street in San Francisco. He and poet Marvin X were in charge there, and it was a wonderful, marvelous place. Great cultural events went on every day—every day!—from poetry readings to jazz concerts to political education classes. It didn’t last very long—maybe a year or so, but it set the stage. When I was going to San Francisco State, I lived four blocks from the Black House, so my roommates and I would walk over in the evenings.
The Bay Area I grew up in was integrated in many senses but very segregated in others. However, the radical edge to Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco has continually cut into the status quo. All these different justice movements originated here in the Bay Area, like the drug-rehabilitation group Synanon; Alcoholics Anonymous had its first West Coast meeting in San Francisco; and The Mattachine Society, the movement to prevent gay people from being arrested, started in San Francisco. This fluidity affects artists, writers, musicians and everyday interactions for all. What would the Bay Area be without the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence?
The Attorney General during the Ronald Reagan governorship called City College “a hotbed of radicalism.” All kinds of radical groups were there, from Students for a Democratic Society to the W.E.B. Du Bois Club. Young people would hang out on campus on Grove Street, now Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard—whether they went to school there or not. It was a very exciting scene, with tables lined up and tons of soapbox orators all along the way. When I go to college campuses now, I see a whole row of people selling jewelry and artifacts. 40 years ago, those tables were promoting radicalism, like the Free Speech Movement or the Sexual Freedom League. I was also a poet and involved in a black arts and culture troupe led by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka.
Melinda: In poems such as Exegesis on Seven Banned Words, Letter to the CDC (from Evidence of Fetus Diversity, ed. By Eileen R. Tabos) and The Burn Book on Betsy DeVos or The Burn Book on Omarosa (from Petty Poetry from SCROTUS Girls) you intentionally mix language–the conversational style of girls with political jargon. What’s the role of language, especially in today’s strange political climate, for engaged artists?
My work infuses much of my research and teaching about girl cultures, politics and identity. I also think humor can engage folks in political or “politicized” poetry so that it’s not easily dismissed as mere polemic (for the record I believe that all language is political). Along with humor I like the element of surprise in a poem–for example my use of nursery rhymes in HUMPTY DRUMPFTY and OTHER POEMS. You have to get people to read your poems for them to hear message, so accessible unique language is key. We are witnesses to a very strange period where social media dominates everything from fashion to entertainment to politics, and youth are leading the way in terms of how social media can be put to use politically. I wanted the SCROTUS Girls poems to engage folks familiar with Mean Girls and its Burn Book and use of its mode of snarky critique to vilify the women central to the current political climate, to upholding its horrific policies. I look to the new Teen Vogue and its electrifying engagement with its youthful readers as a model of what intersectional feminism and social media reporting can do to educate and empower its burgeoning readership.
Raina: Your poem Wolf Rock School, October 2006 from Boogeyman Dawn seems to speak to violence against children, particularly young girls, and having courage in terrifying circumstances, and in poet:rigor from Profeta without Refuge, you seem to compare the racism and violence in contemporary society to the horrors of a zombie apocalypse–only you demonstrate how it’s worse because of what happens to real, human lives. Is there a special kind of courage is required to survive modern society?
I am a Black, Afro-Latina nerd who regularly reads and watches all sorts of science fiction and fantasy. This facet of my identity is important to share as we get to your question, because my identification in this way, and my life history as someone who continues to spend time living and witnessing in the present, connects to how I envision the future, the scripts that are laid out for us as afrodescendientes/peoples of African descent, and what we will make for ourselves. In these Americas, the systems at play were built to support our generational oppression and trauma. These systems were built for our subservience, and yet we persist and thrive, defiantly and brilliantly.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what Shawn Ginwright describes as radical healing and about the Black joy at play right now as Black Panther is shattering records and fostering so many conversations: whiteness as plot vehicle for our victory and triumph; Black brilliance in our youth; the tension between isolation and sociopolitical engagement; the promise of a community untouched and unspoiled by colonization; the tension between in the encounters between those carrying the histories of colonization and those who carry the generational trauma of enslavement; the strategic stripping of our cultures and languages; the continuous destruction of our families and communities; and our persistence and revolutionary stances to make a way out of no way for generations. The courage one needs to survive modern society is the courage to envision a new one and build a future for those here and those to come in that new Golden City. That means that we must learn empathy and compassion as well as how to fight. We must learn to read the land and preserve the water. We must learn our strength comes from and extends to one another. We must learn and celebrate the knowledge we already carry within us. We must learn to be free in a country that longs for the greatness of an America in which we were enslaved for the glory of a white void.
Group question: Do you see contemporary artists creating dichotomies or bridges in the way they’re examining art and politics?
Judy: I see both and find each segment of artistry compelling and unstoppable. Creating art is such hard and unprofitable work that I would rather not tell anyone exactly how to do it. I leave it for individual artists to select mentors and learn by doing. I see poets and writers wrangling with the dichotomy of writing in personas that are not their racial category and being criticized for it. While I’m sensitive to cultural misappropriation, I can’t go inside X’s head and tell her what she cannot try to create. I can choose not to buy her work or go to her reading. If the marketplace or milieu responds, then maybe I’m wrong. If it takes years for the tide to turn in her direction, then maybe I’m even more wrong. Also I felt like some writers were backing off from politics and being self-indulgent for a while in the 80’s and 90’s. However, world events seemed to have sharpened the pencil.
Raina: I, too, see both. I just recently received my MFA and in that experience I saw how the academy continues to nurture dichotomies, saying that art cannot be engaged in the political space, that politics has no place in art. I would agree in one respect: if the writer is posturing in an attempt to fit within a particular community while having no authentic commitment to the issue addressed, then I call foul. Most folks don’t do that; indeed, I think that most of the writers of color I know believe that the personal is political, that our engagement in art is political, and that when we create, we do so knowing that our lives, our communities, our voices, our visions are at stake.
Group question: What should we, as creative people interested in the world around us, be doing right now?
Judy: Take action, whether it’s personal like helping someone get a job or a societal statement like giving money to a nonprofit, whether you boycott a big chain and let everybody on your FB know, or you write a letter of complaint to a local theater company for a perceived act of racism. These are actions I’ve taken. There’s no scarcity of causes, only the indulgence of indifference. As Sly Stone wrote, “Stand. You’ve been sitting much too long. There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong.”
Melinda: I think we need to take of ourselves first as we continue to protest the current authoritarian regime. I see so many of connecting across many different fronts, pushing conversations about intersectionality, racism, transphobia. It’s such hard work, and we need support, rest, sustenance. We need to be ready for the long haul. We also need to be aware of our mental health too and be sure to reach out when we need help. I also think we need to listen to youth, to engage with their passions and concerns, nurture their leadership while we simultaneously look to the elders in our communities and learn from their stories of resistance and engagement. I am heartened to know that amid this political shitstorm I am surrounded by so many people working on so many levels to create change and beauty and liberation for all. My wish is that everyone is able to find spaces for their own balance and rejuvenation.
Raina: I agree with everything that Judy and Melinda have said. I would also add that we must collaborate and engage in collective action. When we raise a voice alone, eventually our voices will get tired, but if we raise voices together, we can circle our breathing and calling out so that the sound does not end, and we are sustained in body and action together. This goes for organizations as well, thinking of collective action and sustainability plans, so that all as individuals have a chance to be nurtured and to care for themselves and yet the mission goes on. The mission for justice and liberation must always go on; art is a powerful part of that practice and growth.
Rochelle Spencer is the author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction (Rutledge, 2018) and co-editor of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2014). Her work appears in Solstice, the LA Review, Mosaic, Poets and Writers, the Gay and Lesbian Review, the Women’s Review of Books, Publishers Weekly, The Miami Rail, the Black Speculative Fiction Archive, and Callaloo.