black./ lesbians./ speak for themselves
Think — when was the last time you saw a black lesbian? I do mean saw her, but I also mean hear. Did she speak? Did you listen? Did you understand? Did you try?
Some of you may never have met such a woman. Some of you may think she is impossible, that she doesn’t exist, that “black” and “gay” and “woman” couldn’t possibly intersect in the same body. One documentary is here to show you otherwise. Black lesbians exist, and they are speaking for themselves.
In director Tiona McClodden’s 2008 documentary black./womyn./: conversations with lesbians of African descent, nearly fifty black lesbians of varying ages, classes, and places of origin speak about their identities and experiences, their complexities and truths, their joys and sorrows, and, most importantly, their abiding love for themselves and each other.
They articulate the multiple oppressions they live under and describe what it is to be an unknown, misunderstood “other” in almost every social situation, even among loved ones, family, and community. Knowings describes lesbian living as an act of bravery.
To be in a lesbian relationship, boy that’s to be daring. -Knowings
The theme of constant daily struggle to be understood echoes through every woman’s story, but it resonates alongside other themes that, moment by moment, make themselves known and counter the bitterness: the immense pride of knowing exactly who you are, the power and magic of love between women, the joy of knowing you are fighting a system simply by existing. These women do not shrink from identifying the ways their straight black families have failed them, the homophobia they routinely encounter in the intimate sphere, but neither do they disavow the communities and families to which they persistently, insistently, actively belong, or the material experience of blackness that they all share. We will be looking at the self-narratives of these women, the places of impossibility they are forced to navigate, and the varying strategies they use to do so.
black./ womyn./ is a film by, for, and about black women. It is a creation by Tiona McClodden, but there is no pretense of central authority. McClodden weaves together the words of different women with minimal stylistic intervention. One hears each woman’s voice, watches her speak, and reads her name at the bottom of the screen, trying to remember each name, not a small task with close to fifty people. In case the viewer forgets, their names are reintroduced throughout the film to counter the anonymizing force that often operates on images of black women and makes them nameless and faceless. Transitions are smooth and understated, simple two-second fades-to-black that reoccur with a kind of rhythmic continuity. The images reveal the temporal and spatial distance between each individual conversation, showing the women in different settings and hours of the day, but, remarkably, their words fit together as if they were all in the same room. The effect is a sense of shared discursive ground rooted in experience. It is the black female “standpoint” of which Patricia Hill-Collins writes, only here it is also specifically a lesbian one.
Love is the basis of lesbianism. It is present in the fact of each woman’s speaking, since publically claiming a lesbian identity requires strength that can only arise from a basis of self-love. Lesbian love is in a certain way a kind of self-love, a love for the other as self, a love of women by women. It is raw and unspeakably powerful.
It’s the most intense relationship I’ve ever come across. It’s just amazing and beautiful and violent and soft and good. It’s so good. -Staceyann
Lesbian love is not only sexual, it is so much more than that.
The challenge of being out women is to show people that it’s not about, it’s just not about what we do in the bedroom. It’s our relationship, it’s how we relate to each other. -Monica
To be an out lesbian publically is to be held accountable to misinformation and degrading stereotypes. Staceyann, describes a rumor following her around Jamaica that casts her as a licentious lesbian activist “performing cunnilingus” on stage. For many people, she says “the word lesbian is synonymous with pedophile”.
Lesbianism is defined as inherently sexual and perverse. Her feminist praxis is in enunciating lesbianism affirmatively:
Because I want it to become as…. as unjarring a word as the word ‘tea’ might be. You know, I want people not to [gasp] when they hear the word lesbian. I want to say it so many times that the people around me become so accustomed to it that it’s just a word. — Staceyann
These women struggle with the violence of self-hatred as well as the violence of others. It is a hatred they have been taught by others, who speak of gayness as wrong, perverse, and sinful. The internalization of homophobia starts in childhood, and it is only with age that some lesbians gain the self-determination to reject it.
…and I know a lot of people that I have talked to feel the exact same way, like they were really homophobic and that’s just, you kind of have just that self-loathing you know, when you’re trying to keep it in — Q.
Religion plays an important role in these women’s lives, and shapes their identities even when it denies them. Some of these women simply accept the contradiction of being devoutly Christian and gay. Libya says:
I pray about it every night but at the same time I’m being Lib, know what I mean? I can’t change me, but at the same time I serve a great God and he love me for who I am.
I love Jesus Christ… I go to church all the time but you know it’s like — I can’t help who I am!
Some women make a point of historicizing the religious ideology of their Christian families. Reese makes a bold claim, arguing that their enslaved ancestors were taught to deny themselves as humans in just the same way she is expected to deny herself as lesbian, with the idea that “God will love you if you’re a good slave, you know. And I feel like we’ve carried that part through our religion and through time”
Whether they reject the religion of their upbringing or embrace it, black lesbians are redefining their spirituality as part of their identity.
To be a black lesbian is to live at the intersection of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and to be compelled to define oneself by those terms.
Personally, I think it should be totally reversed. I should be a woman first, you know, and then everything else can come behind. I personally I don’t think my sexual orientation should even come into those three. Because when I look at a straight person, I don’t say ‘Oh! They’re straight. Oh! Then they’re white, and then they’re… a man or whatever.’ You know, I don’t look at them like that. Like, you’re a person, I’m a person, treat me like that!” — Mckenzie
Race and gender and sexuality are all rubrics used to deny people their humanity, and the women of this film approach the issue differently. Mckenzie is a proud black lesbian, but she wants to be recognized as human first, without being defined by subcategories.
For some women being visible as black, female, and gay simultaneously is important.
Rather than simplify and reduce themselves to discrete categories, black lesbians like Leah are insisting on the complexity of their identities: Leah is just as black as she is female as she is gay; she is just as human as any white straight male, and she won’t apologize for any of it.
Some black lesbians represent themselves in ways that rattle traditional notions of gender:
…or at least people’s ideas of a man and a woman. So a lot of the times without trying I pass as a man. — Hanifah
Hanifah’s experience of gender marks her as different from what is expected. She is rightfully proud of her power to destabilize gender norms just by living her life.
For many, gender norms are seen as irrelevant to their identity:
…it just doesn’t matter, it doesn’t determine the type of person that I am. — Nor of KIN
Androgyny should be just as much of a claim to humanity as traditional masculinity or femininity. Hanifah and Nor can present themselves however they want, but it doesn’t change who they are as unique human beings.
black./women./ as a film constitutes a visual representation of black lesbians on their own terms, which makes it unique. As Angel puts it, “Black women, period, are left out” of media. As Michelle M. observes, “We are the voiceless, faceless group.” Even when they are visible, both black women and lesbians as a whole are rarely represented in non-sensationalist, non-pornographic ways, with very real consequences for girls still forming their identities.
When I was in high school, I would see black lesbians on Ricki Lake or on some talk-show, and then just say “Oh my god, they’re crazy, I don’t look like that. Okay, I’m not a lesbian because that’s not what I look like.” And that really caused a problem for me because it took me forever to accept that about myself! — Alysia
Finding ways to create such positive representations can be seen as the very project of the film itself. There are no voice-overs, no editorializing, no statistics, no newsreel footage, no men, and no white people. There are only black lesbians speaking for themselves. Hanifah identifies this as the answer:
We’re the only ones who can kind of change the tide of how people see us, you know, and not taking us in a like a superficial or like a shallow way. — Hanifah
Here Hanifah echoes Kay Lindsey who asserts in her article “The Black Woman as Woman” that “when we are defined by those other than ourselves, the qualities ascribed to us are not in our interests, but rather reflect the nature of the roles we are intended to play”(Lindsey 89).
A theme that reoccurs in many writings by black women is the importance of self-reliance and individual autonomy instead of normative conformity. Gwen recalls Toni Morrison’s Sula when she says:
…because the only thing you’re in is yourself. You know? Your own independence is all you really have. You never really have society, ‘cause one day you’re okay with them cuz you’re wearing green, but then they switch the color up and you’re out the back door again. — Gwen
The power of becoming self-reliant does not leave the black woman enlightened and alone, but rather allows her to speak and share with her sisters, encouraging them to do the same. Leah talks about her identity in such terms: “As someone who identifies as that, I have to always be prepared to back it up, and help somebody who I know is also dealing with that. ’Cause I think for me, it’s always still lifting still climbing.”