Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

Queer Left Histories: Achebe Powell and Martin Duberman on Culture and Politics

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Achebe Powell

MMG: When did you first see yourself as part of a political world? When did you need to take action?

AP: I’m sixteen years old, and I’m living in the Deep South. I use [the phrase] “Deep South” a lot in my racial justice trainings before I tell them it’s Miami, Florida. If I say Miami, people say, oh, South Beach! But the Miami I grew up in during the 1940s and 50s might as well have been Biloxi, Mississippi. I was reared in a very loving, wonderful, expansive black community, but it was very segregated and racism could rear its far-reaching, profoundly devastating head at will.

I’d returned from traveling and living in California, Germany, the Netherlands for over four years with my father, who was an officer in the Army post-World War II; I became conscious that I was going back into almost a cocoon. And then another kind of opening out to the world came one day over the PA [public address] system in Booker T. Washington High School: an announcement for any student who would like to become part of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) Youth Leadership Program. It was very unclear in my head what that could mean, but I was all for it. We had black students from the black high schools, and representatives from the white schools. This was 1956-58. We could not come together legally in any space at that time, except under the aegis of the NCCJ. We were mentored by the regional director, whose name was Max Karl—my first mentor in social justice activism. There was something of the Jewish notion of “tikkun olam,” which I didn’t fully understand at the time that permeated all of Max’s teachings … the idea that we are responsible for repairing the world.

Ultimately, this vision of the politically-active, engaged human life became and remains a very singular driving force in my life. The primary skill I learned and role I took on (in high school) was that of speaker, the one who rallies people together. We would go to the psychological conferences of the day as Youth Speaks Against Prejudice—one white kid and one African American kid, or two of each. We would move around the state of Florida spreading the word. At some point, we decided to meet outside of the group, and we’d go to the then all-white neighborhood of Coral Gables and sit around some kid’s house discussing how we were going to make the world different. Or we’d meet at the home of one of my close friends, who lived in what was called Brown Sub, one of the black suburbs. We wanted to talk to more people about why things had to change; we wanted to volunteer to be of service to the community—together.

Then the schools got wind of the fact that we were meeting outside of the NCCJ. I remember the announcement: “All the students who are representatives to the National Conference of Christians and Jews, please come to the dean of students’ office.” We got there and the principal was there, the deans of students for boys and for girls was there, and they said to us: “We hear that you’ve been meeting at the homes of white kids, that they have been coming to your homes, and this has not been sanctioned by the Board of Ed.” We declared that we were free human beings and could do as we pleased! Whereupon they informed us that we must cease and desist, or we would all be barred from graduating from high school. That kicked the flame up more. We would meet earlier at the NCCJ, and we arranged for what we might now refer to as conference calls. There were about five or six white kids and five or six of us who arranged to be on the phone during a basketball game or a sock hop. We went across the street from the school to the [gasoline] filling station and made our phone calls. We kept talking about what we were going to do, and who’s going to which college, and could we organize things on this or that campus? We were going to University of Michigan, University of Florida, Howard University. I went to The College of St. Catherine in Minnesota. We just kept each other fired up about justice and “tikkun olam.” There was no doubt from that point on about what my work in the world had to be, no matter what my paid work or profession. The work of repairing the world was just a given.

The college that I went to, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, was the richest, most powerful experience that I could have had in continuing to shape this path of political engagement. There I found new mentors who were, to me, so totally beyond the realm of what one considered as “nuns.” With utmost respect, I’ve always said that I came to think of them as libertines in drag. The three most important things to them were the intellect, politics, and art and culture. We always were having political conferences and speakers on the campus; Kofi Annan [secretary general of the United Nations, 1997-2007] and I took courses together, because he was at Macalester College, at the time known for its international studies. I became very engaged with international politics. We’d go to the University of Minnesota and meet foreign students—many of them Palestinian students—who weren’t calling themselves Palestinians at that time, but instead: “I’m from Jordan, but my folks have migrated from Palestine.” I knew many who majored in refrigeration engineering because they were going back to make the desert bloom. They said, “We know we can work with the Israelis.” They had such hope then and a deep, almost desperate belief in the possibilities for peace in 1958, 1959, 1960.

It was in 1962 when I finally got to New York that I decided I absolutely had to get more deeply involved with the civil rights movement. We were organizing young people out of Abyssinian Baptist Church. I then went on to work summers with the Neighborhood Youth Corp, where we prepared kids not just for jobs and potentially college, but to be progressive political activists. It was not exactly what John Lindsay [then mayor of New York City] had in mind but the historical moment was so ripe for it! I finished my master’s degree at Fordham in 1964, and began teaching at Cathedral High School in Manhattan. The students were a wonderful mix of Latina, predominantly Puerto Rican, with a few Dominicans; African Americans and Afro Caribbeans; Asians; and white students. It was a regular United Nations and it’s there that a young nun who was teaching history and I started a black studies program. I took my kids on antiwar marches in New York City and went to Washington, DC, for the assault on the Pentagon in 1968. That time, we had a busload of kids with us: there we were, standing in front of frightened nineteen-year-olds with bayonets pointed in our stomachs trying to keep us all back from going up the hill to the Pentagon. I’m looking into their [the soldiers’] eyes, and their hands are trembling, and I’m saying, “honey, don’t shake your hands, please. You’ve got to get steady now.” It was a teaching moment: for me, for my students, and for the young soldiers. It was heartbreaking.

The nuns at Cathedral—I can’t say they were radical, but they bent towards the liberal. Two examples: when the students wanted to bring the Black Panthers into the school, the principal was nervous. I said “these kids want the whole school to hear the truth about what the Black Panthers are doing and you can only know that from the Black Panthers themselves. They will not burn down the school, I guarantee you.” And so they came. Also, I was the (faculty) sponsor of the students’ Care Club, a group consisting primarily of our Asian students—these young people were my early mentors in global injustice and human rights. At one point, we wanted to raise 5,000 dollars for our three amazing projects that year: building a clinic in Guatemala, providing school kits for two or three hundred school children in Hong Kong, and helping women organize a farming collective in a village in Nigeria. We wanted a teenage rock-and-roll band to play, and also to have a fashion show. Sister C. said, “I don’t know about the rock and roll band Ms. Powell, the dancing gets so homosexual.” By “homosexual” she meant people didn’t dance partner to partner anymore, everybody would dance by themselves. It was the first time I had ever heard the term used in that way. So this was all rather risqué in her mind but the show went on and we raised the money, which was quite a lot in those days.

Afterward, when I went on to teach French and linguistics at Brooklyn College, I was immediately thrown into the swirl of political activity and engagement on campus in the 1970s. Open admissions had just been initiated throughout the City University of New York. Race issues were huge. I strategized my way on to the Faculty Council, where we were fighting for a women’s center and women’s studies. We were fighting for black studies and for Puerto Rican studies. And really everything demanded, in those days, demonstrations at the president’s office, sit-ins and constant political education about why things had to change. I was totally engaged in all of it. This was also when I came out to myself and to my family and the world as a proud black lesbian feminist. I landed on this terrain and was stunned by what it is to be lesbian in an intensely homophobic and compulsory heterosexual society. The feeling and understanding of “Other” was familiar. I immediately climbed up on this new and different soapbox, and at least ninety percent of my speeches began with the fact that I could not stand there and talk only about gay liberation. I had to talk about the linkages between the black civil rights movement, the gay liberation struggle, and the women’s movement. I spoke on behalf of the interconnectedness of all of these struggles. At the same time, I felt a deep and abiding anguish that the lesbian/gay movement wasn’t always organizing from the same place.

We had to work very hard on the National Gay Task Force at that time. The women’s caucus of the task force board really had to plead and advocate and insist over a long period of time: where’s the L? For them it was: we’re all gay. No! [For] lesbians, our woman identities bring with them very different but equally compelling life experiences. When I do racial justice work, we have a thing called “treasure hunt” with twenty or thirty items on a list. Someone knows what Umoja, Ujamaa, and Imani are, someone else knows what TTY means. One of the questions is: does anybody know the difference between a black and a pink triangle? The Nazis had nine different symbols and patches in order to identify people who were to be taken away to the concentration camps. We know the Star of David was meant for our Jewish sisters and brothers, but not all know that, for example, the violet patch was for Jehovah’s Witnesses and the dark blue for the Roma culture. The pink triangle was for gay males, but there was a black triangle that identified lesbians who were also taken to their deaths. However, it is the pink triangle that has become the symbol of the LGBT movement. So sexism is happening in the very context of seeking moral authority and people haven’t a clue. It’s unintentional, it’s unconscious. And it’s totally unacceptable.

In this moment, we just facilitated the 2007 Desiring Change conference, which focused on the deep importance of sexuality as a terrain of the political and organizing always at the crossroads of oppressions. At any given time, one might be focused on labor organizing but that activism always has to be done at the intersection of economics and class along with race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and religion. There is such joy for me in working with folks coming from around the country whose organizing is done not just out of some abstract analysis, but with a deep understanding that there is no way that we are actually going to have the impact that we need to have, achieve the structural and institutional changes needed at the very core of our society, without understanding these connections.

In my younger days I was not formally conscious of myself as organizing from the left, though I’ve always known where I stand. I’m left of wherever the powers of the universe center themselves and then begin to inequitably dole out bits and pieces of the fairness, justice, and inclusion to which we’re all entitled. The question is: how do we all gain access to the opportunities, resources, and benefits of our society? How do we ensure that every aspect of lived life reflects affirmation of the inherent human dignity of my proud queer self—and of everyone else? And none of this is abstract. We’re talking access to meaningful and fairly compensated work, quality education and healthcare, substantive participation in the political process, quality access to mobility—and I’m talking about my physical mobility, my psychic mobility through the universe. Folks on the right—conservatives—are trying to conserve what they think they own. On the other side—we’ve called it the left—we’re looking at full access, full equity, and nothing less, whatever it takes to get there. In the opening scene of seventeenth-century playwright [Pierre] Corneille’s play Le Cid, the main character bounds onto the stage and declares, “Je me plains au monde,” [which means] “I stand in complaint before the world.” That’s my left. I stand in complaint on all of these issues.

What I want to see in a progressive LGBTSTI [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two-Spirit, Transgender, Intersex] gender non-conforming movement is an ever-deepening understanding of the interconnection of all of our righteous complaints before the world. I cannot subscribe to the school, and I beg you not to subscribe to the school of “I have it made in everyway except I’m gay.”

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