The following is a lightly edited excerpt of Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s introduction to the recently published Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, 1974–1989, edited by Julie R. Enszer, followed by excerpts from two of the letters.
Reading writers’ letters is the best kind of eavesdropping. It brings the rush and sweetness of hidden listening—the secret drinking-in of voices children thrive on, clinging to doorways, palms slick, ready to learn what they have yearned and yearned to know. The hiddenness somehow makes the listening better: these words are not meant for us but for a world before and beyond us, and so each syllable is a gem. The words demand we reach for them and that we grow in the reaching.
Whether we are (as I am) the grown-up black/queer/women/writer versions of little black girls eavesdropping on our mothers and aunties at the kitchen table, or are queer, or women, or feminist in some other way, this stunning volume of letters between Audre Lorde and Pat Parker carries that breathlessness of urgent listening, the thrill that sparks when learning is both demanding and deeply sweet.
As poets, writers, activists, and thinkers, Lorde’s and Parker’s immense contributions to feminist, black, lesbian, queer, and American literary culture cannot be overstated. Their combined oeuvres include over 20 poetry collections and nonfiction monographs; dozens of published poems, essays, and lectures; and several short stories, plays, performance pieces, and mixed-genre works.1 With these works—and with their activism and teaching—Lorde and Parker made foundational contributions to feminist discourses of the 1970s and 1980s and offered incisive critiques of gender, sexuality, race, class, and power around which black feminism takes its shape today.
Lorde and Parker sit at opposite points of the kitchen tables—real and figurative—around which my black queer feminist literary politics has taken shape. I encountered Lorde in the late 1990s as a teenager in high school—Hunter High School, which Lorde had also attended, some 45 years earlier. I discovered her autobiographical coming-of-age “biomythography,” Zami, and immediately felt what would become a familiar mix of rapture and rage.
Like many of us, I was awed at the precision with which she articulated black lesbian feminist life, a life that was just beginning to unfold for me. I was grateful for the intimate sense of history she offered, the proof she gave of a black queer political and literary past that I needed badly without knowing I needed it. I was also enraged that I had not learned about her before, particularly as I had also grown up on the same Harlem block she describes in Zami (far across town from Hunter), and had attended the Catholic church where she went to grade school. That something so necessary as her work could be erased from all these spaces—the coinciding spaces of school, home, and spirit—infuriated me.
That anger needled deeper years later when I finally learned of Pat Parker through Alexis De Veaux’s pathbreaking Warrior Poet: A Biograpy of Audre Lorde.2 In Warrior Poet, De Veaux offers an extremely moving and important picture of the friendship between Lorde and Parker. By that time, I had recently finished my BA in Afro-American Studies at a women’s college and was applying to PhD programs to study gender and sexuality in black women’s literature. I was both baffled and incensed by this long path to Parker, whose legacy has been even more silenced than Lorde’s, even in many feminist circles.
The letters gathered here fill those silences. Sent between 1974 and 1989 (the year of Parker’s death and three years before Lorde’s), these letters steep us in the complex intellectual and political intimacy and work involved in creating what we now term “Black Feminist Literature.” The letters offer a breathtaking narrative history of some of the many important feminist publications, organizations, events, and activist groups of the 1970s and 1980s that shaped their world and have set the stage for contemporary black feminist, feminist, lesbian, and queer arts and activism, including: Conditions, Amazon Quarterly, Gente, Diana Press, Shameless Hussy Press, Off Our Backs, FESTAC (the Second World African Festival of the Arts, held in Lagos in 1977), and others.
We witness as Lorde and Parker navigate not only the structural and organizational dynamics of the feminist scene, but also work through its most pressing intellectual and political questions, including the need for black feminist organizing, the responsibilities and ethics of feminist publishing, the racism within white feminist communities, and the possibilities of a global black feminist praxis, pushing one another’s thinking forward, and working through the key issues on which our current black feminist politics rely.
Excerpt from a letter from Parker to Lorde:
April 29, 1980
207 St. Paul Avenue
Staten Island, New York 10304
I know you must be surprised to receive a letter from me, however I am sort of cheating; I discovered these wonderful, wonderful inventions called a Dictaphone and a good typist named Denise. I hope that you and your family are well, give my love to Francis and tell her I’m still waiting for that bridge game. Now, the reason that I am writing is I have become more and more distressed each day about the political situation in this country and feeling very inadequate to respond to what I feel are some very real messages toward world war. So sitting around one night and brain storming I got this idea that perhaps there should be some type of organization for Black women but unlike any of the others that I’ve known. What I’m interested in is an organization that is not secular in organization, as has been in the past. It’s not to be a cultural nationalist organization, it’s not to be limited in its scope. I feel that now is the time for people to understand and implement coalition politics; that now is a time for an organization that addresses itself not only to the needs of Black people in this country but to have a global perspective and understand our connection with other third world countries.
I am in the process now of writing up the guidelines of goals of the organization which I have named Black Women’s Revolutionary Council. I was thinking about women that I would like to be in that organization and of course your name popped into my head, but then it occurred to me that you and I have never sat down and discussed at any great length politics, other than politics dealing with the Women’s Movement and the Lesbian Movement, and this particular organization that I’m talking about goes for all Black women. I’m adding also one of the founders of another organization for women called Eleventh Hour Battalion which is open to not only Black but all women who have some of the political beliefs and understandings as the rest of the founding members and what that basically is, is that not only are we anti-sexist, racist, fascist, but also we are anti-imperialist and we are opposed to the stand that this country has taken in its dealings with other countries in the world particularly third world countries. One of our positions is that the United States should not interfere with the internal workings of any government of the world, which has gotten into some difficulty, of course, around the situation of Iran. There are many people who somehow feel that we have every right to react to the situation in Iran and take basically a “let’s nuke them” position.
I was thinking about doing a tour probably late Fall so there’s a possibility, if you are doing one of those, rare moments at home, that I might see you, however, that’s not set yet because I haven’t talked to Roadwork at all to see what the feasibility of that is. Soon as I have some more information about that I will drop a line or call and let you know what’s happening there.
I just flashed on one of the things I would like for the Black Women’s Revolutionary Council to get into is simply dispensing of information. I went to lunch today in a Black restaurant here in Oakland and as I was sitting at the table I noticed that they were serving Hunt’s Catsup. The thought struck me that probably the owners of that restaurant had no idea about H. L. Hunt and how he spends his money trying to undermine the position of Black people in this country and that it would be a very simple thing to gather that kind of information and pass it on to Black radio stations, newspapers, and simply to make up flyers, basically form letters to people like that restaurant owner so that they don’t in fact spend their money and give it to organizations that are working against their interest. Those are some of the things I figure people can do, who were still not in a position to take a much more militant, revolutionary stand – understandably that’s not an easy position for one to come to. Unfortunately the thing I’m worried about is that this government may not give us any chance at all to form any kind of grass roots organization. We may all find ourselves in war within the next 2 or 3 months. In fact it might not even be 2 or 3 months. I just listened to part of Jimmy Carter’s speech today about Iran and to be perfectly frank it scares the shit out of me.
I read the article that you wrote in Conditions 5 and smiled a lot; inwardly it made me feel very good. It was definitely something that was necessary and should have been written, and I think the thing that I was most impressed by were the people that you had around. It made me feel real good knowing that you had people around you who are loving and caring and could do that in a way that gave you strength. I think that’s something that we probably all need, but then you know that. I mean that’s probably what you were trying to tell me way back long time ago in that apartment on Cole Street. … Proposition 9, which is very similar to the Briggs amendment, but is specifically directed to the State Government and its spending of funds is threatening to put an end to places like the probation department; so things are a little shaky except the latest polls are indicating that maybe Prop 9 won’t pass. I think people are beginning to realize that all of the good that Prop 13 theoretically was going to do in reality hit them in places that they don’t like to be hit, less police departments, less fire departments, less extra curriculum activities at schools; things that people get a little nervous and uptight about.
I feel somewhat hampered trying to communicate by writing a letter. I look forward to the time when you and I can sit down for a very long period of time and talk out a lot of the things that have been happening to us and happening between us. I think, in fact I know, there have been some misunderstandings on both our parts and would really like things to be cleared up. I do value very much you as a person and your friendship and would hate to see that deteriorate. Again, I hope that all things are well in your life and the goddess is being good to you; so until I either see you, call you, or write a letter again, take care.
In November 1985, Parker wrote to Lorde that she was leaving her full-time job as an administrator at a women’s health clinic to write full time. Lorde sent her the following letter:
December 6, 1985
I sit in this place to write you, wanting to do it in my own hand but wanting also the clear precisions of this machine that becomes like an excising filter, sharp, inexorable. I love the way colored girls always get the message—your call, after this letter was framed and ready to jump out my eyes onto some page. Between its intent and conception after receiving yours, and the present now, has been, as I told you, difficult days for me. But I am strong and feisty and fighting all the way. Did a benefit reading with Cheryl Clarke for a new lesbian magazine the students at Hunter are starting for the University as a whole and it gave me an enormous charge to feel what such an event could mean just in terms of change and the world’s story and us, etc. and looking at their wonderful young faces? I felt very blessed to be who I am and where I was and a part of it all.
I have always loved you, Pat, and wanted for you those things you wanted deeply for yourself. Do not think me presumptuous—from the first time I met you in 1970 I knew that included your writing. I applaud your decision. I support you with my whole heart and extend myself to you in whatever way I can make this more possible for you. I hope you know by now I call your name whenever I can and will continue to do so. But you’re right, you don’t want to tie yourself up with so many gigs you don’t have good solid time to stare at the walls and read the words stitched into the cracks between the nail holes.
When I did not receive an answer to my letter last spring, I took a long and painful look at the 15 years we have known each other and decided that I had to accept the fact that we would never have the openness of friendship I always thought could be possible being the two strong Black women we are, with all our differences and samenesses. Then your card from Nairobi, and I thought once again maybe when I’m out there next spring Pat and I will sit down once and for all and look at why we were not more available to each other all these years. I was overjoyed to get your letter and what it means in your life. There are conversations we need to have, Pat, each for her own clarity, and neither one of us has forever.
Things you must beware of right now—
A year seems like a lot of time now at this end—it isn’t. It took me three years to reclaim my full flow. Don’t lose your sense of urgency on the one hand, on the other, don’t be too hard on yourself—or expect too much.
Beware the terror of not producing
Beware the urge to justify your decision.
Watch out for the kitchen sink and the plumbing and that painting that always needed being done. But remember the body needs to create too.
Beware feeling you’re not good enough to deserve it
Beware feeling you’re too good to need it
Beware all the hatred you’ve stored up inside you, and the locks on your tender places.
Frances and I leave for Switzerland 12/14. If you write to me the address is …
I’ll be there certainly until the 7th, probably until the 12th. I’d love to hear from you, and we will talk then. May this coming new year be a rich and fruitful one for you, Pat, and for those you love.
In the hand of Afrekete,
- See Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Crossing Press, 1982); Pat Parker, “Two Plays” and “Prose,” in The Collected Works of Pat Parker, edited by Julie R. Enszer (A Midsummer Night’s Press and Sinister Wisdom, 2016). ↩
- Alexis De Veaux, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde (Norton, 2004). ↩