Keeping It Real: Our Southern Sisters Loving Each Other
July 2011

The Fourth Generation. This essay is part of a book that I am writing about black lesbians in historically black colleges when we lived as a community in the South during segregation. It focuses on the lives of Lucy Diggs Slowe, the first Dean of Women at Howard and the prime mover of the movement to place black Deans of Women into HBCUs and her partner, Mary Powell Burrill, Harlem Renaissance playwright and high-school teacher at the famed Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. They lived in an open lesbian relationship for 25 years – from 1912 to 1937.

I grew up in the company of African-American women who went to HBCUs where Dean Slowe girls or women whom they trained were my teachers. They were a sisterhood of bisexual, heterosexual, and homosexual women who formed a tight circle of friendship and womanhood that extended beyond their sexuality. They were bold, southern black women who claimed the right to love whom they pleased, however they pleased. It was therefore not unusual for them to choose to love both men and women. Even the choice of marriage and the need to harmonize the demands of marriage and motherhood did not eradicate their deep passion to love and to be in each other’s company. These transgressive and, in many ways, ordinary southern women found ways to live into and nurture this part of themselves without giving up their relationships with other members of the black community. As a loyal and tight network, they created around them a shared understanding that the matter of loving women and being with them was an issue of discretion among themselves and certain members of the community.  For them, indiscretion was a non-negotiable violation that yielded severe social isolation for anyone who spoke without thinking of the consequences for others.

Collectively, they believed that outing a friend or lover was a serious act of betrayal that took away their power to disclose their lives on terms that considered the implications and consequences to themselves and others in a white-supremacist society. Additionally, they fought for the right to have private lives that belonged to them. I saw them, over and over again, cut a person to the quick for acting indiscreetly.  For them, individual lives were not greater than the collective mission of the southern African-American community’s to survive and advance itself. Believing this, they balanced their passion for women within a life of simultaneity that gave them the elasticity to adhere to values in the African-American community, while simultaneously loving women deeply. They reserved the right to disclose what facet of themselves they would put forward at a given moment.

These women, my teachers, dressed their slim and full-figured bodies in tailored suits or flowing dresses from department stores that wrapped lingerie in soft, white, finely-edged tissue paper. They liked to look and feel good.  They liked bright and muted colors and fine fabrics. They took care to present themselves to the world as “put-together”,  conscious among themselves that Mrs. Jones was “sharp yesterday” or “tore down hat box fine.” While they dressed for themselves, they also flaunted their beautiful selves to a white society that attempted to shape them into images of Jezebel, Aunt Jane, or Aunt Sookie. Multi-dimensional people, they led fascinating lives. 

My classmates and I emulated these women. They made the landscape of segregation more hopeful and fertile. Even as I write this, I see them strutting down the aisle at church.  Heads high, they were proud inside.  They were women who sat and stood tall in a world that conspired to make them small and invisible.  It is from them that I learned to love the shape of my legs, the roundness and slimness of my hips, and the athletic movement and precision of my body as a cheerleader and basketball player.  They taught me to love the beauty of my black feminity. 

When I began in adolescence to explore my sexual identity, several of them took me under their wings and taught me the rules of survival as a young southern black lesbian. They taught me the skills and grit that I would need to rise above labels such as “funny” and “bulldagger”.  From them, I learned that I did not need to slink on the margins of the black community or the white world.  I took their teachings to heart and became captain of the cheerleading squad, editor of the school newspaper, and member of the Tri Hi Y, Majestic Ladies, Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta Math Society, and other clubs and positions.

This I did, despite that some of my classmates began to whisper among themselves, out of the earshot of my homeroom teacher, that “Ruby Nell is funny”.  One day, just before a pep rally, someone scrawled on the bathroom wall, “Ruby Nell is funny.”  I saw it and was so upset that I could not carry out my duties in the pep rally.  Instead, I asked my best friend to act as captain. When I returned to my homeroom, my teacher called me up to her desk.  She inquired why I had abdicated my responsibilities at the rally.  I hesitated, and she said, “I know what happened, and don't you ever again bend your head to shame or hate.  I am serious.  I never want to see it again.”  And, I never did it again, for the rest of high school or college.   They quietly, without fanfare and with discreet distance, made sure that I felt their admiration and backing. 

These older black lesbians did not indulge me or permit me to use the power of my words to lessen anyone.  Their expectations of me were as sturdy as their love. When I strayed too far out of my place as a young person, they gently pushed me back.  In some ways, I thought they drilled too hard.  At those times, I had to remind them of where they ended and where I began.  My own identity sometimes left me exhausted and unsteady in the force of their formidable authority and sense of right.  Yet, they never tried to crush me.  Even in the heat of our words, I knew that they demanded clarity and not passivity.  They encouraged me to hear the poems in my head, even as they reminded me that they did not tolerate fools gladly.  They engaged our imaginations and gave us points of references that would center our adult lives.  They gave us our vision of womanhood, as well as our understanding of what counts in life.  To us, they were neither marginalized nor invisible.  They were our significant others.

They were not shrinking violets,  nor were they women who, in the words of Bessie Smith, “want[ed] to be men.”  As a matter of fact, they scorned anyone who wanted to be somebody else.  Within this light, they lived their lives working to raise themselves from objects to subjects.  Bernice Johnson Reagon caught the essence of their womanliness when she wrote of Ella Baker, “I am a woman who speaks in a voice that must be heard; I can be quite difficult because I bow to no man’s word.” These southern black lesbians from HBCUs rarely saw differences between us because of color or beauty.  However, they made it clear that they preferred “smart girls”.  Therefore, with them, I never felt insecure about my color or looks.  On the other hand, their obvious preference for brains created in me a competitive self that is greater than I would like, defined by high standards of excellence. It is through these lenses that I came to know and experience a community of black lesbians, bisexuals, and heterosexuals – women who broke new grounds and held old ones.  Brave women who dared to be first.  Hopeful women who dared to dream and create generations in a society that lynched their sons and raped their daughters. 

When I left the South and encountered the lesbian feminist movement in the North, these women were conspicuously absent from all of the narratives and political discourses.  I often felt a bit off-balance and a yearning within the northern African-American lesbian movement.  Audre Lorde teased me about wearing lipstick and fingernail polish.  Her response always baffled me, as if loving women was antithetical to wearing lipstick.  Nor could I reconcile myself to outing anyone. I could not shake what I had been taught by those middle-class lesbians - that outing belonged to the person, and to out someone based on information gained in proximity or confidence constituted nothing less than an act of betrayal and a lack of boundaries and compassion. In the north, I realized that black lesbian lives are not monolithic.  Sadly, I came to understand that many of my northern sister lesbians felt that, as a southern lesbian, I had no history over and above segregation. This was evident when I went to events that celebrated the Southern Freedom Movement, and the only names that I heard were Audre Lorde and Bayard Rustin. There was not a word about black southern lesbians in historically black colleges that were the heartbeat and soul of the movement.

In the north, I searched out older black women who carried themselves like the women with whom I had grown.  When I found one, lesbian or heterosexual, I struck up a friendship - some fleeting, others enduring.  Jean Blackwell Hutson told me stories of Marian Minus and Dorothy West.  Others told me generational secrets of women at Fisk or Howard who had loved other women.  They did not need to tell me to hold discreetly onto the information.  I was well-trained and too much their daughter.

I have returned back south after being gone for 40 years. Only a few of these southern black women remain alive. Most are dead and forgotten.  So is much of the community spirit of relationality that kept these women in the community and the community in them.  Instead, the southern community is fragmented by white right-wing culture wars that shifted their sights away from the collective sins of social injustice, to privatized sins without social roots.

Much of the blame for the genesis of these cultural wars on lesbian and gays must be laid at the front door of a white heterosexist society. This is not to say that blacks are free from homophobia, but it challenges the contrived notion that black people, unlike whites, are the most virulent homophobes, historically and currently. This is a distortion that flies in the face of history. When Abraham Flexner, the white president of the Board of Trustees at Howard, alongside Mordecai Johnson, first black president of Howard, tried to make Lucy Slowe choose between her work as Dean of Women at Howard and her relationship with Burrill. Men like Benjamin Mays,  Howard Thurman, Charles Wesley Harris, and Dwight Holmes, as well as a community of southern black women that included Mary McLeod Bethune, Coralee Franklin Cooke, Charlotte Atwood, Vivian Cooke, and Charlotte Hawkins Brown, male and female students, reporters and management at the Afro-American Newspaper, all united in their support of  Slowe and Burrill.

Rather than turn on Slowe and Burrill, the southern black community placed its urgent need to survive segregation before its personal prejudices.  As an institution, it stretched itself to recognize and utilize the various gifts, skills, and dedication that southern black lesbians in historically black colleges brought to the collective project of advancing the community through education and community formation.  In addition to its humanistic pragmatism, the community was proud of anyone who excelled and carried their weight.  Individual success meant community success.  It reaffirmed its capacity to develop outstanding men and women in the face of white public slander, terrorism, and unbending racism during segregation.  Segregation bound all blacks together in a common reality that bred an intimacy contesting the systemic otherness that operated as a core organizing value and strategy in white society. Rather than seeing lesbians as contaminated “other”, the community claimed me and other southern black lesbians as their daughters. The community was in us, and we were in the community.  

Unfortunately, many young black bisexuals, lesbians, and gays do not know this history. Instead, they do not hold members of the white community accountable for the spreading and fermenting of heterosexism and homophobia.  Because they often reserve their greatest anger for the black community, we stand often at different ends of the table - not as a continuum but as a disconnect.  I want to stand in the fullness of my black womanhood as a southern black lesbian who has fought hard for all of my identities and cannot yield to a universalism that eradicates the essence and contours of my identities.  I am the fourth generation standing and hoping that Ms. Burrill and Miss Slowe’s spirit of fight, courage, and devotion to duty abide with us always, even into the 20th generation.


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