The Chicago History Museum, in conjunction with The Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council and as part of the latter's "Art of Dissent" series, hosted a Feb. 18 presentation and discussion, "When Identities Collide: Sexuality and Black Feminism."
The program was part of the museum's "Out in Chicago" series. The museum is also host to "Out in Chicago," the special exhibition about Chicago's LGBTQ history; it ends on March 26. Visitors can see the exhibition for free through February.
The main speaker was the scholar Kimberly Springer, author of the book Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980. Jennifer Brier, co-curator of the exhibit, introduced Springer. Following Springer's talk, the two engaged in a brief discussion about the topic of the evening before inviting questions and comments.
Brier spoke of the current exhibit and said that it was an attempt to document the "constant struggle between the experience of oppression ... and the ability of people to find the possibility of change and freedom in everyday things or a social movement."
Springer's talk expanded on that tension between struggle and freedom by highlighting the histories and struggles of five different feminist groups: Third World Women's Alliance (1968-1980), National Black Feminist Organization (1973-1975), Black Women's Organization for Action (1973-1980), the National Alliance of Black Feminists (1977-79, based in Chicago), and the Combahee River Collective (1973-1980).
Springer spoke of the common misconceptions of Black feminism that affected the historical records of such groups, the most prominent one being that Black feminism was merely an offshoot of white feminism and derived its meaning from the latter. In fact, she pointed out, the histories and struggles of Black feminism were and are unique. Rather than being derived from white feminism, Black feminism developed in parallel to white feminism and highlighted the issues of oppression, class and race.
In particular, Springer focused on the role of Black lesbians in these organizations, whose place in the movement was as controversial and as painful as that of white lesbians in feminist organizations who were once collectively dubbed the "Lavender Menace" in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like their counterparts, Black lesbian feminists were often central to their organizations, and were seen as traitors to race issues. Many of them, like Audre Lorde, went on to become central political and cultural figures.
Springer said that the costs of the expulsion of Black lesbians from their feminist organizations were the failure to recognize their history as organizers and the loss of such activists as a resource. Another result was also that it took a longer time to theorize Black sexuality. Despite these issues, Black lesbian feminists continue to be pivotal points at the intersection of race and sexuality.
The conversation and discussion touched upon the relationship between Black gay men and the Black feminist and lesbian movements, as well as Chicago's histories of alliances between various groups aligned along the lines of sexuality and gender.