An Opening Closed to the Public: A Black Lesbian Separatist at Play

BY SHAWN(TA) SMITH-CRUZ

Lesbian Separatist Example #1: A Date

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Hypothetical situation that actually happened, and will likely happen again:

Let’s say I am on a date with a woman who I’ve been eyeing for a long time. She’s lovely, has as many degrees as I have, is sharp-witted, and is the only person I know with a busier schedule. Three years younger, so she can out-drink me, on our autumn date at an Indian restaurant in midtown, we ordered okra, then agreed spice was a must. Yes, this woman was a dyke, educated, extremely funny, and with the deepest eyes one could have on a Tuesday evening. We sat at a two-top with burgundy tablecloth.

“So, I was on this panel today, and of course, although the room is filled with a group of young women of color, five out of the six women on the panel were white.” She dipped a slice of naan into her daal.

“Is that so? How do you feel about that?” I was listening, but her tight blouse was also very distracting.

“Well, it just makes me think the organizers could have done better.” She was right. “And I went first. So I did a race chart, you know, a power chart.”

Every word she was saying was not her own. As in, I’ve heard the description of racial paradigms and systems of oppressions as institutional a million times over. I neither vilified nor praised her assessment. But one thing did come to mind.

“Honey, you are just filled with white guilt aren’t you?”

She only paused for a second.

“Absolutely. Is it that obvious?”

In that moment, I knew I would pick up the bill and sleep with her that night.

Yet, there was no way we could actually have a long-standing relationship. I considered my separatist question:

Who are you and who am I and what am I separating myself from?

The answer was clear. She was a white dyke with short black Jewish curls and piercing eyes with a delicious exterior, extremely thoughtful interior, and good intentions; I was a lovely Black dyke in a pretty dress, whose locs were falling in the mulligatawny, who really wanted a clever girlfriend. I am separating myself from white guilt. The sex that night was comforting, but after a second date, wanting her eyes, and conversation, wasn’t enough to keep me from separating. I may still call her, though, perhaps to show her this prose.

***

Some things to keep in mind while reading this: unless you are Black, or a person of color, or female-bodied, or lesbian or queer, or born Brooklynite (all of the above would be ideal, but choosing one will allow for some inclusion) the act of my coming out to you, dear reader, as a separatist, describing to you my internal process is actually me violating my separatism.

Nevertheless, indulge me.

Find this single and once-in-a-lifetime moment as a perverse misbehavior in a game—like a “play party” scene where my goal is to see what it’s like to get a little wet in the sea of inclusion (I’m just going to stick it in). In the writing of this revelatory piece, this slight BDSM play, where you, by reading, are inflicting pain upon me—and I like it. All that is left to do is announce our safe word here, which either of us must consent to say if at any point you’d like to end the scene: “PENIS.”

That will be our safe word: “penis.” I can’t imagine it coming up otherwise.

Lesbian Separatist Example #2: Michfest

“Let’s go to Lake Michigan!”

“To the lake, oh hun, I don’t know … Should we leave the land?”

Kate was the large-handed blonde that I met while on “the land” at the 2013 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, or Michfest. We met after the Indigo Girls killed the crowd with candle-lit woo across the field on Wednesday night’s opening performance. A breathless woman stood next to me beneath a shooting star—she asked me if I’d seen it, then I asked her for a light. We were side-by-side for the rest of the festival after that. By Sunday, Kate and I toyed with the idea of crossing the front gate, to see the lake, thinking we needed to see how we could live on the outside world. One loc-headed Black girl, one nappy-headed blonde, hand-in-hand on the mean streets of Hart (were we in Hart?).

And so we did it. Very early in the morning, before the first workshops began, we found her truck and left the gate. Each piece of gravel that pushed against her tire held us back; the road was rough.

“We have to be back for the healing circle. You’ll love it; we need it; it’s like nothing you ever experienced!”

“Okay, we can do it; we’ll be back by two.”

We never made it to the lake that day. But we found ourselves on the main road, heading to a diner where all the women had green bands on their wrists. Homeward bound, women poked at plates and gazed out of windows, sad that their early departures meant they’d miss the final day’s ceremony. Our booth was beside a family of three—two dyke moms and their adult daughter who’d been at Michigan since her inception.

“I was at the Lesbian Tent Revival on Julia Penelope,” the short-haired, studly mom mentioned. “You are the woman from the Lesbian Herstory Archives?” She pointed in my direction.

“Yes, that’s me. Wasn’t that a lovely revival?” I smiled at Kate, who wasn’t there, but wanted her to feel included in the conversation.

“Absolutely. You know, I hadn’t known of Julia Penelope, but I read For Lesbians Only a while ago, and it really connected with my values,” the softer mom mentioned.

“But what do you think of it all?” Studly mom pointed the teeth of her fork in my direction. “Specifically, Toshi’s announcement on the idea of women-only space?”

“Oh, umm. Well.” I swallowed the remainder of my omelet. “The real issue is, well, I was raised Black nationalist, and I was taught, ‘if we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything.’ We simply have to consider what we mean by women-space.”

“What more is there to add besides those two words?” Kate asked, in a truly genuine tone.

“We’re not a queer space, for example. It’s about gender, this very amorphous unidentifiable fallacy.” I stroked her finger, then looked back to the women. ”As a woman who loves women, I know what that means to me; it may mean something different to my lover, and so, if we are all in consideration of what we mean, then the world belongs in Michigan, no?”

“No.” Studly mom put her arm around her wife. She wiped her mouth with a crimpled napkin and leaned forward to our booth. “That’s why I wish you were at the workshop that discussed Michigan’s history, because it was remembered as a collective. It was not just the vision of one woman. Although, thank the goddess Lisa Vogel kept it alive. But now, it brings me to wonder, with much trepidation, what if the time has passed? What if there is no longer a need for such a space?”

“Absolutely not!” Their daughter slammed her spoon onto porcelain. Others in the diner began to look on from the sound of the sudden pang. “I’ve been here since before I was born. I’m a straight woman. And I cannot live a life without this space, and I need my daughter to be here too. It has made me a stronger person, my family is richer and more evolved because of the connections that I’ve made in Michigan.”

A few women applauded. There was a “hear, hear” from the bar. Some were silent. The entire diner opened up into spurts of dialog. About the complications, the intricacies, the reasons, the desires, the unspokens, the ignorance, the safety to speak openly about what we felt was a life or death reality for us all – the existence of Michfest.

Eventually I grabbed Kate’s knee, hinting that it was time for us to catch the healing circle. Before saying goodbye to the booth beside us, I ended:

“Ultimately, it is up to us to decide if we’d prefer a Michigan that is filled with change, or none at all. . .”

But then there was no ending. It was only a beginning, for as I finished my half of cheddar burger (yes, Kate and I split a burger and omelet, as lesbians do), another crew of Mich-women appeared, green-banded, hungry, and all continued to speak, to wail, like wolves, as we would on Sunday night after the closing ceremony, to the moons of hereafter, for the love of Michfest. 

Separatism Is a State of Mind

Most people do not know separatists. Yet, depending on the angle, perhaps we are all, in some way of our own mind-state, attributing traits of separatism. Dear reader, when you enter a crowded room of strangers, to whom do you gravitate?

Separatism Is Lonely

It took a while for me to self-identify as a lesbian separatist. I discovered the term in a manifesto against separatism. The lesbian writer seemed combative. She was a feminist. Not to pit the two against each other; there are feminist lesbian separatists too, but I digress. As a (non-feminist) lesbian separatist, I admit that my soul is raw, my heart is easily open, and I get lonely sometimes, over here, in this land of those who look and eat and sound and stare and breathe and fuck like me.

Separatism Is Radical

Loneliness is why I am here, engaging with you, dear reader, immersing myself in this space of “other people.” The loneliness of separatism—the act of being one, single, distant—is a meditative act. I will go as far as to call it radical.

This meditative radicalism of outside correspondence allows me to reclaim my own space. Through these regenerative inter-actions—you with me, I choosing with you—I am able to truly separate, and then choose my greater and more fulfilled self. Through separatism, social change is possible.

 Separatism Asks a Question

Who are you and who am I and what am I separating myself from anyhow?

The act of being a separatist is in applying that question to every inter-action in order to decide if one should give an “other” access to her space, her resources, her body, her ideas, or even her aesthetic. This question will reveal whether to separate completely or, contrastingly, to build community. It is an exercise in classification, an association game.

Here is an example.

I can say, I am a Black Lesbian separatist, and therefore, I am not in community with white people, men, or straight people. My ultimate spaces of disassociation, then, are those filled with white straight men. But this can become confusing. Because, there are men in my communities if they are queer, and there are white people in my communities, if they are hot dykes.

The above two Lesbian Separatist Examples, “A Date” and “Michfest,” were each with hot white dykes, both of whom were very committed to race politics. Assuming they both had white men as brothers, cousins, at least as family, let alone community, do those degrees of separation dispel my separatism?

Queer women of color are my favorite, closest, relational beings. I may give enough time to Black straight men to talk about Black politics, and with white dykes I discuss gender, but when the collision occurs, the question is posed: Who are you and who am I and what am I separating myself from? In answering, the toss is in the air.

Lesbian Separatist Example #3: An Offer

Black gay men intimidate me.

The last time I walked through life with a gay man, he was leaving my house with a bowl of soup. I became his home away, his Jamaican sister, his love for dining, him-at-home-gyal. We never went to parties together, and in community, I was often surprised at his interest in saying hello. I wondered what he was up to, why he wanted so badly to share space. Who was this long-bodied male that my girlfriend continuously allowed to show up to our place? Sometimes, he would even spend the night.

“Asylum?! You are seeking asylum?”

Had I ever known anyone else seeking asylum besides my Ethiopian co-worker whose parents had crept into the country when she was a teen? My Jamaican family came here on visa, perhaps marriage, definitely two to a bed, but never on Asylum… “Where was the war?”

“Me c-y-an go back-uno!”

His face looked to me in a pleading embrace. What had he expected me to do about it?

“Perhaps we should marry? We good family, right?”

And that’s what this Black gay man had to offer: a marriage proposal. From a few two-hour weed sessions in my living room, he thought it appropriate to ask me for marriage. An undergraduate’s question—to wed or not to wed.

This proposal was my first application to the separatism I learned, and until that point had only theorized. It was in this moment that I first posed the question:

Who are you and who am I and what am I separating myself from?

Then, it was clear to me. He was a tall, Jamaican god-like man, desperate for a life where he could be himself, live the American dream, be free to sit around and smoke weed in him-at-home-gyal apartment if he chose to; I was an undergraduate living with my lover, contemplating community, wanting friends, and making decisions in marijuana-induced séances; and I was separating myself from war.

It was the look in his eyes that made me say no. It was the hungry, the life-altering condition of his plea. How could I know the difference between asylum and friendship, then marriage—where was this war, anyhow?

Penis!

Penis?

Penis.                        I have to end the scene.

That’s the war. That’s the center of the war. I didn’t expect to not enjoy the recalling of a separatist journey, but eventually a girl has to return to her center. Stop the play.

Oh, but you can still read on. I’m okay with it. If you are okay with acknowledging that you shouldn’t be here, then I’m okay with allowing you to peek in on my side of the wall. A visit. But please, don’t touch anything.

See me as the wild woman, the abused woman, the mother, in Toni Morrison’s Jazz, my world as the wild woman’s cave.

It was a private place, with an opening closed to the public, once inside you could do what you pleased: disrupt things, rummage, touch and move. Change it all to a way it was never meant to be.

. . . But where is she?

Although the next likely candidate for whom I should separate myself from would be straight men, I don’t even want to go there. I feel compelled to return home, to my sisters, those who are allowed to enter and do what they please—Black lesbians or lesbians of color or women of color who sleep with women, or namely, women of color who sleep with me. In challenging my own need to separate based on gender, race, and sexual orientation, I wonder, then, is it that I solely want people around me to whom I am sexually attracted?

Lesbian Separatism Is Chocolate

Lesbian separatists have the most difficult challenge of being in love with their friends, or having very awkward transitional interactions with past lovers as new friends. But we find and create spaces where this is all possible: polyamorous space, in love space, or deep-connection-with-every-woman-around space. Boundaries are thin because the space itself is separate. One such space is Michfest, or the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival—an almost forty-year old release in the woods where women claim land and inhabit space in the name of music. On “the land” you’ll find stilt walking, circles of stone for cooking, djembe drums, buttons of bone. Some have coined “the land” Burning Man for women. We festies call it Home. I go there every now and then, and it was in conversation with this woman, about Michigan, in an open space in Brooklyn that led my relationship with her to conjure the separatist question.

Before we get into it, let me build for you this new scene. No safe words needed here—you are just watching—not participating, remember!

Okay, scene: Chocolate Room in Park Slope. We sit side by side, seated at the bar. My wine is almost at its end. It’s late night. You face us from behind.

“So, when I was getting my masters,” she slurps the thickness of spiced chocolate from the small silver spoon, her teeth stained, mouth hungry with pleasure, her sharp chin an arrow aimed forward. “. . . that’s when I went to Michigan the first time. And then it was after my trip to Europe that I went to Michigan, free, and following that I met my long-term lover. Amy and I were so happy together. It was wonderful.”

I watch her speak, her eyes bulge and brighten at every mention of “the land.” Michigan memories are recalled by dipping her small silver spoon into the cup of hot thick chocolate. Even with a taste from my own spoon, I surmise that the grooves of her tongue hold a deeper maze than mine. I’m a smoker. So it is entirely possible that her palate is more advanced. With every dip of her spoon, I recall the memory of her specific taste of chocolate.

Two years prior, we had our first date in the Chocolate Room. Knowing that I was a wine girl, she suggested a space where I could have wine, and she, intentionally sober, would have a small cup of melted chocolate, two cookies, and a rolled dollop of whipped cream served on a small plate in the center of a white doily. We were in the same seats as before: at the bar, our backs to the crowd, facing the culinary dance outlining the kitchen, watching a white-boy chef in a top hat blow-torch sugar till golden brown on a banana half for the occasional split. In this current scene, we can’t help but replay that initial date.

“I could never not go to Michigan.” We agree. Conversation halts when the chef’s right hand reaches for the torch. These pauses are necessary. Even as I watch the sugar turn golden, my palm sweats wanting to live on her knee, rub its way to her inner thigh, stop there, and squeeze. I can’t. I know we are there to “catch up,” do the thing that folks do when they decide to become friends. We had sex numerous times—contentedly riding each other into the night sky. Then one day we just, stopped. She met a doctor (while she and I were on a date, as lesbians do) and simply lost touch.

“How is your wine?” she asks. She will ask me that throughout the night. Wondering if she wants some, I keep my eyes on the fire and not her fingers meeting her tongue. I sip.

“Another glass please,” I stammer to the waiter. “It’s lovely. Goes very well with the dark chocolate.” I need to change the subject before my hands begin to drift to her skin. “Do you not have an issue with Michigan’s trans-exclusivity?”

“Depends on the day that you ask me. Today, I think it’s all bullshit.”

I love her. She always says the perfect things. So of course, I want to know if we are destined to be friends. I mean, why not? We should be. Shouldn’t all people be potential friends if once lovers? What else do you do with these select groups of people who you’ve spent considerable amounts of time with, who know you in your deepest sigh, at the center of your moan, who heard you snore when hung over. Besides, I’m certain that she would get a lot out of saying to others, “I have a librarian friend, who is lovely, and from Brooklyn, and has locs as long as my hand can stretch.” Who wouldn’t want to have a lesbian librarian friend to brag about? Our friendship would be her incentive to mouth off to other friends. I could picture her—she’d smirk when introducing me at parties, as I’d walk away, she’d point to me from the side of the room, “we were lovers once,” then claim to be on good working terms with all of her lovers. I’m a good friend, a great friend, even if, secretly, I wanted to lick the small drop of chocolate nestled at the rim of her upper lip.

Friendship had to be possible. But I understand that in contemplating friendship, I’d have to ask the question.

Who are you and who am I and what am I separating myself from?

Two years post-love affair, she is a divine goddess sitting on a barstool dripping chocolate; and I am an ex-lover, possibly horny, single dyke trying to prove that I could be a goddess’s friend; and I am separating myself from the prospect of sex.

Clearly, I stare at her in ways that friends should not receive eyes. I consider running my fingers through her curly fro, just to, as my memory has canonized, watch her teeth bite onto her small lips that curl at the site of chocolate. She and I can out-talk anyone by ten minutes on whether Michfest should change its policies. As a fourteen-year festie, none of that matters to her since she had her heart broken there. She was no separatist. She could care less about admission policies when she is as hot as she is and still searching for love. I don’t separate myself from her but keep our sex separate. Of course, if she makes a move, I will likely bend in her direction and indulge. With me, she can do what she pleases; disrupt things, rummage, touch and move. With her, and other lesbians of color, trans or not, I move beyond the physical into a place where old lovers become: chocolate.


Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz is a separatist, zinester, archivist, writer, (sometimes blogger), and black-dyke-participant of community-specific, collective spaces. Coordinator at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and past co-producer of Rivers of Honey women of color theatre, she is an Assistant Professor at the Graduate Center Library of the City University of New York. Her writings can be found in Sinister Wisdom: A Multicultural Lesbian Literary & Art Journal, Journal of Lesbian Studies, select anthologies published by Library Juice Press or Litwin Books and others. She received her MFA and MLS from Queens College, CUNY. You can find more about Shawn here. 

Image Credit: Erik Söderström

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