What Happened at the Black Lesbian Conference?
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Due to high turnout and limited space the Barnard hosted, Black Lesbian Conference 2016, sold out within weeks of its announcement, leaving many unable to attend. Fortunately I caught up with archivist and writer, Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, for an informal chat on what happened. Shawn was on the closing panel as well as having participated in the day's events. The following is our conversation.
Grace: Hi Shawn! It was great seeing you at the Black Lesbian Conference. What was one (or two) things that struck you that you did not know or gave you new insight into the community?
Shawn: Grace! Thank you for considering the many textures of the BLC conference. It's great that some time has passed because since then, I've gone to the Northeast QTPOC conference the following weekend and aside from the clear need for an intentional intergenerational convening, in comparison, I found it personally valuable to enter a space under the Black Lesbian umbrella, as opposed to queer or people of color.
I've found that the queer community's current state of renaming (although both queer and POC are terms I identify with), “Black Lesbian” was clear enough, concise enough, to acknowledge points of connection with others. I found this acknowledgment absolutely necessary, and almost lost sight of this until I realized how much was at stake for me by attending this conference. It was akin to seeing oneself from the angle of one's own gaze––different than mirroring, more so, a continuous and overflowing affirmation.
Grace: You were also on the closing panel with Linda Villarosa and Cassandra Grant, can you tell me what happened? When I saw you in the morning, you were still formulating what you were going to say.
Shawn: Yes! So sad you missed it. The closing panel was titled, “Black Lesbian Organizing and Activism: 1970s to Now.” I presented a selection of slides from the original Lesbian Herstory Archives slideshow, introducing the room to this historical space, enticing them to see themselves as potential volunteers, donors, or visitors. I included in the virtual tour images of black lesbians throughout Herstory, including images of a zine I made six years ago, titled "Black Lesbians in the 70s: An At-Home Tour" to the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
(closing panel, left to right; Shawn Smith,Linda Villarosa,Cassandra Grant, Dr. Gumbs–all photos facebook/beyondboldandbrave)
Each panelist spoke from a very autobiographical perspective, so I mentioned some points of my own life: starting a non-profit at 17, but feeling that my home life and lesbian life couldn't intermix, until my wedding held at the home of a Black Lesbian elder, which helped me to finally bridge those communities. I said, "my dyke friends and my dad, dancing to the same beat."
It was truly lovely to hear about other folks’ life, including Linda Villarosa speaking about what it was like to come out to her mother. Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs was our moderator. To introduce us each, aside from reading our bios, she wrote each of us a haiku. I've decided to frame my original poem and place it on the wall of my midtown office.
Alexis did a great job of holding the panel together and framing the conversation around activism, the unavoidable passage of time, ancestral connection, Black Lesbian feminist doctrine as a spiritual practice, and the redirections of our work. I ended my piece by formally asking Cassandra to archive the work of the Salsa Soul Sisters, the first black lesbian organization. There's so much more; it was so good! But I'll stop there.
Grace: I was struck by two statistics that I have kept pondering since the conference. One was a statistic Mignon Moore gave during the lunch session about the disproportionate number of lesbian identified girls in foster care. I can't remember the percent? Do you remember? Should we all become foster parents?
Shawn: That statistic struck me as well, and I even took a photo of the slide. What Moore revealed was that 13% of Black "females at birth" were in foster care compared to 20% of black "lesbian-identified females at birth." But the striking point for me was the number presented on Latino lesbians in foster care which was a whopping 30% - that’s more that 50% compared to black lesbians in foster care. It's moments like that when there are clear needs for discussing the intersections, especially as we know that the line drawn between Black and Latino is narrow.
I felt uncomfortable not discussing the implications for these numbers, but that discomfort, of solely focusing on one group, is part of what separate spaces are for, and being in that discomfort was a learning process. And I agree with you there - we should all get married to same-gender-loving folks from our home countries and then become foster parents once the citizenship is confirmed.
Grace: The other, was a statistic Rhonda Otten-Curtis asked the Financial Wellness panel to comment on, which was: the median net worth for white women is $ 43,000, for African decent women it is $5.00. This floored me and my immediate thought was white women are connected to the highest income earners, white men. And through a combination of inheritance and marriage—that may explain the difference. There is an income differential as well which Rhonda mentioned; white women earn .76 to the male dollar and black women earn .67. But again that alone cannot account for that huge net worth gap.
Single black women are building their financial worth from ground zero, often starting in some debt especially if you've paid for your own higher education. Wealth is built within families, and passed down, not just material goods such as property, cash and businesses, but the knowledge of how to make and maintain it. The historic disadvantages that a racist society perpetuates leaves especially black women with the biggest financial hurdles to overcome.
Shawn: I wasn't at this workshop. But did you mean to say $5? WOW! This would be possible only with the historic implications of a country built on African slave labor. The generations of wealth as it’s circulated over time and the intention for wealth to multiply in the sector of whiteness is a real tangible thing. As a child of immigrant families, half of whom came from countries of African enslaved I am well aware that nothing is inherited but fear and pride (an old saying).