At the first annual David R. Kessler Lecture more than 350 people packed the CUNY Graduate School auditorium on November 20th to celebrate Joan Nestle’s lifelong commitment to the lesbian and gay community.
Delivering a talk entitled, “I Lift My Face to the Hill: The Life of Mabel Hampton as Told by a White Woman,” Nestle demonstrated the powerful and passionate principles of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which she cofounded in 1973: the preservation and honoring of lives that would otherwise have passed from our view. “At the Archives,” Nestle said, “We believe that any woman who has the courage to touch another woman is a famous lesbian.”
Drawing from oral histories, letters, photographs, and historical accounts of the period, Nestle told the story of Mabel Hampton, an African-American lesbian who was born in North Carolina, made a living in New York as a domestic worker and, from time to time, as an entertainer in Harlem and Greenwich Village, all the while living with her lover of 45 years. She died two years ago at the age of 87. Through this telling, Nestle presented what she called “another paradigm for doing history- not around coming out or bar culture, but around daily survival as a worker and an African-American woman, who never apologized for her sexual life.”
Nestle wove her narrative around such objects as Mabel Hampton’s birth certificate and the programs she had kept from the National Negro Opera and from a Paul Robeson concert, each document containing a story – Hampton’s struggle to obtain the birth certificate so that she could get work, her cherishing of cultural events she could barely afford to attend. At the same time, Nestle used the particulars of Hampton’s life to address issues of race and class, commenting, for example, on how “we all need an integration of work and love and cultural expression,” and on various obstacles that must be overcome to achieve that integration.
While Nestle’s address represented the essence of her work with the Lesbian Herstory Archives (whose new building opens soon in Park Slope, Brooklyn), she was also honored by CLAGS for her considerable contributions as an author and activist. Indeed, it took three introducers — Deb Edel (cofounder of the Archives), Liz Kennedy (Professor of Women’s Studies at SUNY-Buffalo), and Cheryl Clarke (former Co-Chair of CLAGS) — to comment on these different strands of Nestle’s work.
Just before Nestle delivered her lecture, the President of the CUNY Graduate School, Frances Degen Horowitz, hosted a dinner in the Board Room in honor of Nestle and the lecture series donor, David R. Kessler.
The David R. Kessler Lecture in Lesbian and Gay Studies is an annual event established by Kessler, a San Francisco-based psychiatrist and activist. When Kessler announced his endowment of the lecture series last fall, he said he intended the series to honor individuals who have made “substantial contributions to the expression or understanding of gay and lesbian life.” Invited lecturers are chosen by a special committee drawn from the CLAGS Board of Directors.