The Third Annual Kessler Lecture

The evening of December 9, 1995 was an exciting and stimulating one at CLAGS. The recipient of the third David R. Kessler Award, Barbara Smith, delivered a personal and well-documented account of her current project — “African-American Lesbian and Gay History: An Exploration.”

After CLAGS’s Executive Director, Martin Duberman, greeted the audience, Barbara Smith was introduced by Mattie Richardson, Naomi Jaffe, and Evelyn C. White. All three presenters emphasized Smith’s political and literary contributions. They highlighted her participation in the struggle for equality of women of color and her role as co-founder with Audre Lorde of the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

Smith assessed the situation of gay and lesbian African-American studies as well as the marginalization of black lesbians and gay men within the coordinates of a racist society. Moreover, she provided an evaluation of the research done thus far and reviewed the methodological and ideological problems that a project such as hers poses.

Smith shared with the audience the reasons behind her undertaking a project on African-American gay and lesbian history. One reason, Smith notes, is the invisibility that she, as an African-American, as a female, as a lesbian, and as a child from a working-class home has suffered. A second reason is the omission and silence that has prevailed within the context of gay and lesbian studies, dominated by European-American scholars, when it comes to the experiences of African-Americans.

Smith believes that an essential part of African-American gay and lesbian history must be the rigorous examination of the impact of racism upon the lives of gay men and lesbians of African heritage. With her solid training in sociology and other social sciences, Smith recognizes the centrality of the examination of key factors such as race and social class in defining African-American gay and lesbian identities and experiences.

Her project, which Smith calls “definitional and revisionist,” will examine history, not in isolation, but rather in the context of societal construction and social classes. She will also attempt to write the history of both African-American lesbians and gay men, while tracing the sociological, cultural, and emotional experiences of both.

Her revisionist historical approach will address such questions as: How did black lesbians and gay men view their own existence within various historical eras? How were black gay men and lesbians viewed by people of their own communities? What has the impact of segregation been in the shaping of the black lesbian and gay community? Smith plans to pay special attention to certain historical periods, in particular the Harlem Renaissance, a period that she believes has been seriously misconceived.

In her reading of history, Smith criticizes the silence, omissions, and lack of acknowledgement that gay men and lesbians of color have suffered in the work of both European-American and African-American scholars. She points out that the general mindset of African-American historian has been characterized by homophobia and heterosexism and that this has had a pervasive impact on the representation — or lack of it — of gay male and lesbian experience. Moreover, some “Afrocentric projects have viewed gay and lesbian lifestyles and identities as a reflection of the white culture.” Smith’s open criticism of African-American scholars demonstrates the independent path her research will take.

In the last part of the lecture, Smith emphasized specific problems pertaining to doing research on black lesbians and gay men: a lack of documentation, the question of reliability of sources, and the implications of emphasizing certain documentations over others. In spite of the difficulties that research such as this presupposes, Smith reiterated her commitment to reconstructing an African gay and lesbian history, and her belief that the project holds great promise for reclaiming the black lesbian and gay male heritage.