August Surprise: The Contending Forces Seminar (Seminar In The City)

August in New York City is one of those months I usually want to forget. It’s hot and sticky and
downright oppressive. The streets can be strangely quiet and empty because some people, but
not me, have the time or the money (or both) to be anywhere but here during the dog days of
But August 2001 brought a refreshing summer surprise. I and some three dozen other people had
the good fortune to be part of a CLAGS Seminar in the City, “Contending Forces: Black Feminism and
Queer Studies,” taught by E. Frances White, Dean of the Gallatin School at New York University.
According to the course description, we would be looking at questions including: How do race,
gender, and sexuality transform each other in our lives? What do race and sexuality have to do with
class? What do black feminists have to say about sexuality and class? What does Audre Lorde tell
us about growing up black and queer? We discussed those things and more, sharing intellectual ideas,
personal experiences, and political convictions. We debated such issues as whether the word “queer”
holds particular significance and/or stigma in communities of color, and whether it is fair to equate
homophobia with racism.
Our texts consisted of Fran’s new book, Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics
of Respectability, Audre Lorde’s classic Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and her Sister Outsider, and
Dangerous Liasons: Blacks, Gays, and the Struggle for Equality, edited by Eric Brandt. Black lesbian poet
Cheryl Clarke made a guest appearance and led us in a discussion about Lorde’s poetry.
We convened each Wednesday evening in August. And what a group we were: old and young;
female and male; gay, straight, bisexual, and exploring; people of color and white people; those who
had read widely on the subject matter, some who were dipping into it for the first time, and many
others who were somewhere in between. Some of us used words like “feminist” and “queer” to describe
ourselves; others did not. The seminar was ASL-interpreted for a few of our members who were
hearing-impaired. The diversity and breadth of the group, the richness of the topic, and Fran’s gentle
guidance through it added up to an intellectually exciting experience. If I had any doubt we had
stumbled on, and were helping to create, something truly special, that doubt was completely erased
during our second session, when, although we were meeting in a windowless room on the top and
hottest floor and the Center’s air conditioning system had clearly given out under the strain of a mid-
August heat wave, every single person literally sweated it out for the entire two-hour session. The
conversation was just too good to miss.
The “Contending Forces” seminar was such a success that some of us would not let it end. So it
hasn’t. Fran has been generous enough to continue contributing not only her time and her wisdom,
but also her living room, so that she and we can continue to meet once a month.
Thank you to CLAGS and to Fran White for an inspiring, thought-provoking, communally rich

Barbara Raab is a journalist and activist in New York City.