I Transfer and Go Underground
A love letter. Some random musings. Or a disjointed rant on the long awaited 4th Edition of “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color”, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Un mil gracias SUNY Press!
My formal introduction to Indigenous and race-radical women of color feminism was violent, namely due to my own life experience as a survivor of sexual and state violence, my social location as a mixed-race queer woman of color from an urban working-class/working-poor background, and to the wider political conjuncture that was taking place when I was introduced to this activist tradition. Like many poor queer youth of color growing up in the ‘shadow of the prison’ in the 80s and 90s in “Golden Gulag” (Gilmore 2007a) California, feminism—or what I thought at the time was feminism—didn’t speak to me or to anyone else in my hood. It didn’t help me to understand why and how California became comprised overnight of over nine hundred miles of concrete prisons overflowing with the caged bodies of the ‘surplus population’ of young men and women of color victimized by ‘The War on Drugs’ and by other horrors that start with the letter ‘D’: devolution, downsizing, deindustrialization, and dehumanization. What I would later understand to be white, upper- middle-class, hetero “hegemonic feminism” (a.k.a. “whitestream feminism”) just didn’t do it for me like queer Black and Chicana feminisms and “This Bridge Called My Back” (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983) feminist praxis would. While “a principled sense of mortal urgency” (Gilmore 2007a, 251) has continued to propel me to act, race-radical women of color feminist thought has continued to teach me to act strategically and tactically, to possess a healthy distrust of easy, instantaneous solutions, and—as sister Audre Lorde reminded us in her poem “A Litany for Survival” (Lorde 1995)—“to speak, remembering, we were never meant to survive.”
In 1994, on the heels of the passage of ‘Three Strikes’ and my own brief stint in juvenile detention where I met girls scarred for life by the intersections of interpersonal, intimate and state violence, I was fortunately involved in a number of radical youth of color dominant activist groups in San Francisco that were initiated by radical women of color feminists, queers of color, and male of color activists and allies. I remember one particular day after school when I asked Elisha, a queer puertorriqueña who was leading Young Women Empowered for Change if she could help me because I was downright confused about, well, everything. She then introduced me to the upside-down world of heteropatriarchy—a world I already inhabited but didn’t have the language to name. Elisha then proceeded to introduce me to the more motivating, less depressing world of race-radical women of color and Indigenous feminisms. Skimming her book shelf, she started throwing books down to the floor where I was sitting, propped against the wall behind her. I remember that “Homegirls: A Black Feminist Anthology”, Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Salt Eaters”, Assata Shakur’s and Angela Davis’ autobiographies, and Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza” rained down on me like a force field. Absentmindedly, Elisha threw one particular book with such force that it slammed into my face, the sharp edge drawing blood from my cheek. Yes, “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color” (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983) made me bleed. Perhaps this is the sign I was looking for, I thought as I cringed at all the reading material I committed myself to and the blood that it had caused me to spill. That very night I read Cherríe Moraga’s preface which begins with a meditation on the stakes of women of color feminist politics:
“I can’t prepare myself a revolutionary packet that makes no sense when I leave the white suburbs of Watertown, Massachusetts, and take the T-line to Black Roxbury.
Take Boston alone, I think to myself and the feminism my so-called sisters have constructed does nothing to help me make the trip from one end of town to another. Leaving Watertown, I board a bus and ride it quietly in my white flesh to Harvard Square, protected by the gold highlights my hair dares to take on, like an insult, in this miserable heat.
Julie told me that other day how they stopped her for walking through the suburbs. Can’t tell if she’s a man or a woman, only know that it’s Black moving through that part of town. They won’t spot her here, moving underground.
The train is abruptly stopped. A white man in jeans and tee shirt breaks into the car I’m in, throws a Black kid up against the door, handcuffs him and carries him away. The train moves on. The day before, a 14-year-old Black boy was shot in the head by a white cop. And the summer is getting hotter.
I hear there are some women in this town plotting a lesbian revolution. What does this mean about the boy shot in the head is what I want to know.
I am a lesbian. I want a movement that helps me make some sense of the trip from Watertown to Roxbury, from white to Black. I love women the entire way, beyond a doubt.” (Anzaldúa and Moraga 1983, xii–xiv)
The body count of stigmatized, criminalized, incarcerated, legally eliminated, socially dead, expendable and disposable, sexually violated, tortured, missing and murdered Indigenous girls, girls and women of color, queer and trans youth of color, continues to rise and expand unabated. The growing murder-suicide rates, statistics of missing and murdered Indigenous and Black women, should no longer surprise or overwhelm us but incite us to urgent action and theorization in line with race-radical women of color feminist movements mobilizing to end gendered and racialized violence endemic to the carceral state. A feeling of mortal urgency hounds us everywhere, every day, all the time, all at once in white settler societies like ours; it surrounds, envelops, and blankets us, most often lulling us into a deep, depressed, dreamless stupor rendering us hopeless and immobilized. Many of us have already lost the battle. How many of the contributors to the ground-breaking race-radical women of color feminist text ‘This Bridge Called My Back’ or the earth-shaking Black lesbian Combahee River Collective are surviving and thriving, alive and healthy in 2014? At other times, when not killed-off, bought-off, coopted, or placated by the carceral state and its so-called ‘kinder and gentler’ politics of recognition and reconciliation and its non-profit, professionalized social service apparatuses, we channel the pent-up sum of our intergenerational rage into ‘dreaming big’ and ‘making power’ within our families, intimate relations, and communities. The mortal urgency lies in us staying dormant and continuing to patiently over-rely on the carceral state to guarantee the health of our lands and waterways, our human and civil rights, our bodily integrity, our safety and security, our health and well-being, our children’s futures rather than aligning ourselves with anti-racist feminist, Indigenous decolonial, and prison abolitionist movements. We fail to listen and actively disengage with these (re)emergent and resurgent movements that resist the liberal and neoliberal state’s politics of recognition, visibility, and inclusion at our own peril. Six hundred years after the advent of colonial genocide and chattel slavery, the stakes are as high as ever. As Ntozake Shange declares, “We all have immediate cause”.
Bambara, Toni. 1983. This Bridge Called My Back : Writings by Radical Women of Color. 2nd ed., 9. print. New York NY: Kitchen Table.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2007. Golden Gulag : Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lorde, Audre. 1995. The Black Unicorn : Poems. New York; London: Norton.
Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa. 1983. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press.
Written by Lena Palacios