In celebration of Black HERstory Month, we present snapshots of queer women of color via profiles of their bold, intelligent and unyielding determination to be seen, heard and respected. Below, you can read about Pat Parker, one of the many phenomenal women we found during our research. Enjoy!
Blunt, courageous, uncompromising, humorous, willing us with her words to defeat within ourselves the things that divide us, Pat Parker, born in Houston, Texas, has been above all a poet of community. Unlike many of her literary and political contemporaries, in the early 1970s Parker, the youngest of four daughters, claimed solidarity with gay men, in defiance of lesbian separatists, and with white women, in defiance of black separatists. Her absolute openness about being a lesbian when that was an especially transgressive acknowledgment within the African-American community and the writers of the Black Arts Movement was coupled with absolute respect for that community. Determinedly a poet for the people, when she used an even faintly advanced word, like protocols, in a poem, she asterisked it and provided a definition.
Writing out of an oral tradition, in ordinary language, Parker demanded accountability:
I don’t want to hear
how my real enemy
is the system.
i’m no genius,
but i do know
you hit me with
Among her best-known poems are two whose titles suggest her stripped-down style: “For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend” and “For The Straight Folks Who Don’t Mind Gays But Wish They Weren’t So BLATANT.”
She celebrated and valorized black women’s lives, working-class lives, and lesbian lives. She wrote unabashedly autobiographical poetry, and with her words she invited those who had been taught that their lives were not the stuff of poetry to love themselves. In the process, she also encouraged many readers to love poetry, too.
The archetypal image of a woman as midwife at her own birth finds its representation in the opening poem of Parker’s Child of Myself (1972), which blasts the Genesis myth of Eve being taken from Adam’s rib. In no longer claiming “a mother of flesh / a father of marrow,” Parker metaphorically gives birth to herself, becomes a poet, a truthteller. Such an image repudiates the biblical denial of women’s procreative powers and heals the schism between artistic and procreative conception. Writing about the murders of black children in Atlanta, she titled a poem with the bitterest irony, “georgia, georgia, georgia on my mind.” In the title poem of Womanslaughter(1978), the poet describes the murder of her sister, Shirley, at the hands of Shirley’s ex-husband. Parker calls this a communal act of male violence and announces her allegiance to all women, warning that if one of her “sisters” is hurt or killed:
I will come with my many sisters
and decorate the streets
with the innards of those
brothers in womanslaughter.
Parker’s love, however, was as legendary as her anger, as witnessed by the evocative poem about her first meeting with poet Audre Lorde: “My muse sang of you— / watch the sky for / an ebony meteorite.” Lorde’s foreword to Parker’s Movement in Black (1978) describes with admiration the precision of Parker’s images, the plain accuracy of her visions, and calls her words “womanly and uncompromising.”
Parker was the author of five volumes of poetry, including Pit Stop (1974) and Jonestown and Other Madness(1985). She was married in the early 1960s to playwright Ed Bullins but by the late 1960s had embracedlesbian feminism. Her collaborations with poet Judy Grahn, especially the Olivia record albums Where Would I Be without You? The Poetry of Pat Parker and Judy Grahn (1976) and Lesbian Concentrate (1977), introduced both poets to wider audiences. Parker’s political activism nourished her poetry and took numerous forms, including involvement with the Black Panther Party, the Black Women’s Revolutionary Council, and the Women’s Press Collective and a nine-year tenure as medical coordinator at the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center. Pat Parker died at age 45 from breast cancer, survived by her partner of many years, Marty Dunham, and two daughters, Cassidy Brown and Anastasia Dunham Parker.
-Koolish, Lynda. “Parker, Pat.” In Samuels, Wilfred D. Encyclopedia of African-American Literature.