Clarke, Cheryl 1947–
Cheryl Clarke 1947–
“Cheryl Clarke is, perhaps, the preeminent African-American lesbian poet writing today,” noted the QueerReads.com website. Clarke’s poems were widely published in both gay-oriented and general publications from the 1970s onward, and she set a tone that inspired other black lesbian poets: her works are vivid in imagery, sharply political in tone and subject matter, and steeped in African-American traditional rhythms. A noted educator, Clarke has written nonfiction articles addressing the situation of those women who have faced discrimination triply from being female, black, and homosexual. Long involved with undergraduate education, she has offered guidance to gay and lesbian students.
Clarke was born on May 16, 1947, in Washington, D.C. She stayed in Washington for her undergraduate education, obtaining her B.A. degree from Howard University in 1969. The atmosphere at Howard in the late 1960s was filled with the excitement of student activism and with the awakening of all the possibilities opened up by the civil rights movement and the variety of more or less militant philosophies that followed. So when Clarke decided to go on for graduate study, she settled on a school with a long tradition of hospitality to progressive and radical causes: Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Affiliated with Rutgers in one way or another for much of the time since she arrived there as a graduate student in 1969, Clarke received her M.A. from the school in 1974; she also earned a social work degree there in 1980. During these years, however, Clarke was also becoming a poet. She read her poems around nearby New York City, at bookstores, at gatherings of black women writers, and as part of established poetry series such as the one at the 92nd Street YMCA. From the beginning her poetry dealt with the triad of being black, female, and gay.
Clarke also wrote nonfiction pieces, and one maxim of hers that was known in the radical gay community was reproduced on the Quotable Lesbian website: “For a woman to be a lesbian in a male-supremacist, capitalist, misogynist, racist, homophobic, imperialist culture, such as that of North America, is an act of resistance.” Clarke’s poetry embodied these ideas, but it is as concrete as the above statement is abstract. Rather than offering political mottoes, Clarke in her poetry is very much a storyteller. As a general rule, each poem of Clarke’s has its own fictional narrator—not necessarily a representation of Clarke herself but a different woman each time, deftly drawn in a few quick strokes.
The use of multiple narrators appears in Clarke’s first volume of poetry, Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women (1983). That volume gained notice from literary critics, and her second book, Living as a Lesbian, released in 1986, brought her wide attention. This collection of fifty poems, true to its title, addressed lesbian experience, but also includes poems on many other subjects, including the 1980 riots in Miami, Florida, black Miss America Vanessa Williams, Indian
At a Glance…
Born on May 16, 1947, in Washington, DC; daughter of James and Edna Clarke. Education: Howard University, B.A., 1969; Rutgers University, M.A., 1974, M.S.W., 1980.
Career: Poet and university program administrator. Freelance poet, New York City area, 1970s and 1980s; Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies, City University of New York Graduate Center, co-chair of the board, 1990–92; Office of Diverse Community Affairs and Lesbian-Gay Concerns, Rutgers University, director, 1992-; appeared in film, The Watermelon Woman, 1997.
Member: Member, editorial collective, Conditions magazine, 1981–90; member, New York Women Against Rape, 1985–88; member, steering committee, New Jersey Women and AIDS Network.
Addresses: Office —Office of Diverse Community Affairs and Lesbian-Gay Concerns, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08903.
prime minister Indira Gandhi, and, in “14th Street Was Gutted in 1968,” the scars left by the riots of the 1960s. “My sense of place was cauterized,” Clarke wrote in the latter poem. “Since that time the city has become a buffalo/nearly a dinosaur and, /as with everything else white men have wanted/for themselves, / endangered/or extinct.”
Reviewers noted in Living as a Lesbian a lyrical, almost musical strain that was absent from the earlier volume, and that musical element came to the fore in Clarke’s next collection, Humid Pitch (1989). Much of that volume was taken up by an ambitious 25-part poem called “Epic of Song,” a work that explored the nature of African-American creativity. As with Clarke’s other works, large and small, “Epic of Song” is held together by the story it tells: the poem recounts the experiences of a small-town black girl named Mourning Star Blue who becomes part of a touring group of musical performers. As she becomes romantically involved with a vocal diva named Mean Candy Sweat and interacts with a variety of other characters, the reader, in the words of Belles Lettres critic Jane Campbell, reflects upon “the connections among eroticism, women’s love for women—the power available to those who fuse art and life.”
Clarke’s next collection, Experimental Love, appeared in 1993, and like its predecessors it featured a colorful variety of poetic protagonists and subjects— 1930s Swedish actress Greta Garbo among them. The book included a number of more or less explicitly erotic pieces, and Booklist, reviewing the work favorably, described Clarke as an “in-your-face lesbian of color” and evaluated her work as “unfailingly witty, perceptive, sexy, and sensual, taking us on her freedom train of thought and into her inner musings as she skewers social, racial, gender, and sexual-orientation inequities.”
Serving on the collectively run editorial board of the magazine Collections from 1981 to 1990 and working with several nonprofit organizations, Clarke became co-chairperson of the board at the City University of New York Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies in 1990 and moved full-time into academia two years later when she was named director of diverse community affairs and lesbian-gay concerns at Rutgers. In that position Clarke addressed the needs of students with disabilities and general diversity issues as well as working with lesbian and gay students on campus.
Although her stance toward white men in general has been critical in both her poetry and nonfiction writings, Clarke has written in advocacy of openness toward interracial relationships in the lesbian community. “It cannot be presumed that black lesbians involved in love, work, and social relationships with white lesbians do so out of self-hate and denial of our racial-cultural heritage, identities, and oppression,” Clarke was quoted as saying in the book Divided Sisters: Bridging the Gap Between Black Women and White Women. During the 1990s Clarke herself wrote nonfiction articles on various other issues, including the strategies open to gays employed in predominantly heterosexual institutions.
Clarke made a short appearance as a poet very like herself in the 1997 film The Watermelon Woman. By the turn of the millennium she was something of an elder stateswoman of the community of black lesbian writers, sought out to write introductions and cover blurbs for other writers’ works. She could look back on the accomplishment of having challenged readers to think about the connections between different forms of oppression.
Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women, including “14th Street Was Gutted in 1968,” 1983.
Living as a Lesbian, 1986.
Humid Pitch: Narrative Poetry, including “Epic of Song,” 1989.
Experimental Love, 1993.
Wilson, M., & K. Russell, Divided Sisters: Bridging the Gap Between Black Women and White Women, Anchor/Doubleday, 1996, pp. 132–40.
Belles Lettres, Fall 1990, p. 53.
Booklist, October 15, 1993, p. 412.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2000; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001.
http://www.LesbianNation.com (November 23, 2001).
http://www.QueerReads.com (November 23, 2001).
http://www.rei.rutgers.edu/~divcoaff/About/aboutdirector.html (November 23, 2001).
—James M. Manheim
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