PARKER, Pat (b. 20 January 1944; d. 4 June 1989), poet.
The first and most influential African American working-class poet who was also a lesbian and feminist of the post-Stonewall generation, Pat Parker was born as a premature baby in Houston, Texas, the youngest of four daughters. At the urging of her father, she focused on education as a way to improve her circumstances. She moved to California after graduating from high school in 1962 and completed undergraduate and graduate degrees at Los Angeles City College and San Francisco State College. Her political activism began during the middle 1960s when she became a member of the Black Panther Party. Parker's career as a poet began with her first public reading in 1963, during her first marriage to the playwright Ed Bullins. Parker used poetry as an escape from Bullins's unremitting criticism of her prose, which was possibly a factor in their divorce in 1966 and her subsequent marriage to Robert F. Parker. Her early experiences honed a willingness to develop a separate voice of her own and to write about contemporary issues ranging from the Vietnam War to civil rights.
Parker's move to San Francisco in 1969 placed her in a position to assist in the foundation of the Women's Press Collective in Oakland, through which she met the white working-class poet Judy Grahn, whose later lengthy poem A Woman Is Talking To Death was modeled on Parker's work. Throughout the early 1970s, Parker and Grahn (along with other lesbian feminist writers such as Susan Griffin) gave public readings of their work in many cities on the West Coast at women's festivals, bookstores, bars, and coffee houses, spreading both the concept of lesbian feminism and an awareness of its literature. Her readings broke existing stereotypes, claiming and asserting the reality and validity of lesbian women of color. She also served as medical coordinator of the Oakland Feminist Women's Health Center from 1978 to 1987 (when she retired to have more time for her writing) and founded the Black Women's Revolutionary Council in 1980. Her death from breast cancer was deeply felt by the women's movement. After her passing, numerous prominent feminist and lesbian writers such as Audre Lorde and Jewelle Gomez addressed the relative lack of public dialogue about her work by acknowledging her pioneering influence on not only their decisions to come out, but also the evolution of their approaches to speaking honestly about race, class, and sexual identity within women's poetry.
The complex simplicities of Parker's poetry represent the intersection of the multiple communities in which she claimed citizenship and whose imagery and issues were combined in powerful and striking ways. Her work also articulates black lesbian experience through the expression of her own life in her poetry. Despite the general recognition of her diverse array of community identifications, the arguments over how to view Parker's legacy exhibit certain common themes. Her poems pungently address often hidden or unpopular issues of class, sexism, and gender, reflecting her unwillingness to participate in any social reform movement, whether African American, feminist, or gay liberation, whose tenets did not acknowledge all aspects of her identity. By refusing to diminish herself to secure a voice, Parker broke with the alternative literary establishment of the 1960s and 1970s, and spoke openly of controversial issues such as abortion, wife abuse, domestic violence, murder, and the myriad levels of discrimination practiced by women upon and against each other. The best examples of this are her lengthy autobiographical poem "Goat Child," recalled by Judy Grahn as offering the then-revolutionary idea that a woman's life was suitably complex subject matter for artistic creation, and "Womanslaughter," the poem dedicated to her murdered sister Shirley, read by Parker in 1976 in Brussels at the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women.
Critical reception and analysis of her writing both within and outside the lesbian community has been somewhat more limited than might be expected, due in part to the fact that her three original chapbooks (small collections of writings similar to a pamphlet), Child of Myself (1974), Pit Stop (1974), and Womanslaughter (1978), have all gone out of print. However, their contents were reissued in her signature collection Movement in Black (1978). Her final 1985 collection, Jonestown and Other Madness, is a volume of longer poems focusing on topics from then-contemporary headlines. Much of the scholarship about Parker is comparative in nature, examining both the many layers of meaning contained in her writings and the poetic techniques (particularly her use of African American patterns such as call and response—the responsive patterns of singing characteristic of many black congregations) she employed to meld them into a vibrant whole. This work often links her to feminist poets such as Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich. Her emphasis on oral performance is reflected in the styles of language she used, which have caused some critics outside of the lesbian community to see her poems as more political statements than artistic creations. However, the importance of Parker's work to lesbian feminist poetry lies in her proving that a black lesbian could articulate a powerful and unique viewpoint on social issues through blending the values of all her communities and thus serve as an inspiration to achieving solutions acceptable to each.
Callaghan, Dympna. "Pat Parker: Feminism in Postmodernity." In Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory. Edited by Antony Easthope and John O. Thompson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Garber, Linda. Lesbian Identity Poetics: Judy Grahn, Pat Parker and the Rise of Queer Theory. Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1995.
Oritz, Ana T. "Pat Parker: Revolutionary Spirit." Sojourner: The Women's Forum 14, no. 2 (August 1989): 3A.
Robert B. Ridinger
see alsograhn, judy; literature; lorde, audre.