This Bridge Called My Back
Writings by radical women of color
Edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa; foreword by Toni Cade Bambara.
Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981.
This is my last review for this quest, and I hesitate to do it. I'm not sure I can do this book justice: it is so important on a historical, political, and personal level.
But then, if the authors included here had let themselves be frozen by the importance of these issues, this book would never have been written. So I can at least try to take this risk, to honor them.
This Bridge Called My Back is an anthology of exactly what it says: writings by radical women of color. Letters, poems, personal stories, and critical essays on subjects as varied and thorough as:
- Children Passing In the Streets: The roots of our radicalism
- Entering the Lives of Others: Theory in the flesh
- And When You Leave, Take Your Pictures With You: Racism in the women's movement
- Between the Lines: On culture, class and homophobia
- Speaking in Tongues: The third world woman writer
- El Mundo Zurdo: The vision
This book should be required reading, at least for people (like me) who are not part of the communities reflected in its pages. Many people never even know it exists. I was lucky that, at my women's college, this book seemed almost to be required reading among the students I knew. And upon finally reading it now, I found that several of my favorite essays from my Ethnic Studies classes came straight from its pages.
This book is notable not just for the writing within but for the people involved. The authors are all incredible women. Pat Parker. Nellie Wong. Luisah Teish. Chrystos, for gods' sakes. And many of them, in this book, are writing very early in their careers, or writing when they have already achieved fame in their communities for their political action but still have so much more ahead of them. For readers who have heard of any of these women, it will be fascinating to see what they were writing about their lives nearly twenty-five years ago. For others, this is an amazing opportunity to learn about a ton of history, writing, and action that is erased from mainstream culture.
The first two sections, "The Roots of Our Radicalism" and "Entering the Lives of Others, in part introduce the authors and the reader through a series of gorgeous and devastatingly honest commentaries:
when I was growing up, people told me
I was dark and I believed in my own darkness
in the mirror, in my soul, my own narrow vision
when I was growing up, I hungered
for American food, American styles,
coded: white and even to me, a child
born of Chinese parents, being Chinese
was feeling foreign, was limiting,
- "When I Was Growing Up," Nellie Wong
"The stories continue through the war years and on: walnut-cracking factories, the Voit Rubber factory and then the computer boom. I remember my mother doing piecework for the electronics plant in our neighborhood. In the late evening, she would sit in front of the T.V. set, wrapping copper wires into the backs of circuit boards, talking about 'keeping up with the younger girls.' By that time, she was already in her mid-fifties."
- "La Güera," Cherríe Moraga
The concept of "Entering the Lives of Others: Theory in the flesh" strikes me as particularly important. I come from the transgendered community; we have a lot of very fabulous books and other writing by transgendered people, but we are also plagued (in my opinion) by non-trans academics in fields like sociology, psychology, and gender studies who dismember our physical experiences to prove their pet theories
It is very, very easy for people to write articulately and inaccurately about experiences which are not their own. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what we know about a subject is all there is to know, especially when isolated in that metaphorical ivory tower. In their introduction to this section, the editors write, "A theory in the flesh means one where the physical realities of our lives - our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings - all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity... We do this bridging by naming our selves and by telling our stories in our own words."
What does this mean to them? Well, in her essay "La Güera," Cherríe Moraga goes on to address the effects of the divisions between oppressed communities.
"What I am saying is that the joys of looking like a white girl ain't so great since I realized I could be beaten on the street for being a dyke. If my sister's being beaten because she's Black, it's pretty much the same principle. We're both getting beaten any way you look at it. The connection is blatant; and in the case of my own family, the difference in the privileges attached to looking white instead of brown are merely a generation apart.
"In this country, lesbianism is a poverty - as is being brown, as is being a woman, as is being just plain poor. The danger lies in ranking the oppressions. The danger lies in failing to acknowledge the specificity of the oppression. The danger lies in attempting to deal with oppression purely from a theoretical base. Without an emotional, heartfelt grappling with the source of our own oppression, without naming the enemy within ourselves and outside of us, no authentic, non-hierarchical connection among oppressed groups can take place."
I remember that one year when I was in college, there were a series of workshops on challenging racism. There were several that were geared toward helping white students understand race and confront our own racism, culminating in a community forum in which white students and students of color were supposed to engage in dialogue about their experiences.
It was badly moderated though, and apparently not quite effective enough. Several of the white students did not understand the difference between acknowledging their own interalized racism and taking the blame for all racism in society, and were convinced that they were being asked to do the latter. Somehow, their homophobia spilled out as well; possibly some queer white students tried to oppose the racist fights that their peers were starting. It turned into a dramatic battle and quickly dissolved.
This is the kind of thing that happens when theory and practice are separated, when people "deal with oppression purely from a theoretical base" instead of simply talking about their own experiences. And, especially, when people in any community attempt to take these issues on "without naming the enemy within ourselves and outside of us" - without trying to understand the ways in which oppression and bias can be internalized, and distinguishing between the individual and the oppressive enemy.
This book is not aimed at a white audience, but it is a good place for white readers to learn more about what is considered inappropriate behavior and why. It is a good place, that is, to learn to recognize what is ours and take responsibility for it, and see what we have escaped that others have done.
In "Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American woman," for example, Mitsuye Yamada talks about her experience teaching a course in Ethnic American Literature. When she introduces "a new anthology entitled Aiiieeeee! compiled by a group of outspoken Asian American writers.... one of my students blurted out that she was offended by its militant tone and that as a white person she was tired of always being blamed for the oppression of all the minorities. I noticed several of her classmates' eyes nodding in tacit agreement.... To my surprise, they said they were not offended by any of the Black American, Chicano or American Indian writings, but were hard-pressed to explain why.... Then finally, one student said it for all of them: 'It made me angry. Their anger made me angry, beacuse I didn't even know the Asian Americans felt oppressed. I didn't expect their anger.'"
Yamada finds that this explains the behavior of her colleages and the administrators at her college, who reacted with shock and anger when she opposed their violation of established college policy. They thought it was uncharacteristic of her, and blamed "those feminists" on campus for pushing her into it. They have bought into the stereotype of the passive, polite, obedient Asian-American, and are surprised and angry when first called on their racism. They have not yet learned to recognize racism when they see it, much less to find and take responsibility for their part instead of trying to resentfully shoulder the blame for all the racism in society.
In "Gee, You Don't Seem Like an Indian From the Reservation," Barbara Cameron puts forth some valuable observations about her experiences with racism from another angle:
"Racism is not easy for me to write about because of my own racism toward other people of color, and because of a complex set of 'racisms' within the Indian community... I'm still in the process of trying to eliminate my racist pictures of other people of color. I know most of my images of other races come from television, books, movies, newspapers, and magazines.... To intellectually understand that it is wrong or politically incorrect to be racist leaves me cold.... My personal attempts at eliminating my racism have to start a the base level of those mind-sets that inhibit my relationships with people."
This is, in part, a book about taking responsibility, and placing responsibility where it belongs. More than that, it is a book about honesty, in which people do the crucial work of sharing exactly what their experiences are in this world. It is a book about people's lives as women within their many cultures and communities, and the ways in which the feminist community has internalized racism itself. The authors talk about being rejected and made invisible by feminism; call out specific parts of the women's movement for erasing women of color from conferences and political actions; return women of color to feminist history, and reclaim the women's movement as a movement toward changing the world instead of empowering one elite group of women.
It is many of the authors' life work to change and heal their lives and the world. It is everyone's life work, if we would only realize it. And many of them talk about it.
In the introduction to the section entitled, "Between the Lines: On culture, class and homophobia," the editors talk about refusing to live in fear, refusing to choose between "our cultural identity and sexual identity, between our race and our femaleness.... we even claim lesbianism as 'an act of resistance' (Clarke) against the same forces that silence us as people of color." And "We turn to each other for strength and sustenance. We write letters to each other incessantly. Across a kitchen table, Third World feminist strategy is plotted."
As I read this book, I stuck slips of paper everywhere when I found things to quote. At first, I used old business cards from my time at Ask Jeeves. One fell out, and I discovered that I had written something on the back of each card: a household chore to do, or an area of the house to clean. I had had some idea that I would pick a different card every day, a plan which never worked.
The card in this section said "Kitchen table" on the back, eerily, and as I stuck it back in I saw this quote about the place of the kitchen table in revolution. It is no accident that their small press was called "Kitchen Table;" it is a powerful symbol of the personal and the political, of the strength of community.
And so is this book: it changes the world by amplifying these voices and lives and ideas. I'll close with a vision of the future from Aurora Levins Morales' essay "...And Even Fidel Can't Change That!"
"Sitting in a kitchen in oh-so-white New Hampshire with old friends, mother and daughter, Ceci says 'It takes three generations. If you resolve your relationship with your mother you'll both change, and your daughter will have it easier, but her daughter will be raised differently. In the third generation the daughters are free.' I'm not thinking then of this essay, but days later when I sit down again to work, the phrase keeps ringing: In the third generation the daughters are free."