Saturday, May 17, 2008

for alexis from alexis: honoring alexis de veaux

by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

the thing within
all of it

-from "Poem for the Poet Alexis De Veaux" by June Jordan

What a blessing when we can call our heroes by our own names!

I am writing this on a Sunday, giving thanks for the name, Alexis, meaning helper of all humanity. Giving thanks for Alexis De Veaux who teaches me that I am not the first one called to the task.

Alexis De Veaux, black lesbian feminist poet, playwright, scholar, teacher, and publisher has been dressing this old planet in her new words for decades. Alexis De Veaux is a warrior because she insists that if we have space or time to breathe or write it is because we have made it, demanded it and built it ourselves. The first words I heard someone use to describe Alexis De Veaux was "brilliant black feminist". This was from her mentee Mark Anthony Neal who credits Dr. De Veaux with inventing and calling into being the black male feminism he strives to live. The second description I heard was "brave". Cheryll Greene, who has been close friends with De Veaux for years, explained that Alexis De Veaux was always determined to live as an artist, even when that meant risking everything. And it does. Every time.

Alexis De Veaux has published about a half dozen books with well known literary presses including several books of poetry and a groundbreaking biography of fellow black lesbian feminist poet and teacher Audre Lorde. She is now the chair of the Global Gender Studies Department at the State University of New York in Buffalo. And I celebrate the way the world honors and rewards Dr. De Veaux's priceless and crucial contribution to literature and literary studies.

But today is Sunday, and I've long since stopped going to church. So I have to give thanks in my own way. Today I want to talk about the miracles that the world forgets. Because for artists, especially black lesbian visionaries, staying true to purpose means choosing integrity over security day by day. Alexis De Veaux teaches me to remember that a world worth living in is not one that can be bought into. The world worth living in is the one that we make.

Alexis De Veaux is a warrior. For example, in the bleak Reagan years which marked the end of the short period in which writing by black women was in high literary demand, De Veaux refused to allow the cold shoulder turned by publishers and the conservative limits of the National Endowment for the Arts to end the black feminist literary project that was her home. If institutional racism sought to silence the voices of black women, De Veaux countered by creating institutions. De Veaux opened up her Brooklyn apartment to young women of African descent and facilitated a writing circle called the Gaptooth Girlfriends, a group of women who grew together as writers and published their own work in anthologies with the same name. During the same period De Veaux and her partner at the time Gwendolyn Hardwick started a performance group called The Flamboyant Ladies which hosted brunches, made t-shirts and made space for discussions as complicated as the particular stake of black communities in the movement against nuclear war.

As long as Alexis De Veaux had a place to live, the black feminist literary movement had space to grow. And having a place to live (in New York City) is no simple victory as an independent artist. Strategically, in the 1980's, Alexis De Veaux used her talents as a writer to work for Essence Magazine, a popular lifestyle and fashion magazine which reaches a market of millions of black women. Talk about making miracles happen in the least likely places. Essence Magazine, bastion of the normative black family was (and is) more committed to selling beauty products than to sparking a worldwide black revolution. But against the odds, Alexis De Veaux and Cheryll Greene turned the conservative 1980s in to the most radical decade the magazine has ever seen. De Veaux celebrates the fact that with the support of editor Susan Taylor, she and Greene were able to bring a level of consciousness to the magazine that went further than the feminists magazines of the time, not to mention the mainstream press. With the help of fellow writers Toni Cade Bambara and June Jordan they reported on the struggles and victories of black people in Zimbabwe, Haiti, Nicaragua, Cuba, South Africa and all over the United States, encouraging the women who subscribed to the magazine (and their daughters who secretly read it me!) to think about black solidarity in terms much wider than the United States and much more substantive than electoral politics. As De Veaux explains "We were talking about black diasporic community long before that phrase became popular."

And it never stopped. Alexis De Veaux is still challenging readers and students to expand their minds and to understand the political importance of every situation, and every word we use.

Alexis De Veaux is a warrior all the more worthy of praise because she is still here three of the black womyn warriors who I have mentioned in this post (Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan) have already become ancestors too soon. But Alexis De Veaux is alive, in every sense of the word and she takes her responsibility to the past and to the future seriously. Alexis De Veaux is alive.

Give thanks. Give thanks. Give thanks.

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