Thanks in part to the scholar and poet Julie Enszer, the papers of the late Pat Parker arrived this past winter at the Schlesinger Library and are currently being processed. Enszer had a conversation recently with her friend Jenny Factor—a poet and Harvard-Radcliffe alumna who serves on the Schlesinger Library Council—about Parker’s life and work.
i have a dream
not Martin’s . . .
. . . In my dream—
i can go to a public bathroom,
& not be shrieked at by ladies—
In my dream—
i can walk ghetto streets
& not be beaten up by my brothers.
. . . i have a dream too.
it’s a simple dream.
“I Have a Dream” by Pat Parker
Pat Parker was born in Houston in 1944 and moved after high school to Los Angeles and San Francisco to become an artist.
She came to realize she was attracted to women after two marriages to male writers—the Black Panther minister of culture and playwright Ed Bullins and the poet and publisher Robert F. Parker. In the 1970s and 1980s, she gained her own prominence in the midst of the women’s rights movement. Her vibrant friendships with other well-known feminist poets make Parker’s papers resonate meaningfully with many parts of the Schlesinger’s collections.
Parker, who earned a living working at the Oakland Feminist Health Clinic, shared the majority of her adult life with Martha (Marty) Dunham, and together they raised a daughter. Parker traveled to Kenya and Ghana in 1985 with two separate United Nations delegations. Her travels in Nairobi and Accra made an important impression on her.
Domestic abuse became a theme for her after her first husband pushed her down a flight of stairs, leading to a miscarriage. Later, one of her four sisters was murdered by her ex-husband. Parker told this story in an astonishing long poem, “Womanslaughter.”
Parker died of breast cancer in 1989, at age 45, and her work has since fallen out of print. While preparing to acquire the rights to her poems and prose for a book of collected works (to be published by Sapphic Classics in the fall of 2016), the series editor, Julie Enszer, learned that Marty had saved 20 boxes of archival material. Here are excerpts from the conversation Julie and I had about Parker and her work.
Factor: How did you rediscover Pat Parker?
Enszer: I originally reread her poetry to consider it for the Sapphic Classics because I knew her work had gone out of print. Reading Pat Parker in the midst of Black Lives Matter is powerful. Each generation has to find its voice amidst racism and violence. I was struck by how her poems speak to our moment today.
I’ve heard you say that you experience a kinship with her cadence and spoken-word poetry.
Yes, a number of videotapes and audiotapes went to the Schlesinger. But the boxes also contain many revisions and demonstrate how hard Parker labored to choose what went on the page. I think one part of that comes from the 1970s women’s press collectives, where they all read one another’s work and considered how to print and present it. At the same time, Parker was an extraordinary performer and always aware of audience. She had an incredible amount of charisma.
What brought her that confidence?
I think what she cultivated in performance was bravado. I say that with great respect. Parker was a butch dyke and a lover of women, and I think she liked being out at the lesbian bars of the late 1960s and early 70s, hooking up and bringing women home with that sort of bravado that butch women had. But she was living at a time when butch and femme were changing and morphing, and feminism was coming into being. She cultivated herself through the Black Power movement. She recognized that blackness was denigrated and pushed back against that.
You just gave two examples of Parker’s finesse in taking a position that could be denigrated and using it as a source of strength. Not in spite of, but through.
Absolutely. One of the things that angered Parker was that she was a woman in some spaces, a lesbian in some, and a black woman in others. It was difficult to find spaces that were integrative for her.
Yes. But Parker also seemed to have such faith that art can make a meaningful difference when people come together to create change. You can hear it in her voice when she reads.
Speaking of which, have you seen BrakeBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop? It’s a lot of young poets of color who came up through the spoken-word circuit. I think of that anthology as the grandchild or great-grandchild of Pat Parker.
Interesting. Both the men she married were artists. Did she have an artistic practice at that point?
That’s one of the things that struck me when I was first working with the papers. Even while she was attending Los Angeles City College, you can see this inquisitive, studying part of her. As early as 1961 and 1962, she was developing a writing practice and understood herself to be a writer.
Her first marriage, to the playwright, was a violent marriage. After he pushed her down the stairs, she moved to the Bay Area and married Robert Parker. They published a journal together. Part of the reason she liked being with Robert was that they both had a sustained artistic practice.
Does she say that in her papers?
Yes. This archive shows how hard she worked to bring out her artist’s voice over a very long time. The women’s movement came and provided a context, but the work of the artist always extends before and after and is heard because of a set of historical conditions.
When you realized these papers were there, what was your reaction?
Well, Marty is the person who preserved these materials, keeping the collection together and in good shape. She kept the legacy alive. Because Parker died when her daughter, Anatasia, was only six, Marty was raising a young child as a single mother. So I think of her keeping those 20 boxes as a gift to us all.
The day when Marty and Stasia were signing the papers and getting the boxes ready to ship off to the Schlesinger, I was here in Michigan. It was the dark of early January, but there was a real light in the room. I could just feel Parker saying, “Harvard. Yes!”
I think she would be deeply delighted.
PAT PARKER PAPERS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Who: Pat Parker, poet/activist of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, participant in women’s, lesbian-feminist, and Black Arts movements
Nature of the Acquisition: 20 cartons of letters, poem drafts, mementos, audio and visual materials
Donated by: Martha Dunham (life partner) and Anastasia Dunham-Parker-Brady (their daughter)
Key Areas of Interest: African American activism, domestic abuse, lesbian feminism, lesbian motherhood, shifting aspects of butch/femme identity, arts and activism, collaborative arts, performance art, women’s publishing collectives, women and health, African Americans in the civil rights South, West Coast Black Arts Movement, travel in Africa