Thursday, August 25, 2016
Pat Parker and Audre Lorde. Photo by Susan D. Fleischamnn, 1981. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPat Parker and Audre Lorde. Photo by Susan D. Fleischamnn, 1981. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

The Pat Parker papers arrived at the Schlesinger Library in January 2016 and are in the final stages of processing. Parker affected many people during her lifetime through her friendships, relationships, and writing. Within her papers, letters between Parker and family, friends, professionals, and admirers shed light on the complexities of her life as an African American feminist lesbian poet. Particularly significant are letters between Parker and her friends (mostly poets and writers), including correspondence with African American poet Audre Lorde discussing their personal lives, literary work, and experiences with cancer. Most of the letters in the collection are copies of letters Parker sent to Lorde.

Lorde described their first encounter in a typescript draft introduction for Parker's 1969 book, Movement in Black. She writes that Parker was a "young Black poet with fire in her eyes, a beer in her hand and a smile/scowl on her face." After meeting one another in 1969, Parker and Lorde's friendship spanned two decades. The personal letters between Parker and Lorde reflect the complexities and challenges of their lives as African American lesbians, with Parker in Oakland, California, and Lorde in Staten Island, New York.

Flyer from "Take Back the Night Rally" event in Los   Angeles, California. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryFlyer from "Take Back the Night Rally" event in Los Angeles, California. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

In a 1975 letter, Parker tells Lorde that someone slashed her tires during July 4 weekend. She writes, I think someone in my neighborhood is expressing their opinion of our sexual preferences. I've had three flat tires this week. Think I’m going to have to set up in my window with a rifle or something." (July 24, 1975). In another letter, Parker recounts how she told her mother she was a lesbian. Parker writes, "It took me 3 days to get up the nerve. And when I tell her all she say is, "Well, as long as you're happy it's alright with me. How anti-clamatic [sic] . . . Here I've been building up this moment for 8 years and that's it. Not even a tear or yell or look of shock." (July 25, 1975)

The majority of the correspondence between the two poets detail their literary work and activities, including poetry readings, festivals, and speeches. Parker writes about delivering a speech in Columbus, Ohio, at a "Take Back the Night" rally, and a reading at the National Women's Music Festival in Bloomington, Indiana. She writes, "The conference in Bloomington was attended by a number of producers of women's concerts, etc. Hopefully, I prove to them that there is a place for poetry at these types of functions." She concludes by saying, "It still amazes me that I have to still be out here proving and reproving all the damn time." (June 8, 1986)

In addition to similarities in their personal and literary lives, Parker and Lorde were both diagnosed with cancer. Lorde battled the disease for many years before Parker's diagnosis. In her letters, Parker asked Lorde for guidance and advice. Parker reluctantly tells Lorde about her decision to start chemotherapy after her mastectomy, and Lorde replies that any decision she makes about her own body is the right decision. Parker writes, "This is not a piece of paper, but my arm extending across all the damn miles between us to hold you and hug you with all the strength, we have had to gain from pain." (September 8, 1988).

The letters between Parker and Lorde show the evolution of their friendship anchored on their similarities, evolving throughout many facets of their lives.

National Women's Music Festival, Bloomington, Indiana, 1989. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryNational Women's Music Festival, Bloomington, Indiana, 1989. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library 

Author: 
By Alexis Bucher and Amber L. Moore