"A Baseline From Which to Build a Political Understanding: The Background and Goals of the Course."
Barbara Smith: I'd taught Black women's literature, interdisciplinary courses on Black women and talked about Lesbianism as an "out" lesbian in my "Introduction to Women's Studies" courses, but I really wanted to do a Lesbian lit course. Lesbian literature had never been offered by the Women's Studies program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, although the program is almost ten years old. There was a gay literature course that had been co-taught by a gay man and a lesbian, but its orientation was quite a bit different from what I had in mind.
Cherrie Moraga: Lesbian literature had been taught a number of times at San Francisco State through the English department. My major motivation for wanting to teach the class was that I thought it was the perfect place to integrate a political perspective that centered on Lesbians of color. The other motivation came in response to taking other women's studies classes and Lesbian-related courses that were so completely white and middle class. I wanted to teach a course that covered what I thought was missing from those classes.
B: I had no intention of teaching what I called on the first day of class "Rich White Women." The Renee Viviens and Natalie Barney types and shit. No interest whatsoever, because they do get taught, and some of them even get taught in straight literature classes.
C: The other thing is that in gay literature classes what is usually taught are books like Rubyfruit Jungle and whatever stuff is as mass-market as can be. Not necessarily feminist. And then, in a Lesbian course taught by a white woman, you would get racist and classist selections by default.
B: One major goal was to familiarize the women who took the course with the writing of women of color. The other goal was for them to get a grasp of how the issue of racism in the women's movement connected to them. I felt that it was impossible to talk about the literature of women of color without talking about the reality of racism also.
C: One of my goals was actually to teach a course on the theory of oppression through a feminist perspective. I wanted to talk about how Lesbians function in a positive and visionary way for a feminist future, for social change. But at the same time, I wanted to talk about lesbianism as oppression and to talk about homophobia. Regardless of their color, most of the women in the class had lesbian oppression in common, which gave them some sensitivity to racial oppression and class oppression. Some of the students didn't know they were oppressed. But there would be a source of oppression to work from.
"People Came Around": Our Students
B: Most of my class were white women and Lesbians. There were some white straight women and one Black straight woman, but no Lesbians of color who attended on a regular basis. I did everything possible to inform women of color about the class. I talked about this difficulty to the students from the beginning and I think at a certain point they thought I was saying that I didn't want them to be there, but I think that they began to understand what the significance was of having Third World women actually in attendance as we got into the subject matter. University of Massachusetts in Boston is an urban university that basically serves working-class and lower-middle-class students. The composition of the class did not reflect the racial composition of the campus. Not just Afro-American women, but Latinas, people from the Caribbean, Asian women, all kinds of people go there. But what began to be obvious is that the risks involved for a woman of color to take a course called "Lesbian Literature," whether she was a Lesbian or not, were high, particularly if she was a Lesbian. Most of the people who took the course were in their early twenties.
C: My class was also predominantly white. There were four women of color officially registered and, fortunately, often Third World women in the community would attend. The effect of the course? "People came around," as you would say. They had little or no exposure to the works of women of color, and they got some. In the first six weeks of the course, however, there was a great deal of tension in the room, particularly between the white women and Third World women. I experienced this tension as well. Many of the white women in the room didn't know that they'd have to be dealing with racism when they came to a Lesbian lit course. Finally, they began to comprehend that the way I was defining "Lesbian Literature and Feminism" meant that they had to be antiracist.
B: Despite what I consider to be the success of the...