Black Lesbian Thought: An Interview with Briona Simone Jones

In today’s post, Emerald Rutledge, an associate editor of Black Perspectives, interviews Briona Simone Jones on her new edited collection, Mouths of Rain: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Thought, published by The New Press. Briona Simone Jones is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Michigan State University. She is a Black lesbian feminist of Jamaican and African American descent from Rochester, New York. In the fall, Jones will join the faculty at the University of Connecticut as Assistant Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Follow her on Twitter @brionasimone.


Emerald Rutledge: Please share with us the creation story of your book – those experiences and revelations that motivated you to compile this anthology on Black lesbian thought.

Briona Simone Jones: One of Mouths of Rain’s creation stories was my understanding of the poem “Recreation” by Audre Lorde through which I was made aware that Black lesbians attempt to thwart capitalism through literary form, queer kinship, sexual practice, pleasure, and creation. Knowing this, while in graduate school, I began assigning their work alongside the mandated, varied editions of the Norton Anthology and other canonical texts. While I was required to teach from certain texts, these chasms were filled with my attempts to queer the canon. I assigned works like Rachel, “Suzie Q,” Succulent Heretic, No Language Is Neutral, the Collected Poems of Audre Lorde among others, and the dialogue between my students and myself really shaped what I describe as the profundity of Black lesbian thought. In “Recreation,” Lorde says that her work and the love she makes are essential to her living, not connected to profitability but necessity. And, that approach to Mouths of Rain — creating distance between production for capital and production for being — was central for me and made its inception possible. Further, I desired to nuance Blackness and Black Feminism. Historically, Black lesbians have named themselves Third World women, connecting their struggles and visions for worlds otherwise to the Caribbean, the African diaspora, and North America. I view this kind of bridgework as one route to aspire towards or be under the tutelage of, and I think Mouths of Rain is one exemplar of those shared histories and connections.

Two interviews I conducted in 2018 with Cheryl Clarke and Beverly Guy-Sheftall also shaped the creation of Mouths of Rain. I was in search of validation. Black lesbians in my community were maligned and killed, and in the academy, rendered invisible. Cheryl affirmed in our interview that, “without Black lesbians, we wouldn’t have choices,” and Beverly underscored that, “Black lesbians have indeed been critical to the development of Black Feminism as ideology and praxis.” There is this bifurcated approach to Black lesbian praxis. In one instance, Black lesbians scrutinize the empire (Lorde’s “Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report”; Grimké’s Rachel; Pat Parker’s, “Don’t let the fascists speak;” Lorraine Hansberry’s “Simone de Beauvoir” and The Second Sex: An American Commentary”) while concomitantly, seeking to build the world anew. Black lesbians insist that their work is imbued with a movement towards what Ashon Crawley has named “otherwise possibility.” Through Black lesbians, we develop the language and movement for alternatives to the coloniality of power. 

During the first year of my graduate studies, I took two courses that have shaped how I read Black lesbian literature. In one course, we researched the condition of being human and womxn of color feminisms, and in the other course, we studied feminist epistemologies. These courses gave me the lens to understand how this category of human must be scrutinized, and how Black women experience a particular kind of oppression, an oppression designed to render our experiences and our work unintelligible. With these new ways of knowing, I tracked how Black lesbians were dehumanized, and how from that dehumanization, they were moved to create political theories, queer kinships, new languages, practices and forms of intimacy that were not reliant on acknowledgement nor recognition from the nation-state. 

Rutledge: Could you tell us more about how you chose the 5 parts that organize the text and what the process was like for piecing each part together?

Jones: In studying the genealogy of the Black Lesbian Radical Tradition, through folks like Angelina Weld Grimké, Cheryl Clarke, Dionne Brand, Audre Lorde, and Pat Parker, there were recurring patterns across these thinkers, and the five parts of Mouths of Rain reflect an attempt to archive these historical, spatial, and embodied discourses. I believe Audre Lorde when she said that there are no new ideas, there are only new ways of making them felt, and so, I am building upon the work of The Black Woman, Words of Fire, Afrekete, and does your mama know—texts that I believe demonstrate how Black women, as Toni Cade put it, “find out what liberation for ourselves means, what work it entails, what benefits it will yield.” Mouths of Rain endeavors to trace the trajectories of liberation, from self to community, through Black lesbian thought.

Lorde’s poetics of the erotic, how she insists that the erotic is praxis, something to be exercised, needed to be archived again. Celebrating the erotic, to mark one’s pleasure, means that “my work becomes a conscious decision—a longed for-bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered.” This mantra was a measure for me. I wanted to map the genealogy of thinkers who aspired toward that kind of satisfaction and wholeness. In the love we make and the work we do, what does the personal and collective energy toward achieving something, whether climax or finished product, look like? Part one attempts to add color, texture, flavor, and language to the uses of the erotic. The underside of marking one’s pleasure is this awareness of the ‘killability’ of Black women. Part two honors the life of the CRC statement, tracing at one instance, some of the most radical thinkers of the 70s and 80s, but also tracing a genealogical refrain, “Ain’t I A Woman” from Sojourner Truth in chapter I of WOF to Kai Davis in part II of Mouths of Rain. I am reckoning with how Black lesbian thinkers have responded to their death. What frames do they construct for us to see their response to imperialism and erasure? What are the ways through? 

Through Black lesbian writing, I understand that one’s choice to be visible in this space is a process of metamorphosis. Coming out of whatever you were born bound to; stepping into who you desire to be. Black lesbian writers have described this movement from enclosure to being in myriad ways, so part three, is a snapshot of the discourse between the Caribbean and North America, from the pre-Harlem Renaissance to the current Black liberation movements. When you shift what else shifts with you? For some writers, it’s love, for others, it’s language.

Recognizing that the fall of empire, past, present, and future, necessitates praxis through connection to the divine, part four endeavors to reveal the myriad appearances of devotion, from bedroom to church pew, from land to water. I center poetics in Mouths of Rain because I want readers to experience the ways Black lesbians jettison, recreate, and expand tongue and method. In a recent talk by Dionne Brand, she notes that one of the major propositions of poetics is that it can turn language over. Audre has said this in Sister Outsider, too. There is an aesthetic and rhythmic quality that imbues the language of futurity mapped out by these writers. They not only respond to and subvert colonial machinations, their ways of knowing provide the necessary sustenance for the long duration of a yet-to-be realized future. Part five seeks to map this. Mouths of Rain sits in relation to the historical interventions made in each chapter of Words of Fire. As sister-companions, for example, Part II: Interlocking Oppression and Identity Politics in Mouths of Rain is in relation with Chapter Four: Beyond the Margins: Black Women Claiming Feminism in Words of Fire. Through both sections we can explore the queer histories and practices of Black Feminism and the events that shape[d] this radical movement.

Rutledge: Mouths of Rain speaks to the depth and breadth of Black lesbian thought and the existence of a rich Black lesbian literary archive. In your introduction you talk about the porosity and capaciousness of Black lesbianism as “ontology, epistemology, hermeneutic, and haptic.” Could you talk more about this and the importance of Black lesbian feminist thinking historically and contemporarily?

Jones: One of the more difficult tasks that involved constructing the anthology was my awareness of Black Lesbian Thought as something uncontainable. I believe that their ways of being, knowing, and feeling, are heretical practices worthy of deep study. In Sylvia Wynter’s “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism,” she writes, “The proposal I am making is that such a discipline can only emerge with an overall rewriting of knowledge, as the re-enacting of the original heresy of a Studia, reinvented as a science of human systems, from the liminal perspective…whose revelatory heresy lies in their definition of themselves away from the Chaos roles in which they have been defined…” I believe that Black lesbians have one of the longest and sustained histories of defining themselves away from the chaos Wynter speaks of. What makes their work particular is that their vision of futurity involves everyone, not just those who name themselves lesbian. This work against homogeneity, this work towards plurality, is where the salience lies for me. And so, when I thought of the haptic, especially from the purview of Spillers’ work, I also remembered that alongside this history of Black women’s enslavement, Black lesbians were developing the languages and practices for how one might rediscover sensation and feeling; and, in this rediscovery, Black lesbians have constructed new knowledges, interpretations, and ways of being. Mouths of Rain is just a snapshot of these kinds of heretical movements.

Rutledge: From Cheryl Clarke’s foreword to your introduction, lineage and continuity become a critical part of the text’s framing. Tell us more about the significance of lineage, legacy, and continuity for you and for Mouths of Rain.

Jones: I hope that Mouths of Rain underscores that this long history of Black lesbian intellectual production can be further understood as an artistic literary movement. Akasha (Gloria) T. Hull documented that in Color, Sex, Poetry, Catherine McKinley and Joyce Delaney documented that in Afrekete in the 90s. Grimké and Alice Moore are not addendums to the Harlem Renaissance, their work was integral to that artistic movement — the same can be said about the Black Arts Movement and Black Power Movements, and the work of Pat, Cheryl, and Audre. And, as it pertains to continuity, I want readers to know that, for example, the figure of the bulldagger or butch can be traced generationally–from Lucille Bogan, to Pat Parker, to Janae Johnson. I view these archived stories in Mouths of Rain as constellations that hopefully engender a curiosity that will lead you to these writers’ oeuvre. 

 I believe that Black lesbians continue to emerge and will continue to appear in each epoch, movement, and discourse through language, sound and visual arts because there is something that we need to know, see, feel, or hear. My hope is that we continue to prepare ourselves to receive these messages and probe into how we can become more attuned to their languages and practices. And, in harmony, what new world can we build?

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Emerald Rutledge

Emerald Rutledge is an English PhD student at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include 20th Century African American literature, Black queer literature, Black queer theory, and Black feminisms. Follow her on Twitter @emeraldfaith.

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