Black Queer Lives: A Conversation with Moya Bailey and Laura Lovett

New York City, New York/USA – July 26th, 2020 Black Womans/Womxn March Protest Black Lives Matter – Crowd of people marching holding BLM signs and flags (Julian Leshay/Shutterstock)

Conversations in BlackFreedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer, the series was established by Komozi Woodard and Jeanne Theoharis as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on Radical Black LGBTQ+ Feminist Lives, scheduled for December 2nd, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.

Moya Bailey is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. Her work focuses on Black women’s use of digital media to promote social justice as acts of self-affirmation and health promotion. She is interested in how race, gender, and sexuality are represented in media and medicine. She is a co-author of #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice and is the author of Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance. She is a graduate of the Emory University Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department. Professor Bailey is the founder and co-conspirator of Quirky Black Girls, a network for strange and different black girls and now serves at the digital alchemist for the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network

Laura Lovett is Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of With Her Fist Raised: Dorothy Pitman Hughes and the Transformative Power of Community Activism and Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1930. She is editor of Sex in Global History: Modern Sources and Perspectives and co-editor with Lori Rotskoff of When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made. Professor Lovett is currently co-editing a collection of essays on African American women leaders at the 1977 National Women’s Conference. “It’s Our Movement Now”: Black Women’s Politics and the 1977 National Women’s Conference places Black women’s experience and leadership at the center of the history of the women’s movement. 

CBFS: Can you tell us how you came to write on this intersection of Radical Black LGBTQ+ and Feminist lives?

Moya Bailey: I’ve always been interested in those of us at the margins. Writing about the people who are not at the center of the story of history, though they should be, has been a part of my own organizing since I was conscious of it. It feels important to add to the historical record that Black queer women and feminists have organized to help the next generations go a bit further than they did. I want to continue the work of expanding the archive.

Laura Lovett on the left and Moya Bailey on the right

Laura Lovett: Since my book is about the life of Dorothy Pitman Hughes and her commitment to Community Justice, I think it might make the most sense if I tell you how I came to know and write about her. I had been teaching US Women’s and Gender History for about a decade and had always had the image of Dorothy with her fist raised standing beside Gloria Steinem on my syllabus. Like many people, I felt like this image helped to mark what feminism might mean if we really imagined its liberatory potential to challenge racism. I did not realize until I came to write the history of the Book, Record, and Television show called “Free to Be: You and Me” that it had actually been filmed at Dorothy’s Community Childcare Center on the West Side of New York. When I asked Dorothy who was writing her biography, she pointed at me and said “You do it.” 

CBFS: Can you share the story of a particular figure or event from your work that our readers might not be familiar with?

Moya Bailey: People know Octavia Butler, if they know her at all, as a MacArthur genius SciFi writer, which is true. But Butler was also a theorist, using science fiction to further understand the human condition. So much of her work is about trying to figure out how to encourage humans to treat each other better and she experiments with extraterrestrial, religious, and fantastic means. Her works are a blueprint for the challenges we face as humans and a call for us to change our behavior so we can get in better alignment for the good of each other and the planet. Her work is like sacred texts that will hopefully help us get to where we need to go. 

Laura Lovett: I taught Free to Be in my classes because it envisioned remaking society by remaking gender expectations for young children. How liberatory would it be to reimagine all socialized roles, beginning with what were called in the early 1970s, “Sex Role Stereotyping.” I knew that my students found it exciting to learn about the history of generations before them re-imagining an entire spectrum of gender and sexuality identities. Dorothy worked with the children’s media project that created some of the most radically-liberatory songs and ideas about gender roles. Her vision, though, helped to frame so much of the movements we attribute to trying to remake how we understand gender and sex. Indeed, when Gloria Steinem, then a journalist, had first toured the West 80th St. Community Center to write an article about the significance of Dorothy’s revolutionary vision, it was Dorothy who persuaded the shy writer to speak out about issues in public, with Dorothy, the public activist, offering to share her stage. The fact that the site where a new vision was produced was the Child Care Center established by the very radical Black woman who persuaded one of the people who became an icon for the 1970s Women’s Movement to speak in public for the first time, let me know that Dorothy’s was an important and overlooked story that needed to be told.

CBFS: Considering the current movement for Black lives, how does an understanding of these oppressions together help us understand and even act in our current world?

Moya Bailey: Audre Lorde put it best when she said, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” I truly believe that we cannot get free until we are all free. In the words of Barbara Smith and her comrades Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” I think about that freedom in relation to Black trans women, Black immigrant and refugee women, Black women sex workers, Black disabled women, and beyond. If we want to liberate Black people, the most oppressed among us need to have their liberation because in so doing, everyone else will be just fine.

Laura Lovett: Dorothy Pitman Hughes had a vision for how to create change. It involved working with people in Community, seeking to identify interlocking oppressions and to challenge them. Oftentimes, the way in which movements and activists get reduced to a single-issue is a function of the way in which such movements get covered in the news or an inability to understand how crucial it is to see the connections between obstacles to allow for change. Hughes’ lifetime of work to make change by seeking to improve everyone’s access to resources, safety, and security can help us imagine how to act.

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Erik Wallenberg

Erik Wallenberg is a PhD candidate in the History Program at CUNY Graduate Center. He has taught courses in history and environmental studies at the University of Vermont and currently teaches global history and American environmental history at Brooklyn College. He is a Presidential Research Fellow working with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.