Stephanie Recommends Five Classic Black Lesbian Books You’ve Probably Never Heard of But Need to Read

I recently attended a literary conference focused on lesbian literature and was shocked at how many attendees didn’t know anything about Black lesbian literature outside of two or three authors. Most were familiar with Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and Audre Lorde, the consummate Black lesbian poet, but that was about it. Full disclosure: I wrote an entire dissertation on the marginalization of Black lesbian literature, so I might know more about Black lesbian books than the average lesbian literature lover. Still, here are a few titles that you’ve probably never heard of, but that you should definitely read. This month I’ll discuss five titles, and I’ll finish up the list later this year.

loving her1. Loving Her (1974). Ann Allen Shockley is generally hailed as the first Black lesbian novel published in the United States, i.e., the first novel written by a Black lesbian with a Black lesbian protagonist. Loving Her, while at times overly didactic, is the novel upon which the Black lesbian literary canon is built. The novel’s themes are overtly political, mostly in relation to the Black Nationalist and feminist rhetoric of the time, but these topics are still relevant today, and particularly given our current political climate. The novel centers on Renay, a working class Black musician married to the abusive, failed football star, Jerome Lee; and Terry, the rich white woman writer who falls in love with her. Loving Her goes back and forth in time, as it relates the story of how Renay and Terry met, as well as the challenges they faced as a couple. There is a bit of drama, but you’ll have to read the novel to find out what that is! As mentioned earlier, the writing can be a bit heavy at times, but this book is an excellent look at how one writer represents an interracial lesbian relationship.

25 years of malcontent byrd2. 25 Years of Malcontent (1976) and A Distant Footstep on the Plain (1983). Stephania (Stephanie) Byrd’s poetry centers the experiences of Black lesbians in the early years of the feminist movement. She writes of communes, the danger of being an out lesbian, as well as the joy she finds in communities of women who love women. You’ve probably never heard of her, but her poetry is not to be missed. The imagery is at times a bit stark and gritty, but that speaks to the veracity of her perspectives on Black lesbian life. [Available to download for free here.]

black lesbian in white america3. Black Lesbian in White America (1983). Anita Cornwell was calling out patriarchy, homophobia, and racism before most of us were born. She was a lesbian separatist, which may have made her unpopular in Black as well as some lesbian and feminist communities. This collection of essays is important, though, because she was clearly invested in writing about the experiences of women and creating a world where all women could be free. She was also one of the only Black lesbian writers to publish essays in Negro Digest and The Ladder. Check her out!

for night like this one birtha4. For Nights Like this One (1983). Becky Birtha’s collection of stories explores issues of loss, family, motherhood, and acceptance in lesbian communities, and like Ann Allen Shockley, she also wrote stories that included interracial relationships, mainly between Black and white women. One of my favorites is “Babies” which is about a woman who longs to have a child, but gives up that dream to be with the woman she loves. It may seem ridiculous now, but at the time, many lesbians considered having children complicity in patriarchal system, and they wanted no part of it. Don’t believe me? Visit your local library and check out a few books on lesbian separatism. More than anything, this collection of short stories reveals the myriad ways in which Black lesbians experienced life and love, and although not all of the stories have happy endings, one gets the sense that Birtha’s lesbians are unafraid to face life on their own terms.

black and white of it ann allen shockley5. The Black and White of It (1980). Ann Allen Shockley’s collection of short stories offers up snippets of lesbian life in the late 1970s. The stories examine issues of loneliness, internalized homophobia, and racism, and more often than not, lesbians living in the closet. A white college professor falls in love with her out graduate student, but can’t free herself from the closet to make the relationship work. A Black politician rejects her lover because she refuses to disavow her lesbian identity. While several of Shockley’s lesbians lead droll, closeted lives, they provide a window through which readers can experience what it might have been like to be lesbian in the latter part of the 20th century.

Black lesbian literature as a genre has grown since these titles were first published, and there are literally hundreds of titles now available that readers can choose from. However, I think it’s important for readers to know that Black lesbians have a literary history too. All of these authors are still alive, and some are still writing. Shockley published her last book, Celebrating Hotchclaw, in 2005; and Birtha is the author of several children’s books. The next time you’re in the mood for a little classic lesbian literature, check out one of these titles. And the next time you’re at a conference or book festival and someone says they don’t know anything about Black lesbian literature, tell them about these amazing writers!

S. (Stephanie) Andrea Allen
Twitter: @S_Andrea_Allen
Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Short Fiction

Danika reviews Loving Her by Ann Allen Shockley


The foreword to Open Road Media’s edition of Loving You begins with a quotation, and I can’t help but use the same one to begin my review:

“For black lesbians,” writes novelist and critic Jewelle Gomez, reading Ann Allen Shockley’s first novel, Loving Her (1974), “was like reading The Well of Loneliness for the first time as teenagers and realizing there were ‘others’ out there.”

That reference is fitting. I found myself thinking of The Well of Loneliness throughout reading Loving Her, for a few reasons. The first is that this is obviously a very important, groundbreaking work for black lesbians. It was the first black (explicitly) lesbian novel published, and the first lesbian novel with an interracial couple. But the second is the tone of the story, which was sometimes uncomfortably close to the narrative published fifty years prior.

Loving Her begins with Renay escaping, with her daughter, from her abusive, drunken husband. She finds refuge with her partner, a rich white writer. Beyond that, there isn’t much of a plot arc to Loving Her. It is mostly about Renay, and her girlfriend Terry, attempting to survive together in a racist, sexist, homophobic world. Renay is caught between worlds, finding escape from abuse and the possibility of love in this new gay community, but it’s a community that is almost entirely white. She finds community with her family and friends, and an escape from racism there, but has to remain closeted to avoid the homophobia contained there. And of course there is the sexism and homophobia of the entire society on top of that.

Trigger warning for discussion of rape in the rest of this review.

Loving Her is a thought-provoking and important book, but it is deeply flawed. As the foreword notes, this is Shockley’s first novel, and there are issues in the character development (including “gross generalizations, and stereotypical constructions of black men and women”) and “trite language”, like describing rape as “trying to shove his male dagger into the secret abyss of her being”.

Renay was compelling, but most of the other characters feel flat for me. I think the characters that most intrigued me were minor ones, Lorraine and Vance, and that’s because they had such a terrible relationship. Lorraine behaves like a spoiled brat constantly, while Vance provides for her. At the same time, Lorraine expresses her dissatisfaction at not being allowed much of a life, especially because they began their relationship so young. She is deeply unhappy, but Vance treats her like a child and everyone simply ignores her when she acts out. Lorraine seems frantic to escape her mundane life, but is terrified of risking everything. [spoilers, highlight to read] When she does leave, Vance makes her own misogyny clear when she states that “they’re all alike” and “My motto now is the four f’s. Find ’em, fool ’em, fuck ’em, and flee ’em.” [end spoilers] This is a very small part of the novel, but they are fascinating, and seem to suggest that though Renay escapes her abusive heterosexual relationship for a supposedly idyllic lesbian one, that doesn’t mean that lesbian relationships are inherently healthy or that they can’t have power imbalances.

Though I appreciated the importance of Loving Her, I can’t say that it was an enjoyable read overall, and that is because of the Well of Loneliness-esque tone of despair.

[major spoilers below]

Renay begins the book married to a man who abuses and rapes her. In fact, the reason they got married is because Renay got pregnant when he raped her. Even when she leaves him, there is always the threat that he will find her again. When he does, he beats her to the point of hospitalization. Later, he threatens to tell the judge about their lesbian relationship in order to gain custody of her daughter. And this is all on top of the more everyday homophobia, sexism, and racism that Renay already faces. This made for a difficult read, but the breaking point for me was at the end, when Renay’s daughter dies. She was in a car with her drunken father at the time. This seemed like completely over-the-top tragedy for me in an already dark story, and definitely reminded me of Well of Loneliness. Renay even asks “Do you think God’s punishing us for this?” Then she leaves Terry. The difference is that Renay and Terry get back together by the end of the book, a supposedly happy ending. It reminds of The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which is supposed to be the first lesbian book with a happy ending, but like this one, I would not call an ending that bittersweet a happily ever after.

I had a few other complaints as well, including that all the characters drink constantly throughout this book. Because Renay experienced abuse when her husband drank, I was surprised that she wasn’t uncomfortable with everyone drinking on pretty much every page. Especially because there are a few times that Terry gets drunk and angry. I also had difficulties with a one-off observation when Renay remarks that her light brown skin suggests “Somewhere down the line, through rape or consent, body chemistry and mind attraction weren’t controlled by society’s norms or by the system,” as if that proved that interracial romance was possible. This conflation of rape with consensual relationships was jarring to me, especially considering the power dynamics at play in the relationships she’s referencing.

But the one factor that that really inhibiting me from loving Renay and Terry’s relationship is that they both have scenes that read like rape, with each other. When they begin their sexual relationship, it’s fairly one-way. Later, Renay insists on going down on Terry in return, but Terry clearly says “No-no, Renay. I don’t want you to that” and is protesting. This is treated as if Renay is being generous. In another scene, when Terry is drunk, she pins Renay down, her body crushing hers, making Renay taste blood and feel like she is being bruised. Renay even thinks that this reminds her of Jerome. Terry stops at this point, and it shrugged off. Clearly, we’re not supposed to read either of these scenes as rape or abuse, despite how they are described.

As I said, this is a deeply flawed novel. The scenes between Terry and Renay that read like rape are enough in themselves to turn me off the book, but there is still value here. Like The Well of Loneliness, this book has to be read in consideration of the time it was written. Loving Her paved the way for black lesbian authors, and these stories are just as desperately needed today as they were forty years ago. Shockley was weighing in on the debates of the 1960s and 70s, and many of the points she is making still ring true today.

I definitely think that if you decide to read Loving Her, you should pick up the version with a foreword by Alycee J. Lane. (Do read the foreword after you’ve read the book, however, or you’ll know the whole story beforehand.) Most of the complaints I had–apart from the problematic scenes between Terry and Renay–were included in the foreword, and it also adds a lot of historical context to the book. Despite all of the issues I had with this book, it is still one I would recommend: it’s just one that I would recommend with reservations.