Black Herstory: A Poetic Call to Justice From Lesbian Feminists

The murders of Black women in Boston in the late 1970s incited feminist activists; they also prompted poets to address racist violence in their work. Stephania Byrd, a member of the National Black Feminist Organization, wrote these lines in the poem, “On Black Women Dying,”

… In the spring of 1979

13 black women

were found


in vacant lots …

around the corner from home …

in her apartment …

“On Black Women Dying” appeared in Byrd’s second collection of poetry A Distant Footstep on the Plain, which she self-published in 1981. A Distant Footstep followed her 1976 collection, 25 Years of Malcontent, published when Byrd was 26. The poems in both collections engage questions of race, sexuality, desire, poverty, power and justice with particular attention to Byrd’s experiences as an African American lesbian.

Even though 25 Years of Malcontent and A Distant Footstep on the Plain are long out of print, they are important books for a number of reasons. First, individually and collectively, the poems in these two chapbooks are a delight for readers. Secondly, Byrd’s poetry is part of a broad tradition of poetry by African American lesbian-feminists. The poetry of Audre Lorde is canonized widely, and deservedly so, but Lorde is one poet in a chorus of voices–a chorus that includes Byrd as well as Pat Parker, E. Sharon Gomillion, doris davenport, Sapphire, Terri Jewell, Jewelle Gomez, Ai and many others. Access to a broader array of African American, lesbian-feminist poets is vital to our history, literature and cultural heritage.

Thirdly, these chapbooks are an important expression of lesbian print culture. Byrd’s poems made–and continue to make–frequent appearances in lesbian-feminist publications. Her first book, 25 Years of Malcontent, published by Good Gay Poets, demonstrates the shared relationships between lesbians and gay men in the 1970s to further both political and cultural objectives. Byrd’s second book, A Distant Footstep on the Plain, independently published, exemplifies the common action of self-publishing for lesbian-feminist writers, particularly in cities like Boston with strong lesbian-feminist communities.

Finally, Byrd’s poetry is an excellent example of how lesbian-feminist writers developed lesbian-feminist theory through poetry. In both of these collections, there is a rich interrogation and reworking of a variety of political ideologies–lesbian separatism, interracial negotiations and reconciliations, identity elaborations and assertions, intraracial conflicts and detentes, and reflections on justice and injustice. Byrd engages politics and theory keenly in her poems while always attending to the art and craft of poetry. This may be one of the reasons why her poems bring so much pleasure to readers.

Long out of print, Byrd’s two chapbooks are now available for free in a new ebook at the Lesbian Poetry Archive. The final lines of Byrd’s “On Black Women Dying” remain a poetic call for justice still relevant today:

… what I’m trying to get at

is that in the last 30 odd years

of my life span

there has occurred

a series of events

which have culminated

in the death and near dying

of Black women

across the continent of Amerika

and the police

the FBI

the presidents and their committees

have told us

there is no connection

between these deaths

and the violence

done to us,


We have been reminded

shall be reminded

many times . . .

will you and I become

another unrelated statistic

in these series of events?

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Julie R. Enszer is a scholar and poet. She's currently the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. Julie's research has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern CulturesJournal of Lesbian StudiesAmerican PeriodicalsWSQFrontiers and other journals; she is the author of the poetry collections AvowedLilith’s DemonsSisterhood and Handmade Love and the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry.