Breaking the Silence at Spelman College and Beyond
By Beverly Guy-Sheftall, founding director of the Women's Research and Resource Center, Spelman College
From 2006 to 2011, Spelman College's Women's Research and Resource Center conducted the Audre Lorde Project, named for one of the most influential black lesbian feminist/writer/activist/educators of the twentieth century and the first project of its kind at a historically black college or university (HBCU). The project's overall objectives were to increase public awareness and understanding about African American LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) experiences; to explore the marginalization of racial issues in the LGBTQ movement and in gay and lesbian studies; and to create climates that acknowledge, value, and respect difference, especially within HBCUs, where profound silences continue to exist around gender and sexuality. Project activities were conducted in two stages, each substantially funded by the Arcus Foundation.
Phase I of the project, titled Breaking the Silence: The Audre Lorde Black Lesbian Feminist Project, began in 2006 and focused on outreach at Spelman and within the Atlanta University Center (AUC), a consortium of local HBCUs. As part of this phase, Spelman instituted the Zami Salon, a series of student-driven activities designed to raise awareness, combat homophobia and heterosexism, and promote more inclusive environments. LBGTQ scholars and activists visited Spelman to share their experiences both inside and outside of black communities. Award-winning writer Thomas Glave discussed the necessity of interrogating heteronormativity in African Diaspora cultural contexts. Cara Page, national director of the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment, presented a workshop on LGBTQ issues and genetic technologies. Layli Phillips, professor of women's studies at Georgia State University and a Spelman alumna, offered an elective course on Black Queer Studies (probably the first semester-long queer theory course at an HBCU) and also established an LGBTQ scholarship. Under the auspices of the Zami Salon, the Women's Center sponsored Spelman's first faculty Coming Out Day.
The project's first phase also supported the digital archiving and public unveiling of Audre Lorde's papers, now part of the Spelman Archives. During this phase, Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, and I completed I Am Your Sister: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde (2009). Drawing from our research, the center held a major symposium on Audre Lorde's life and work in fall 2008. At the symposium, academics, activists, and students explored a range of issues relative to black gay and lesbian experiences. Without a doubt, Phase I established Spelman's Women's Center as a major site for the exploration of black queer issues in the academy.
The Audre Lorde Project Phase II: Facilitating HBCU Campus Climates of Pluralism, Inclusivity, and Progressive Change, conducted from 2008 to 2011, expanded outreach to selected HBCUs outside of the AUC. This phase's broad range of activities culminated in the historic Audre Lorde HBCU Summit on April 29, 2011, when participants from eleven partnering HBCUs and other colleges and universities gathered at Spelman to engage in dialogue about LGBTQ issues on our campuses. Leading experts presented research findings and offered recommendations about how HBCUs might establish more open and inclusive environments for their LGBTQ constituents. Two hundred participants attended the event, including representatives from entities like the United Negro College Fund, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Black Justice Institute. Participants repeatedly expressed a desire to make sexual diversity a top priority at their institutions. The summit resulted in a three hundred page Summit Resource Book (available on request).
Reflecting on the project, Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum asserted, "Our mission calls us to develop the intellectual, ethical and leadership potential of our students, and we cannot effectively do that unless we ourselves model ethical leadership. For me, that means taking responsibility for creating an inclusive community where everyone feels welcome. Lives are depending on it" (2011). In the aftermath of the Audre Lorde Project, Spelman College has convened an LGBTQ working committee to explore how we might continue to build Spelman's community around issues of difference. It is our hope that other HBCUs will heed the call as well.
Byrd, Rudolph P., Johnnetta Betsch Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. 2009. I Am Your Sister: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tatum, Beverly Daniel. 2011. "Breaking Silence, Saving Lives." Inside Spelman, May 5. http://insidespelman.com/?p=3155.