Wondering About This Bridge Called My Back

In the midst of Christmas celebration, I was forwarded an email from South End Press with the subject line Imagine Your World Without South End Press asking for donations to keep the press running. If you can, donate, they need and are worthy of our help.

The plea for funds included the following paragraph

Regretfully, we don’t have to imagine a world without one of our most important movement presses; Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press shuttered in 1996.Kitchen Table was cofounded in Boston by, among others, veteran activist and movement intellectual Barbara Smith—three years after South End Press’s 1977 launch in the same city. The founding spark was a suggestion by Audre Lorde, who said to Smith, “We really need to do something about publishing.” Kitchen Table was among our first movement presses, “an activist and advocacy organization devoted to the liberation struggles of all oppressed people.” And now it’s gone, the press itself and yes, even some of its most beloved books: In 1986, they published Audre Lorde’s groundbreaking work I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities, now out of print. As is their landmark publication This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Unimaginable as it might seem, This Bridge will likely never be published again; even used copies are extremely difficult to obtain.

That last sentence leapt out at me because, getting ready to teach a course next semester on Chicana feminism, I’ve been trying to figure out ways for my students to read This Bridge. I’ve been focused on the inconvenience of having the anthology out of print right now, listening to rumors that it was about to be taken up by another press.  What I’ve felt at This Bridge being out of print was largely frustration. But when I read this email I started to imagine the world without This Bridge ever being in print again, the already rare used copies becoming ever more expensive and other women unable to have the first read experience I did.

Like so many others, I first read This Bridge Called My Back in a women’s literature class as an undergraduate.  At the time I felt isolated, as a Chicana on a mid-western college campus trying to make sense of Chicano/a literature and feminism.  This Bridge didn’t just feel like a text, it felt like a community and a safe space where, though reading the words of other women of color, I could articulate my frustrations and loneliness. It changed the way I thought about feminism, race and where and how I could fit in.  Even more, it allowed me the space to imagine myself as an intellectual, something which I’d never been able to consider myself. I read my copy over and over. The binding broke, my annotations overlapped colors (including pink highlighter) and writing styles.  Last month, as I searched for and made PDF versions of my copy, I worried about my students reading margin comments that included “YES!” “This!” and “Ha!”. While I want to convey my enthusiasm about This Bridge, I covered those over.  After all, I want them to be able to read the text and related to it on their own.

My first realization how much This Bridge meant to me, how important it was to how I saw myself and my space in the university, was during my first year of graduate school. I took a course on feminist activism — “The Personal as Political” and This Bridge was one of the assigned texts.  I was excited at the thought of discussing the anthology on a graduate level, only to  be deflated to the point of tears when the first comment was one by a second year white student that to her the book seemed “intellectually naive.”  With those two words I was silenced, feeling hot in my inability to articulate what This Bridge meant to me, its wisdom and bravery.  While I didn’t have the courage to speak out, concerned about revealing that I was intellectually naive, one of the two Asian American students in the seminar (the three of us were the only minority students in a class of 20) stood up for This Bridge and made the case for its intellectual sophistication. The white student backtracked quickly, giving me both a rush of shame for not standing up for the text, but also a lesson in the power of confronting those who would dismiss third world feminism.

On some level I’ve always felt I needed to make up for the moment I didn’t defend the book and what it meant, as though the text were a soul who could be betrayed.  I’ve spent the last decade studying the anthology as a textual community, making it the center of my dissertation.  When I read South End’s assessment that This Bridge is  likely to remain out of print I feel it like a personal loss. Thirty some years since its publication, its message about the intersection of race, gender and sexuality remains timely.  I’m not sure what can be done to keep the prediction of This Bridge from being true, what can be done to bring it back into print, but I can’t let it go gently or silently.  This book has changed countless lives and deserves to keep doing so.


MALCS Institute Paper: The Case of the Second Chicana

This paper was written for and given at the 2011 MALCS Summer Institute held last weekend at Cal State LA. It was wonderful and energizing conference. I’m including some of the slides as images — we’ll see how that goes.

In the introduction to her anthology, Chicana Feminist Thought, Chicana sociologist Alma Garcia gives her criteria for the selection of writings:

the substance of a document;
the historical importance of a particular document; and
the historical importance of a particular writer.

I would further argue that writings coming from the underground presses and newspapers of political and cultural resistance movements — like the Chicano and feminist movements — can be said to gain intellectual capital by both the frequency of their publication (and re-publication) and the extent of their distribution.

On those terms Enriqueta Vásquez’s variously titled article can be counted as one of the most influential essays of the Chicano movement. Certainly it qualifies as one of the most widely read and republished Chicana-authored pieces, crossing and criss-crossing Chicano and feminist boundaries, including its publications in Sisterhood is Powerful and Liberation Now!.

On my first readings of Robin Morgan’s anthology I assumed that the single Chicana author included in Sisterhood Is Powerful was Enriqueta Vasquez. I believed that Vasquez’s piece stood alone in representing Chicana feminists, as if saying that Vasquez was the solitary Chicana feminist not only in the text, but perhaps also in the larger feminist community. Its inclusion in Sisterhood Is Powerful does not stand on its own, however, but the five-page article is powerfully mediated by Elizabeth Sutherland in a three-page introduction explaining the article’s context. An identical version of “The Mexican American Woman,” complete with the same introduction by Sutherland, appeared in the 1971 anthology Liberation Now! under the title “Colonized Women: The Chicana.” However, in the case of the version in Liberation Now! the article is indexed as being by Sutherland, with the Vasquez article appearing as though within it.

The inclusion of Sutherland’s introduction is significant and striking. Among the anthology’s sixty-nine articles, only the contribution by Vasquez merits an introduction by another author. The structure of the introduction is itself interesting. Elizabeth Sutherland, in the tradition of the slave narrative, appears to function as an Anglo authenticating feminist voice. As such, she seems to vouch for Vasquez’s inclusion in the text as a feminist, as if otherwise there would be some doubt about the article — or even about Vasquez herself belonging in this community of sisterhood. Sutherland explicitly calls on the — presumably white — readers to “listen for her [Vasquez’s] own voice, not merely for echoes of their own.” The assumption, based solely on her name and the fact that Sutherland does not identify herself as ‘of-color’ — that Sutherland herself is white is one that should be examined, but is one that readers (myself included) would be likely to make.

However, a careful reading of the contributors list at the anthology’s end gives more information, (re)naming and identifying the author as “Elizabeth Sutherland (Martínez),” giving a clue she may not be as Anglo as her name would make her seem, though again it would take both careful reading and some insider knowledge or research to decipher the clues. The (Martínez) addition is not included in either the table of contents or the article text. It can only be read by going to the “Contributors” biography section at the end of the anthology. There she is further identified as the editor of the New Mexican based Chicano movement newspaper El Grito Del Norte. Further research into El Grito — reveals that Sutherland to be the second Chicana contributor to Sisterhood Is Powerful, Elizabeth (Betita) Martínez. Martínez was the founding editor of El Grito where Vasquez wrote regular columns and where the article was originally published. The name “Elizabeth Sutherland” is Martínez’s Anglo pseudonym, one that, by 1969, she had employed for several years.

Betita Martinez - Photo by Margaret Randall

Sutherland’s curious mediation, and the editor’s feeling that the introduction should be — or needed to be — included would be interesting in its own right. However, it is all the more so when one realizes that “Elizabeth Sutherland” is not in fact an Anglo feminist, but Vasquez’s Chicana editor writing under her Anglo-assumed name. Read with this knowledge, Martínez becomes the second Chicana contributor to the anthology; one with an extensive publication history, both before and subsequent to this contribution, and one arguably far better known (to the east coast Left community) than Vasquez would have been.

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