/ 27 May 2020

The Sisterhood: Reviving the evidence of things not seen

The Sisterhood (vertamae Grosvenor, Alice Walker, Louise Meriwea
Black feminine creative power: Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Alice Walker, Louise Meriwether, Toni Morrison, Nana Maynard, Ntozake Shange and other members of The Sisterhood in 1977. (Photograph courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Howard University)

“I love you, but I don’t trust you”, whispers from black heart to black heart like a mantra against our farcical solidarity. Where self-deprecation meets self-love, can there be a successful collective? Can a revolution come from the transmuted wounds of the Black woman? Can a festival turn into eternal solidarity? Can we be friends and allies for long enough to defeat our common enemies, delirious self-doubt, capitalism’s ability to turn all creative output into a commodity? Can we override those epigenetic tendencies rooted in generational trauma, by simply gathering and sharing ideas on our own terms, or is it too late for that pure and reckless kind of love, that troubled and troubadour Black love? 

Can Black women who are also professional writers, griots in our own right, reclaim private generative and creative practices without sacrificing our careers in capitalist institutions? Or is it time we make that sacrifice, not of ourselves, but of the institutions that cannot survive without our energy as commodity, capital, indomitable soul? 

The 1960s and ’70s were decades riddled with Black collectives whose members, whether artists, scholars, or politicians, joined to refract the decay of impending late capitalism with collectively improvised strategies for recovery from that toxic system. The diaspora sometimes feels like one big festive party, but no one knows whose house it is, no one has openly volunteered to host the gathering, everyone is trespassing and exhibits the guilty decadence that comes with stealing oneself into pleasure under dire circumstances. 

Black women have done the most tending to that voluntary soul-risking that occurs when we try to counter the myth of white dominance and seek power in the Western world, as a diaspora and as individuals. 

Under those conditions, when acting openly makes you a moving target and constant witness of atrocity the general population might not be able to fathom, Black collectives become hypermacho to overcompensate for how petrified members are of the state; how subordinate to it even in insubordination. Black female members of these groups, groups like the Black Panthers, Kawaida, the Umbra Poets, Move Philadelphia, et cetera, feigned militant servileness at times, or just employed quiet grace that could be mistaken for obedience, to ensure that the survival of Black families and communities would not be undermined, as much by the gender war as by the race war. 

There is mildly disturbing footage of Amina Baraka for example, instructing a woman at the Spirit House she ran with her husband Amiri, that women must be feminine and constantly available to their men; that it is their duty to diasporic justice and revolution. She calls this a “collaboration” but its terms are indiscriminate black female submission to black men who preach about revolution. 

Festac in 1977 would be a galvanising factor in the evolution from the concept of the pious, black, revolutionary, trophy wife, to a very literal Sisterhood, wherein black feminine creative power could be explored for its own benefit. The first formal meeting of this group, who called themselves The Sisterhood in tender love and solidarity, the only sorority we’ve ever needed, was at June Jordan’s home in February of 1977 and featured a karass of Black women writers and thinkers. The summer festival had brought in its harvest of momentum; it had done the work, planted the seeds that would feed us in a more barren season and land. 

Instantly, the writers decided they would work together to create Black-owned and -run publications, vivid alternatives to the New York Times and the Village Voice, instead of the ever-fantasised ones extant in dream and idea. They would provide bodies for the ghost narratives of the future; they would tend to suspended bones, the writing that exceeded publishing outlets, that upset imperialism too much to extract resources from it; they would lend these coming children a skin of words. 

The Sisterhood would keep this clandestine, however, and use their ritual meetings not as bureaucratic alignment with this or any publishing goal, but as real opportunities to bond while safe from the white gaze, and the Black male gaze. The Sisterhood would gather like chrysalis in the Western literary world’s expansive blindspot and roil there, messy and preparatory. 

Toni Morrison, an editor at Random House at the time, would spearhead additional gatherings to plan for the publication, which would be called Kizzy, roots. They sought black investors and wanted to use “mass appeal” to address every aspect of Black survival. In the idea’s dying days, all of that fervour dissipated into a group of Black women discussing their depression and methods for surviving that: how could they be happy visionaries as Black women, and not the kind motivated or debilitated by anger? Where could they place their collective optimistic fatalism if not as Kizzy, as roots, as something harrowing? How could sorrow be avoided when mourning the impossible? Could lament be heroic also? 

Whether doing the tending to publication or to men or to one another, as Black women we have been socialised to neglect ourselves, and not notice for so long that it seems like every cathartic burst is thwarted by preemptive grudges or fantastical and urgent preoccupations with what our rebellion could become if we just see it through. The seeing it through; the capacity for porousness; the reluctant surrender to ourselves at the risk of upsetting our men and our children and our oppressors, all who say they love us — it seems like so much practice at not being completely seen causes Black women to internalise every critique and pathology of every blind entity, as natural healers, and in doing this we constrict ourselves. 

The Sisterhood was a beautiful mode of transmutation, but it was also a trauma bond; an occasion to commiserate and help one another to digest quiet neglect. We had moved past the “stand by your man” Black revolutionary ethos; we were now standing by one another, alone together, but that didn’t make for a more perfect union. It gave us a clearer mirror, more to face, more intended caretaking, this time at least with accomplices and willing shadows. 

In the constant tacit open combat that we Black women embrace, it isn’t enough for women to come together feeling impalpably connected; the maintenance of that tender sentiment requires “capital” — a Black-owned and -operated institution, a place to be and inscribe. 

When the first and most necessary step on that path was to create a functional chosen family, it seems The Sisterhood and Kizzy slipped into the quicksand of that sociology before ever reaching the economic and political force that would have made the endeavour exceed its founding members. Legacy building is the most threatened activity of Black life. Black women often take up this work because we can disguise it as vanity instead of the overt militancy it is. 

The Sisterhood fell prey to the bipolar nature of Black uprising throughout the diaspora. We’re either inundated with a will to power as we were in much of the 1960s and parts of the 1970s, or we’re dejected by all of the murders and state violence our will is met with, falling into either despair or the kind of apathetic decadence in which we use cultural production as an escape instead of a strategy toward resistance. Black Beauty is what we love. 

The Sisterhood possesses that beauty even still, compels Black women to make efforts at full self-actualisation. Today this history weighs on the consciousness like myths with the heroes and details mixed up and forgotten. Did the Sisterhood really exist for real? How do we archive and revive our evidence of things not seen?  Will we have to repeat this decadence and this despair endlessly because we never quite establish a place to put it, we never quite own the venue, and the healing bitter roots are rotting and fermenting into poison?  

At the same time, the Sisterhood reminds us that Black women are always our own antidote, our own cure. Even as we spend ourselves foolishly trying to save everyone we love, and even some people we hate, we are entirely capable of organising and healing ourselves first; maybe always just a little too altruistic to neglect the rest of the world the way it sometimes tries to neglect us. The Sisterhood was a refuge and refusal conceived by women who cared even when they didn’t have to, and could have been abject capitalists, which is proof that soul overrides elitism in great Black women and in Black culture at large, and that victimhood can and must be transcended.

Harmony Holiday is a writer, dancer, and archivist/myth scientist, and the author of Go Find Your Father/ A Famous Blues (Ricochet Editions, 2014) and Negro League Baseball (Fence Books, 2011). She lives in New York and Los Angeles.

This is an edited extract of an essay which first appeared in Festac ’77, a book published by Chimurenga

To purchase a copy of the Festac ’77 book, please visit this website