An Interview with Cheryl Clarke
Conducted by Nia Allen- Lee,
Womenís and Gender Studies Major, Leadership Scholars Class of 2014, and KaterŪn FernŠndez, Linguistics Major
Edited by Mariah Eppes
Nia Allen-Lee & KaterŪn FernŠndez: When and where did you grow up?
Cheryl Clarke: I grew up in Washington, D.C. and I was born in Washington, D.C. I lived there until I graduated from Howard University in 1969 and came to New Jersey.
NAL & KF: What was it like growing up there?
CC: Well, boy, that wasóthatís an interesting question, because I look back on it, and I thought growing up there was like growing up in two different worlds. Because Washington, D.C. was a very segregated town, very segregated. Subtle, you didnít have the signs, it wasnít vicious like Mississippi or Alabama. It was genteel, you know. But, two different worlds. I grew up in the world of my family and neighborhood, and that was a black world, and I also grew up in the world of my Catholic school education, which started at grade two and went to grade twelve. And the people I went to school with when I started both schools were white. Like, maybe I was one of four black kids in my class, maybe one of four black kids in the school, I donít remember. But by the time I graduated from both institutions they were predominantly black. But what does that show you, that shows you the tide of white flight from the cities. From the city. So, I grew up in those two worlds, and as a friend of mine used to say, I learned how to talk nice around white folk, and I learned how to fit in with black folk. But I knew I was different. I didnít feel it negatively, but I knew I was different. I knew I was destined to do something different, while my parents were pushing me to do something different. Thatís why they sent us to Catholic schools. They thought they would be better for us.
NAL & KF: Do you see that kind of a cult segregation still today? Still in Washington, D.C.?
CC: Yes, itís still very much like that. But white people are beginning to move back into the city now. So if you take a place like U Street in D.C., if you look at U Street now, when I was growing up, you did not see a white breath on U Street. It was totally, it was like 125th and Lenox Avenue in New York. And now, itís very different. Very diverse. So, yeah, I do still see that in Washington. Segregation or, yes, especially in Southeast. I think many of the black people have been sort of pushed out to Southeast now. But I havenít lived there since 1969. I mean I would go back to visit, but I havenít lived there.
NAL & KF: I know you said that your parents pushed you, and thatís why they put you in a Catholic school because they wanted you to do something different. Do you think that was mostly from your mother, or from both your father and mother? What types of images of women did you see and was your mother the matriarch of the house?
CC: Well letís put it this way. My mother was a manager for thirty-five years. She managed not only on her job, she managed the house. And you did what she said. My father was a different kind of person. I know they both wanted us to go to college. But my mother was pushing that. She pushed for us to be baptized so we could go to Catholic school, because you know, you really couldnít go to Catholic school unless you were Catholic then. You really couldnít. Or you could, but who would want to? So you know, she pushed us to be baptized as Catholic. My father had grown up Catholic, his father was Catholic, my fatherís mother was a Baptist. They built the first black Catholic church in Georgetown. Because they didnít want to be segregated, they didnít want to have to worship upstairs so they built their own church. This was like before World War I. No, during. During World War I. My mother pushed my father to get us baptized so we could go to Catholic school, we did that, but it was my mother who managed that upbringing. Even though, they had very reversed roles. He worked at night, which meant that he was home during the day, he did all the housework, he did the cooking, he did the picking us up from school. Before we had a car, he would walk up, and walk us back. He was very well known in the neighborhood, all the children loved him. We had a nickname for him and all the kids in the neighborhood called him that. So, he was a very, very interesting and different kind of man. But he was not aggressive.
NAL & KF: Do you remember any historical moments and can you share your memories?
CC: Yes. Thatís a good question too. Because I lived through a very historical time. I was in high school during the mid-60ís, and graduated from high school in í65, and the southern movement was going full tilt during that time. There were protests and demonstrations everywhere, and I remember so much from that period being acted out in Washington, D.C. because as I told you, Washington was a very segregated town. And so, during that time, we watched those barriers fall in D.C. If you know New York Avenue in D.C., there used to be a whole lot of movie theaters down there. Black people did not venture beyond New York Avenue. You had to wait until the theaters came to your neighborhood theater to see movies. Ah, Iím wrong. There were three movie theaters black people could go to and they were all on U Street. They were called the Lincoln, the Republic, and the Booker T. And if you wanted to see a first run movie like The Ten Commandments, you couldnít go down there to the National, you had to go to the Lincoln or whatever, whatever one was biggest. To see first run movies. So we watched those barriers fall, we watched the barriers [fall] in department stores. There were department stores that black people couldnít really go into, or didnít go into. Because nobody would wait on you. Okay, so those barriers fall, so thatís very interesting, but I would say that my most interesting historic time was when I went with my parents to the March on Washington in 1963. It was very interesting to be at that historic event. And the day before, we had to drive down to get some information from the headquarters of the march, for some reason my mother wanted to go down there. And she asked me, you know, children as servants, they send you to do something, Cheryl, go in and get whatever, so I said okay, whatever. And just as I was going across the street, to get whatever it was, Martin Luther King Jr. was walking across the street, to the headquarters. Looked very tired. But Dr. King was unmistakable. And, you know, he just nodded his head to me. But he was with people. He had his entourage. That was very interesting. And so when I got back in, my mother said just leave it to you to have that luck. If I didnít have on my old house dress, I would have got out and shook his hand.
NAL & KF: Were there any other models or powerful females that you grew up with or that influenced you?
CC: Well, yeah, I could say the nuns that educated us. They were really some Ďtaking care of businessí women. They really were. They taught us. They were rigorous. They were always no nonsense. But you know, some people have, you know, every time I say I went to Catholic school and nuns this and nuns that and they say, did they hit you with rulers? I said no, I never experienced nor did I see a nun hit a child. They would be out there at recess. Boys nuns, girls nuns. And if you got into fights, or if somebody was being bullied, theyíd come and theyíd say cut it out. They were very brave, and very good, and always prepared for class. Because thatís all they had to do. Pray and get ready to teach. So yeah, I admired nuns. I had some very good nuns. Very good teachers. And you know, and they alsoÖ they didnít do enough encouraging of us to go to college. So we had to depend on our parents for that. There was still that ambivalence. Do I encourage a black kid to go to college? So they didnít encourage us to go to college. But my mother did. I said to my mother, ďI want to be a nurse.Ē And she said, ďwell, you can be a nurse, but youíre going to go to college first.Ē I said ďno, no, I wonít be doing that.Ē Nuns, uh, my motherís friends who were always over at her house, her women friends. And that was a good example to me, because it said to me donít ever be without close women friends.
NAL & KF: Why?
CC: Good question. Because for their generation I think you have to be able to talk to somebody about stuff. You have to be able to talk to a peer about stuff. And, I think sometimes women canít talk to men like that. Or they certainly canít talk to their husbands. But you know, will you always want to talk to your husband about whatís really close to you? No. Even if he understands it. So you want your close women friends, you know, because women and men are different. Iím not saying one is from Venus and one is from Mars, but weíre still different enough to need that. I think, anyway. And Iím not trying to say ďoh, I was a lesbian then,Ē no, Iím not trying to say that. But, I think she did give me that model of close women friendships.
NAL & KF: Can you tell us about an influential person in your life and accompany it with an anecdote to go with this person?
CC: An influential woman in my life was the woman, her name is Eleanor Ross. She died, Iíd say, less than ten years ago. She hired me in my first professional job at Rutgers in 1970. She hired me as a teacher of developmental writing, and I would be teaching black and Latino first generation college students. Now I didnít know anything about teaching, and I certainly didnít know anything about black and Latino first generation college students, even though I could share an experience of disenfranchisement. Well, I muddled through my first couple of years with students, it gave me a chance to teach Afro-American literature, which was good, because it gave me a chance to learn it better. But what I learned from her, I learned to value being smart, as a woman. She was very smart. And not to play it down. But not to be arrogant either. Which was very important; she was not arrogant. Though people thought she was because she said what she thought. And, I learned that when you hire somebody into a job, they donít have to have all the skills they need for the job. They just have to be able, I think, one has to be able to communicate that one is willing to learn it. But you donít have to have all your skills full blown. Now, Iíve served on many hiring committees at Rutgers, and whenever there is a pool, a diverse pool, the people of color seem always to have to have everything in place for the job. They always have to have everything in place for the job. I think thatís why black people say they really have to be overqualified. White person 100%, black person 200%. Or person of color. Or woman of color. So I learned, because I certainly didnít have all my stuff together when she hired me. But she had a sense, and she wanted to open up the academy to nontraditional people. I was definitely nontraditional. So thatís what I learned from her. And thatís what I always say when Iím on hiring committees. ďWhy is it that so-and-so over there, you didnít ask so-and-so that question, when the so-and-so of color over here has to have everything full blown? Doesnít anybody learn anything on the job anymore?Ē Stuff like that.
NAL & KF: When did you figure out that you wanted to write or that you were an artist or an activist? Was there any defining moment that influenced you?
CC: Well, yes, there were a number of them. I always knew I wanted to write and I always knew I wanted to publish. And I always knew I wanted to meet influential people. And I think I figured that out when I was at Howard my last year. Because I spent a year in a creative writing workshop with a number of other people. And we got to meet some publishers, one of whom was Toni Morrison, she was at Random House then, this was in 1969, this was before she wrote her first book. Paula Giddings was also in that group. She and I graduated from Howard, we were in the same class. We had the same major. We graduated the same year. If you know Cheryl Wall, in the English department, she was a year behind us. She teaches Afro-American womenís literature. And sheís a [Zora Neale] Hurston specialist. So I knew then I wanted to write and I wanted to publish. I wanted to have an audience. But I also wanted to go to graduate school because I didnít think I could live on my writing. I didnít want to live on it. So when I came up here I got a job as quick as I could, because I was used to working, because I sort of worked my way through college. But I was used to having money so I had to have a job. So I knew I had to have a job, I knew I wanted to write.
NAL & KF: Was there an Ďa-haí moment though? Maybe in your creative writing workshop?
CC: Well that was a defining time I would say, 1969, that was a defining time. I donít know about the Ďa-haí moment, but I knew that it was something I wanted to do and I knew that I had to work at it. And I did work at it, I did write, as much as I could. I read my poetry, I started to publish in 1977, published first in a lesbian journal and then in a book of lesbian poetry. And what happened was I began to develop an audience among lesbians. At that time, lesbian feminists, and feminists in general, were developing the women in print movement. So if youíre going to be a movement, a radical movement, youíre going to have to seize the means of production, and they definitely seized the means of literary production. So, there were presses, small presses, there were newspapers, there were journals. This was before the time of, obviously, Internet and video. So they had I would say the four major means of literary production. And so, I was a part of that movement. I was also very networked with black feminists in the country, or became very networked with black feminists. And I served as an editor of Conditions magazine for nine years. That was í81 to í90, for nine years. And that was a very, talk about Ďa-haí moment, that was nine years of Ďa-haí moments. Because every time you produce, what we called a book, I mean it was like a book, it was like an anthology. Every time you produce that thing and you get your 1,500 copies of it, itís like Ďa-ha,í now what do I do withÖ whatever. So that was a very great time for me but at the same time I was working here [at Rutgers], and I had a job that really enabled me to do that. I was in student activities, and it was sort of germane to what I was doing. And I got to meet a lot of famous people who came to Rutgers, because I did programming. So, I was lucky enough to have a job that allowed me to write and allowed me to travel. Travelled a lot too, during the 80ís. So, you ask me about Ďa-haí moments. Defining moments. Well, that was a defining decade. And I guess I would say other ones would be when I self-published my first book of poems, Narratives, Poems, and the Tradition of Black Women. When I got my doctorate in 2000 at the age of 53, that was a defining moment, because I always wanted a doctorate. I enjoy it sometimes. But I really enjoyed the work behind it. Because I went back to graduate school at a time when it was very comfortable for me to do it. There were other students of color, there were other women, there were people in the department who knew my work. Because in graduate school you have to have somebody thatís going to work with you. You canít just be out there wanting to do Afro-American womenís poetry and nobody in the department knows anything about it. Which is how it was when I first started in í69. So those are a few defining moments.
NAL & KF: What are the biggest challenges that youíve faced being an activist and organizing people?
CC: I want to say this. I think Iím a leader, and sometimes I think Iím an activist. I know what Iíve written has made people think differently about race, sexuality, maybe genderÖ maybe culture, maybe the role of writing. But, you know there are activists and activists. I donít consider myself an armchair activist. But the biggest challenge Iíve faced organizing people? Well, um, first of all identifying who you want to organize. And why. What are they going to get out of it? And then, you get a group together, I mean itís not so easy to get a group together. Yíall are in organizations, you know how that is. Itís the same way everywhere. Keeping people motivated to do what they say theyíre going to do. Iíve been on several boards, not that many, I know a lot of people live to be on boards and a lot of people are on really prestigious ones. But Iíve been on several boards, I would say five, and Iíve been chairperson of those boards, or co-chairperson. Getting people to do what they say theyíre going to do. And when they donít do it, trying not to get really pissed off. So thatís always my largest challenge. Because when youíre organizing people around a certain issue, youíre not paying them to be organized. Thatís why I say, you have to keep before them what theyíre getting out of it to be involved in this organization or in this organizing project.
NAL & KF: How would you define womenís leadership and do you think itís important?
CC: I think womenís leadership is absolutely important. And I think more women, obviously, many, many more women need to be leading. And I would say particularly on the international stage. So thatís why you all need to get out there and help Charlotte [Bunch]. Yes, um, what I define womanís leadership? I guess I see womenís leadership from feminist perspective and politics. And I think womenís leadership keeps women at the center. And if women are the on margins, we either, as feminists, bring them to the center, or go to the margins ourselves. So, I think until women are no longer-- this sounds so general-- women are no longer oppressed in the world, you will need womenís leadership. And youíll need it even then. Youíll need it, to be vigilant. I donít know if I answered your question, because thatís another question like why do you need close women friends. But yes, women at the center. Doesnít mean men canít be there too, but you know, women got to be there.
NAL & KF: Can you say something thatís been hard?
CC: Yes. My nephew died when he was 15 in 1989. He fell from a building. And that has been the hardest thing in my life. Yup, that has been the hardest thing in my life.
NAL & KF: How do you deal with that? How are you working through it?
CC: Well, its been twenty years, hasnít it? But you just donít forget it. Iím not trying to. In fact, you try to hold on. You try to hold on to the memory. To his being.
NAL & KF: What keeps you motivated to do the work that you do?
CC: Well, the friends Iíve made over the years, the audiences Iíve developed with my work. I guess my own desire to write. And Iíve met such great people while Iíve worked here at Rutgers since í69, and of course the students. The undergraduates that I have worked with for so many years. When I did student activities, oh my goodness. You know, clubs and organizations. Oh my goodness, what we had to go through. But you know, it was like leadership. And I learned a lot about leadership from students. Because yíall can anything, you know, can do anything. Because youíre in that period of your life when youíre not afraid. When you havenít built up defenses. Itís like the difference between a person who learns to drive when theyíre sixteen, and somebody like me, who learns to drive when theyíre thirty-two. Sixteen, experienced, thirty-two, you never let go of being uptight about driving. Because youíve built up so many defenses. So, you know, that has kept me going. And all the LGBT students that I met and worked with during my time doing LGBT stuff. Not that I donít still do it, but you know. So people, people really. People keep me motivated. What I regret not doing is not asking for more money and thatís something that women donít do. So always ask for the amount of money with which your skills are commensurate, and if you donít know, you better find out.
NAL & KF: Why donít you think women do that? Ask for more money?
CC: Because we donít put enough value on our skills and ourselves. Thatís not something we learn to do. Women donít ask for more money because they donít value their skills. And often, as I said, they donít know what their skills are worth. And they donít find out. So thatís why, you know, your male peer, you got to go to him and you got to find out ďhow much money are you making?Ē And then when you realize heís making, you know, 20,000 more than you, or however, like that women, what was her name, [Lilly] Ledbetter? You remember the woman. She retires and she-- I donít even want to go into it. Donít be like that. Thatís what Iím saying.
NAL & KF: Is there any advice you can give budding feminists and young artists on ways to keep inspired and keep going?
CC: Well, one of the things I thought about saying is try a lot of things in your life. Donít-- I didnít want to be negative-- but donít think you have to stick with one thing all your life. Be open to changing. Know how to make yourself happy. Always have something to look forward to. Have close women friends. And I think, I guess it takes a long time. We have to be in the project of transformation. And I donít think itís a one time thing, I think itís a process. And I think we have to be in the process of creating different, well, creating a new humanity I guess. And I think we are in the process of that. We have been. But I think it takes a long time. And I think itís a communal effort. I donít think itís an individual effort, which, I donít mean that one person canít make a difference, but I think one of many make a difference. And also I think we have to reexamine what we mean by courage and bravery. And I think like Audre Lorde we have to know the danger and go there anyway. I think. Itís not easy. And, you know, I think Iíve had a really good life. And many things have been easy for me. But I donít think itís easy. So. Donít forget a sense of humor.
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