Episode 41

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color, by Cherrie Moraga

Published on: 20th July, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today’s book is This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. It’s an anthology of essays, letters, and poetry by Black, Native American, Asian American, and Latina women, some of whom identify as lesbian. It was edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, and published in 1981. I had never read a book like this before, and because all the essays are written in the first-person, and based on their real lives and thoughts and feelings and hopes and anger and grief, I had the sense of sitting next to them or reading their diaries - which was sometimes uncomfortable. And I am sooo grateful for that discomfort because it pushed out and expanded the borders of my understanding and helped me think about some things differently, and it increased my empathy. And I’m not someone who has lived in a bubble - I’ve lived abroad in several different countries, I speak Spanish and have many close friends in South America, I am lucky to have a circle of friends that includes lots of different backgrounds. And yet with this book, I found myself constantly pushed to learn, to consider new points of view, and my heart and mind grew so much. So I highly recommend reading this book in its entirety! And I’m so excited to discuss it with my reading partner today, Jenn Lee Smith. Hi, Jenn!

Jenn: Hi, Amy!


Amy: Jenn and I have tons of mutual friends in California, and our daughters know each other as well, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that she and I went on a few walks together and discovered that we have a ton in common and should have been getting together for years. Also, some listeners may be familiar with Jenn’s work: she is a producer behind the award-winning films, “Faithful,” which is about “two women in love with each other and their religion,” and “Jane and Emma,” which is about the friendship between Joseph Smith’s wife Emma Smith and a Black convert named Jane Manning James. 


Jenn, I’m so grateful that you agreed to read this book with me - I know you had read it before - in fact I think you were the one who suggested putting it on the reading list, right?


I remember when you were first building up your reading list, I was missing the books that helped define my feminist identity in grad school. I had read This Bridge Called My Back and Sister Outsider and declared myself a Third Wave / Transnational Feminist. Lol. Roxane Gay - Bad Feminist - realized I was better at being a Bad Feminist.  


Introduce yourself - tell who you are, where you’re from, and what perspective you bring to the discussion.



Jenn: Bio 


I was born on an island called Taiwan and most Taiwanese would like it to be recognized as a country, however, China claims it is a province. Regardless, Taiwan is a friendly, vibrant, democratic “place” and the first to legalize same-sex marriage in Asia in 2019. I was five when I immigrated to the U.S. growing up in UT and CA. I studied international relations for my undergrad in Utah and then started a PhD in Feminist and Human Geography at UCLA, which I never finished because I discovered screenwriting and film producing classes, instead. 


But I did earn a Masters in Geography, which is useful in the film producing of mostly documentaries. I welcome opportunities to be a part of film and writing projects that explore underrepresented stories particularly at complicated intersections. For example, I started my producing career focused on films at the intersection of religion and sexual orientation. One of those films will be out on Netflix in August. It’s called Pray Away. Another film is called Dilemma of Desire about the gender politics around not recognizing female sexual desire - it’s rooted in Audre Lorde’s essay Uses of the Erotic (from Sister Outsider, which is the next book in the podcast?). 


Right now I’m collaborating on a film on indigenous knowledge of fire to heal our lands, a film on a black woman in her 70s and her passion for more inclusion in tennis, and a feature-length sports doc on an Asian female basketball player. (black, indigenous, poc)


Also I am co-editing an upcoming book titled I Spoke to You with Silence: Essays from Queer Mormons of Marginalized Genders. It is a book I would have liked to read when I first realized in my mid-20s that I was also attracted to women. Fortunately, I did get to read Professor Lisa Diamond’s research on female sexuality and it’s an honor that she’s written the Foreword to the book, published by University of Utah Press out in 6-8 months. 




Amy: And then could you tell us about your interest in Breaking Down Patriarchy? What interested you in doing this project with me?


Jenn: First of all, I am so happy that this podcast exists and that you are the one to do it. You and I both gravitate to the fault lines - I’m borrowing your words - and I’m wondering if it’s because we notice that people are better to each other when they do the hard work of learning about categories of difference and how most of them are made-up, socially constructed. From my experience, I first need to do the work of listening and learning and diving into questions of difference before arriving at the understanding that I have more in common with people than I first thought. This podcast is doing the work of breaking down notions of hierarchy, where these ideas come from, how they became embedded into our culture and systems, and then discussing whether or not these notions are still useful. 


I also decided a while back that my activism interests are too broad and so I tend to focus on gender and spectrums of gender. While recognizing the artificiality of binaries, it does feel like in this anthropocene era (the geologic age of the human species making the biggest impact on the environment), the earth is out of balance with too much of the masculine energy which is accessible regardless of one’s gender.






Amy:

Ok, and a bit about this book and its editors. 


Cherríe Moraga was born September 25, 1952 in Los Angeles, CA, and is a Chicana writer, feminist activist, poet, essayist, and playwright. I’m going to throw in here that the term “Chicana” is the femnine form of “Chicano,” and it specifically refers to a US citizen of Mexican descent. She attended Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, gaining a graduated bachelor's degree in English in 1974. Soon after attending, she enrolled in a writing class at the Women's Building and produced her first lesbian poems. In 1977 she moved to San Francisco where she supported herself as a waitress, became politically active as a burgeoning feminist, and discovered the feminism of women of color. She earned her master's degree in Feminist Writings from San Francisco State University in 1980, and she is part of the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the Department of English. Moraga is also a founding member of the social justice activist group La Red Chicana Indígena which is an organization of Chicanas fighting for education, culture rights, and Indigenous Rights. 


Gloria Anzaldúa, born on September 26, 1942 in South Texas. was an American scholar of Chicana cultural theory, feminist theory, and queer theory. She graduated as valedictorian of her high school, and in 1968, she received a B.A. in English, Art, and Secondary Education from University of Texas–Pan American. She then earned an M.A. in English and Education from the University of Texas at Austin. She loosely based her best-known book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, on her life growing up on the Mexico–Texas border and incorporated her lifelong experiences of social and cultural marginalization into her work. She also developed theories about the marginal, in-between, and mixed cultures that develop along borders. 


---

And a bit about this book: This Bridge Called My Back  was a major event in Women’s Studies, and it is considered critical reading in many universities’ curricula. It is even described as being responsible for starting the third wave of feminism. Cherrie Moraga wrote a bit about the authors of the book in the introduction: 


“The women in whose hands This Bridge Called My Back was wrought identify as Third World women and/or women of color. Each woman considers herself a feminist, but draws her feminism from the culturue in which they grew. Most of the women appearing in this book are first-generation writers. Some of us do not see ourselves as writers, but pull the pen across the page anyway or speak with the power of poets. 


The selections in this anthology range from extemporaneous stream of consciousness journal entries to well thought-out theoretical statements, from intimate letters to friends to full-scale public addresses. In addition, the book includes poems and transcripts, personal conversations and interviews. The works combined reflect a diversity of perspectives, linguistic styles, and cultural tongues.” (xlv)


So let’s dive in! Jenn and I each selected a few writings, and we’re going to share passages and then talk about our impressions and what we learned. I’d like to start with the very first piece in the book, “The Bridge Poem,” by Kate Rushin, which inspired the title of the book and is considered iconic in studies of intersectionality.


Jenn reads: The Bridge Poem


By Kate Rushin, Black (b. 1951) (pronounced Russian)


I’ve had enough 

I’m sick of seeing and touching

Both sides of things

Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody


Nobody

Can talk to anybody 

Without me

Right?


I explain my mother to my father and my father to my little sister

My little sister to my brother to the white feminists

The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks

To the ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the 

Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents…


Then

I’ve got to explain myself

To everybody


I do more translating 

Than the Gawdamn UN


Forget it

I’m sick of it


I’m sick of filling in your gaps


Sick of being your insurance against

The isolation of your self-imposed limitations

Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners

Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches

Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual white people


Find another connection to the rest of the world

Find something else to make you legitimate

Find some other way to be political and hip


I will not be the bridge to your womanhood

Your manhood

Your human-ness


I’m sick of reminding you not to 

Close off too tight for too long


I’m sick of mediating with your worst self

On behalf of your better selves


I am sick 

Of having to remind you 

To breathe

Before you suffocate 

Your own fool self


Forget it

Stretch or drown

Evolve or die


The bridge I must be

Is the bridge to my own power

I must translate 

My own fears

Mediate 

My own weaknesses


I must be the bridge to nowhere

But my true self 

And then 

I will be useful. 


---

Amy your reflection….


What are your thoughts, Jenn?


  •  My shoulders are tensing up in memory of a very long period of my life when I thought it was my burden to carry the weight of representation. 
  • When I first read Rushin’s poem like 14 years ago I read it with the eyes of someone who frequently went out of her way to protect the feelings of white people. I didn’t have various kinds of safety within my immigrant family, so a Church community that was predominantly white became my pseudo- family. So when I read these passages, I immediately felt uncomfortable and an urge to protect my Church family. I thought it was my duty and role to be the token person of color/Asian at any given event, to be a bridge between my culture and the white culture - one of my projects at Brigham Young University in Utah was titled Building Bridges Across the Pacific. 



And then adding to the bridge metaphor, there’s a short passage by Cherrie Moraga on the next page:


“A Bridge Gets Walked Over”


“...Another meeting. Again walking into a room filled with white women, a splattering of women of color around the room. The issue on the table, Racism. The dread and terror in the room lay like a thick immovable paste above all our shoulders, white and colored, alike. We, Third World women in the room, thinking - back to square one again.

How can we - this time - not use our bodies to be thrown over a river of tormented history to bridge the gap? Barbara says last night: “A bridge gets walked over.” Yes, over and over and over again. ...I cannot continue to use my body to be walked over to make a connection. Feeling every joint in my body tense this morning, used.” (xxxvii)


What do you think of that poem and that passage, Jenn?


  • I’ve been in rooms as Cherrie Moraga has described where I consciously or unconsciously volunteer myself as a bridge to be walked over.  Over time, the frustration and fatigue builds from mediating, teaching, and filling in the gaps because others won’t do the work for themselves. At many social functions, I am the only person of color. Until very recently, I thought it was my role to explain, for example, that when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression (quoting Wayne Reid). It doesn’t matter what I say or how I say it. If folx choose to feel like victims in an increasingly diverse and inclusive world; if somehow queer, trans, poor, disabled, people of color feeling safe to speak their own truths is an affront to cis, white, hetero people, that is their choice and I cannot be useful. 


Kate Rushin’s closing lines reminds me that


The bridge I must be

Is the bridge to my own power

I must translate 

My own fears

Mediate 

My own weaknesses


I must be the bridge to nowhere

But my true self 

And then 

I will be useful.


These words set me free to explore my own privileged place in this world - my own suppositions and prejudices. I believe we each must be a bridge to our own power. 



Amy


I’d like to start with this one because it’s shockingly subversive and breaks open the conversation into some potentially uncomfortable places for white liberal women listeners. It will then be followed by my choice of a poem about wanting to be white --  


The Pathology of Racism: A Conversation with Third World Wimmin, by doris davenport 


If I were a white feminist and somebody called me a racist, I’d probably feel insulted (especially if I knew it was at least partially true). It’s like saying someone has a slimy and incurable disease. Naturally, I would be reactionary and take out my ...liberal credentials, to prove I was clean.” (81)


If we …(even accidentally) mention something particular to the experience of black wimmin, we are seen as threatening, hostile, and subversive to their interests. ...Because of their one-dimensional and bigoted ideas, we are not respected as feminists or wimmin. Their perverse perceptions of black wimmin mean that they continue to see us as “inferior” to them, and therefore, treat us accordingly. Instead of alleviating the problems of black wimmin, they add to them. (82)


[some black women] have at least three distinct areas of aversion to white wimmin which affect how we perceive and deal with them: aesthetic, cultural, and social/political. Aesthetically (and physically) we frequently find white wimmin repulsive. That is, their skin colors are unaesthetic (ugly, to some people). Their hair, stringy and straight, is unattractive. Their bodies: rather like misshapen lumps of whitish clay or dough, that somebody forgot to mold in certain areas. Furthermore, they have strange body odor. 


Culturally, we see them as limited and bigoted. They can’t dance. Their music is essentially undanceable too, and unpleasant. Plus, they are totally saturated in western or white American culture with little knowledge or respect for the cultures of third world

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.