The Operating System


url-1I first discovered the phenomenal poet Pat Parker (1944-1989) in my early 20’s and immediately fell in love with her poetry. I discovered her poetry around the same time that she passed away, so unfortunately I never had the opportunity meet her, but she lives on through her poetry. The legacy she left behind was powerful, as she had the courage to speak out and write about feminist, racial and class issues. She was all about building community and celebrating diversity. Pat Parker was the author of 5 books of poetry: Jonestown & Other Madness, Movement in Black, Womanslaughter, Pit Stop and Child of Myself.
My introduction to Parker’s work was fortuitous. I had followed a poet-lover from New York to San Francisco after graduating from Barnard College and landed in California, only to discover that my lover’s invite to come stay with her wasn’t as open-ended as my youthful imagination had envisioned. I learned, to my surprise, she already had a local California lover but fortunately for me, she was generous and let me stay in her apartment solo for the next few months to explore my newfound youthful independence. While there, I discovered the album “Where Would I be Without You: The Poetry of Pat Parker & Judy Grahn” from the Olivia record label (1976). I literally couldn’t get enough of listening to Pat Parker’s delicious voice, her tones and delivery were addictive and I was convinced her poems were obviously written for me. I then went out and grabbed her books from local LGBT bookstores. As a young, African American lesbian, who had recently come out to my family, I found a comrade in the poetry of Parker. Her poem For Willyce was bold, honest, brave and wickedly funny!

For Willyce

When i make love to you
i try
with each stroke of my tongue
to say i love you
to tease i love you
to hammer i love you
to melt i love you
& your sounds drift down
oh god!
oh jesus!
and i think—
here it is, some dude’s
getting credit for what
a woman
has done,

Parker’s poetry explored and called folks out on their homophobia, not just within society in general but also within the African American community and more specifically within her own family. Sadly some of these sentiments still ring true in 2013 for many young African Americans who come out to their families. Though I was an only child and had a supportive single African American mother and grandmother who had raised and doted on me, when I came out to them in college, my loving family was devastated and upset to learn their babygirl was a “bulldagger” as my grandmother put it. So when I read Parker’s poem that begins My lover is a woman I felt like she had reached into my own recent history and told my story:

My lover is a woman
& when I hold her–
feel her warmth–
I feel good — feel safe
then/ i never think of
my families’ voices–
never hear my sisters say–
bulldaggers, queers, funny
come see us, but don’t
bring your friends–
it’s okay with us,
but don’t tell mama
it’d break her heart
never feel my father
turn in his grave
never hear my mother cry
Lord, what kind of child is this?

Though I was young and far from the point in my life where I was ready to have children, Parker’s multi-part poem, Legacy, written for her daughter Anastasia spoke to me. I knew one day I too wanted to be a mother and her poem celebrating lesbians having children and raising a family, in spite of society’s homophobia and judgments, was both powerful and empowering. The last stanza of that powerful poem has always resonated with me and still rings true now that I am a mother to two amazing sons being raised in a long-term lesbian relationship with my partner, Norma Jean. Parker writes:

Legacy (for Anastasia Jean)
‘Anything handed down from, or as from an ancestor to a descendent.’


There are those who think
or perhaps don’t think
that children and lesbians
together can’t make a family
that we create an extension
of perversion.

They think
or perhaps don’t think
that we have different relationships
with our children
that instead of getting up
in the middle of night
for a 2AM and 6AM feeding
we rise up and chant
“you’re gonna be a dyke
You’re gonna be a dyke.”

That we feed our children
Lavender Similac
and by breathing our air
the children’s genitals distort
and they become hermaphrodites.

They ask
“What will you say to them
What will you teach them?”

That would be mine
I bring you my world
and bid it be yours.

I once read that in a memorial ad to Parker soon after her death, there was a published statement that read “She …convinced us (lesbians) were the stuff of poetry.” Parker, like other African American lesbian poets who I discovered and read voraciously during my early coming out period (including the amazing Audre Lorde and dynamic Cheryl Clarke), provided a powerful and resounding voice to those of us just starting to find and celebrate our distinctive voices. Over twenty years after discovering her work, Parker’s poetry remains relevant and powerful. She integrated all the parts/voices of her life (including African American lesbian, mother, lover, feminist, softball player and medical administrator (her day job). Here’s a link to an audio of Pat Parker reading her poem For the straight folks.
One of my favorite quotes by Parker that truly represents her work is “I’m waiting for the revolution that will let me take all my parts.”
Below is my own poem, definitely influenced by Parker’s own unique political voice and influenced by my own outlook on the world as the mother of two African American sons, one of them a teenager. This poem was written this month as part of a NaPoMo writing exercise:

Elegy for our Brown Boys
(In Memory of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin and for all of our brown boys)

We bury you, gouged-out eye staring back.
We remove your hoodie; cut barbed wire from round your neck,
place your mangled body on display.
Our mother’s wails fill churches and funeral homes.
Ground swollen with our grief.

You, brown boy, looking like a grown man;
your teenage laugh swimming down the Tallahatchie River.
You let that eye out to wander. You whistled.
You pulled a hoodie over your head. You giggled nervously.
You looked suspicious. You looked like a grown man.

Your handsome smile freeze-framed.
This is how we carry you.
The tips of our mother fingers worn,
tracing wallet-sized photos.
This is how we carry our brown boys.

JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard is a Cave Canem graduate fellow, member of The Hot Poets Collective and she nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS), a forum offering women writers a venue to come together in a positive and supportive space in New York.





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