The 1981 feminist classic “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color” is getting new legs thanks to a March re-release by SUNY Press. Now in its fourth edition, the anthology has influenced generations of women-of-color activists. In the early ’80s it served as a call to action and a reflection of how many felt. Today it’s an interesting testament to the progression of a movement.
I spoke with Cherríe Moraga, the surviving editor of the anthology (co-editor Gloria Anzaldúa passed away in 2004) while she was promoting the book in New York City. Below is an excerpt of our telephone conversation, edited for length and clarity.
What inspired the new edition?
Finally of all the forces came together at the same time. There had been a third edition that came out in 2002–a beautiful edition that came out with Third Woman Press. But it was a very small run and with all my traveling I realized that it hadn’t really reached people. I had taken a big pause after Gloria’s passing but I returned to the project in 2011 [when] politically things started to come together. The first introduction I did was at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution. Hearing from young people again using words like “we are Third World people in a first world country,” I had the spirit again to do it. I see there is so much to know from those years for the young activists who want some language and some history for their own political vision.
How does today’s political climate compare to the era when “Bridge” was written?
Politically, in terms of economics, everything is worse. On a superficial level we can look at all of these advances. There’s more representation on TV, more people of color teaching at the university. Most of the things that we are citing as progress [have] to do with professional-class people [but] what about all of the poor and working class sustaining those institutions? Those conditions are the worst they’ve ever been. We can’t even make a living wage. The whole beauty of feminism of color as an idea, as a way of having consciousness has to do with that multiplicity of identities. You don’t look at the one Asian-American woman who made it into such and such or the one black woman, as somehow a model for the conditions of the vast majority of women of color. This is a function of tokenism and of capitalist patriarchy. This is a country where they point to the exception when the rule is so solidly unchanged.
Do you see evidence of progress made by the women-of-color feminist movement?
When you see these eruptions that happen, like with #BlackLivesMatter and the undocumented movement, the queer part is emblematic of the personal is political. That is a solid feminist concept that our intimate lives matter as much as our political lives. When I look at the movement that is happening nationally around sexual assault on campuses, it’s a completely feminist movement across race. … We have a body of work and ideas now that [allows] a young person to know she is not alone. There is a body work to respond to her, which potentially births somebody who will live a life of consciousness and have the possibility of making a contribution for the rest of her life.
You mention Ferguson in your introduction to the new edition. What do you think of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag-turned-movement?
You’re talking about the role of social media and even in the introduction I begin with the Egyptian revolution. The role of social media for that rebellion was critical. The beauty of it is when you see it take to the streets and there are bodies involved. The important thing about Black Lives Matter is there is also an on-the-street activism happening.
What do you hear from your students about the movement?
They’ll use language like “I’m ally to this” or “I’m an ally to that.” It feels to me sometimes that it is too convenient. To the white students I go: “Hey man, go home and deal with your family’s racism.” And it’s not a popular thing to say. What I loved about those white feminists I knew in the early ’80s [was how] they were doing anti-Klan work when some of their family members were Klansmen. Now that is brave. They humbled me with their courage. I’m not taking about separatism. I’m going to deal with my family’s business,]. I’m going to go home and make those changes within my class and race.
Some people have responded to Black lives matter with [slogans like] “All lives matter” or “brown lives matter.” How do you see black lives matter in relationship with solidarity between communities of color?
I think both things are true. There are these moments in which something surfaces politically and you’re talking about the specificity of the black male experience. There is always the danger of things getting liberalized somehow. It gets difficult to not have mixed feelings. The idea of “Black Lives Matter” is a fundamental truth that I think any person of color can relate to and identify with. I’m a light-skinned person; I know who I’m walking with impacts how we are treated in the street. You can’t live in your skin and not know what it means to be marked. I feel very beholden to the fact that that has surfaced, “This body is a threat to you and that’s why you are wiping it out.” I think that’s true, and really right on.
What’s complicated is that because the U.S. has this black/white lens, it almost feels like the rest of us are never important. And I think it’s hard for black Americans to understand that. I think of the thousands and thousands of deaths [among people] coming across the desert to this country. Nobody identifies with all those brown Indian bodies. It all has the same origins: 500 years of colonialism. The scale of the violence toward those bodies, we wouldn’t allow that to happen to black bodies in this country. Somehow Mexicans aren’t people? … In the popular cultural imagination, we’re not even on the map. It feels complicated, everything starts to feel more complicated. I think that we’re allowed to have two thoughts in our heads at once. There are paradoxes and that’s OK. That’s kind of what you live with.
What do you think of the non-profitization of the feminist movement?
It’s been really problematic over the years, and I’ve certainly been a member of this–the first thing you do is get your 501c3 so you can get grants. Then people get caught up in these organizations and what they are really doing is spending their time in meetings. It’s giving everybody jobs but not necessarily resulting in the action you were trying to do. [Very] well-meaning people want to do progressive political action, but that energy gets diluted somehow.
You say in the foreword to the second edition in 1983 that you were “feeling more defeated than optimistic.” How do you feel today?
Ironically, to really be a politically conscious person, you have to be really hopeful. I do feel really hopeful all the time. I’m a playwright and people say: “Why do you write tragedies?” But it’s in the naming of the wound that the possibility for the curing happens. It’s the very act of identifying that opens up the possibility for change. Hope is that you’re going through that hard place, [that] you’re recognizing the obstacles. By that recognition, which can really hurt, there is a possibility for transformation.