Archiving Black Lesbians in Practice: The Salsa Soul Sisters Archival Collection
At the CUNY Graduate Center, I have the honor of serving as the Head of Reference, supplying direct service to the varied members of the GC community. At CUNY and other universities across the country, although there are administrative librarians, many librarians are appointed faculty. Departmental faculty and students alike are often unclear of the role library faculty perform for the University in addition to the service functions of their positions. Yet, our scholarship informs our service. As a woman, a person of color, and a lesbian, I am no stranger to the expended labor of clarifying my role in any given interaction (even to well-meaning colleagues aiming to add my voice to the conversation). As an Assistant Professor at the Graduate Center, with the challenge of engaging in scholarship alongside library service, I find it efficient to apply my archival training in a method that places my research in the real world thereby affecting and serving people outside of the academy. My work with the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) over the past ten years has led me to coordinate with, and participate in the processing of a very vital archival collection: the Third World Women: Salsa Soul Sisters Special Collection, the archival material of the first known “black” or African ancestral or “third world women” lesbian organization in the country, which includes an array of Latina lesbians and other lesbians of color. CUNY has supported this work in three ways: 1) structurally, by employing librarians as faculty, allowing for our scholarship to extend outside of an academic community; 2) personally, by supplying me with a PSC CUNY grant for the 2018-2019 academic year to fund archiving that engages community and requires a peer-based dissemination of archival material, and 3) incidentally, by keeping archivist positions vacant at some campuses, like the GC, thereby supplying a gap in the offerings, enabling librarians such as myself to respond as our expertise allows.
Although we do not have an archivist on staff at the Mina Rees Library, I am prompted to respond to the archival research questions that approach the reference desk. Whether it pertains to digital repositories, archival exhibitions, or special collections, myself and each of the librarians at the Mina Rees Library have the expertise to share and contribute to the scholarly pulse as it pertains to primary source material and archival dissemination.
The radical nature of this specific archiving story is enmeshed in my personal narrative and unveils the multitudinous culling of the Salsa Soul Sisters archival materials—a practice that spanned time and space. In 2010 I sat on a panel at a town hall meeting held at the NYC Lesbian and Gay Center (now the LGBTQ Services Center) sponsored by the African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change (AALUSC), an organization that was the spinoff of the Salsa Soul Sisters. The town hall meeting was meant to cover AALUSC’s history: how she began and why, the history of the LGBTQ communities, women of color & Black lesbian communities, and the current state of Black lesbians. A panelist, Cassandra Grant, an elder, announced herself as the arbiter of the Third World Women: Salsa Soul Sisters archival collection. She noted that the Salsa Soul contents predated 1980 (which marked the year of the first black lesbian conference) thereby making the collection the first known black lesbian organization in the country, and likely the world. At this meeting, Grant pleaded with the community that someone of this current generation take the collection and care for its contents.
African Ancestral or third world lesbians were present and at the table of lesbian and gay agendas since the marking of the gay liberation movement. In 1976, for example, Salsa published an invitation and statement to the world staking their claim in the lesbian and gay community. Versions of this statement can be found in the Salsa Soul Gayzette, their serial literary publication and newsletter, but for ready reference, listed below is the 1976 version published as an advertisement in the popular periodical, The Lesbian Feminist, discoverable online as a result of a digitization project of Lesbian Herstory Archives newsletters. Their platform begins:
The necessity for third world gay women to organize in our own interest is paramount. Existing gay organizations have neither welcomed our participation nor championed our concerns. Out of this reality, the Salsa Soul Sisters was organized and continues to grow. We function as a loosely structured collective, recognizing the varied age, academic class, and economic differences that exist in the group. We see this diversity as enriching our experiences and contributing to the emotional and intellectual growth of the organization (1976).
In 2010, employed part-time as Memberships and Fellowships coordinator of CLAGS, the Center for LGBTQ Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, led me to be on the steering committee for the CLAGS Lesbians in the 70s conference. I authored The Black Lesbians in the 70s zine which led the spring series event and brought over 100 community members, many of whom were black lesbians, into the Lesbian Herstory Archives. This event began the dialogue of connecting myself to the Salsa Soul women who recalled the “Keepin’ On Exhibit” that already included their contents from its previous Board member and LHA volunteer Georgia Brooks. LHA held a consistent presence in Black lesbian lives and culture and became accepted as a space noteworthy for future archiving of their work.
On the closing panel of the second national Black Lesbian conference, Beyond Bold and Brave, held at Barnard College in March 2016, Cassandra Grant sat beside me once again, alongside journalist and publisher, Linda Villarosa and acclaimed Black Lesbian scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs. On the panel, titled, “Black Lesbian Organizing and Activism: 1970s to Now,” we called to our foremothers and paid homage to women who found the courage to participate and at times initiate these global conversations of inclusion and representation. It was at this conference in front of a public audience that Cassandra announced that the collection would be placed in the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Since this date, in 2018, a zine has been published by Endless Editions, and a public exhibition on the Salsa Soul materials was showcased at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop.
The zine was co-coordinated by Essye Klempner, Program and Exhibitions Manager of the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop using a Risograph printing technique. Its intricate design with illustrations by Jaz Smith-Cruz and Krystal C. Johnson, two lesbians of color, was meant to embody an intimate texture of herstory combined with a current flow of movement and connection toward the future. Its contents represented an overview of the process for exhibiting this material through its collaborations and efforts over the past ten years.
The Blackburn Printmaking Workshop hosted the exhibition, Salsa Soul Sisters: Honoring Lesbians of Color at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, as a celebration showcasing the recent donation of Salsa Soul Sisters: Third World Women archival materials to the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). Members, Cassandra Grant, Imani Rashid, Nancy Valentine, and Brahma Curry, were responsible for this generous donation made in November 2016. It includes photographs, monthly newsletters, event flyers, discussion schedules, meeting minutes, financial papers, correspondence, pamphlets, and other materials documenting years of activism. It greatly expands the pre-existing holdings of LHA, furthering its positioning as the most comprehensive archive of lesbian materials in the world. The CUNY PSC research grant was granted to continue the exhibition and archiving of this herstoric resource.
The Lesbian Feminist. 1976. “Third World Gay Women’s Organization Salsa Soul Advertisement,” December 1976. Newsletters. Lesbian Herstory Archives. From Archives of Sexuality & Gender, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8PtWWX. Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.