“A Simple Dream and a Simple Revolution” © 2011 Judy Grahn
I want to tell you why I decided to call this community website (as well as a section from my memoir), “A Simple Revolution.” This phrase is adapted from my sister poet and friend Pat Parker’s poem, “It’s a Simple Dream.” In her poem, published in 1974, about four years into Gay Women’s Liberation, the narrator asserts that she doesn’t want a revolution that is of the vanguard, or of the masses or that turns the world all over, that she as a black gay woman just wants to walk down the streets holding hands with her lover, go to a bar, use a public bathroom—and not be arrested by the police, harassed by white bikers, beaten by her black brothers, screamed at by ladies (that is to say, straight women) in bathrooms. She begins by describing her movement past: “I have placed this body/placed this mind/in lots of dreams/in malcolm’s and martin’s/in mao’s and huey’s/in george’s and angela’s/”.
Parker is listing major movements that impacted her and her generation, from the peaceful marches for integration led by Martin Luther King to the early “Black Power” message of Malcolm X, which would morph into the vanguard message “Power to the People,” issuing from the Black Panthers led by Huey Newton. Here in California the writings and actions of George Jackson, a black prisoner in Soledad who advocated prisoner self-defense, and the activism of Angela Davis, whose work toward ending the prison-industrial complex and its neo-slavery has been tireless, caught the imaginations of all kinds of progressive young people in 1970, Pat Parker, according to her poem, obviously among them.
So now in 1974 she is using her new poem, “It’s a Simple Dream” to articulate a position taken on behalf of gay women and men and the efforts of queer people within leftist movements: “I have placed this body & mind/in lots of dreams/dreams of other people,” and then the poet continues with these startling emphatic lines: “now I’m tired/now you listen!” Pat directly addresses the left and demands that gay people have full authentic entry into leftist movement: “now you listen!/ I have a dream too./it’s a simple dream.”
It’s not a simple dream of course, and therein lies the power of the poetry. And the power of our movement, which promoted what I want to describe as “a simple revolution” for very complex purposes. To solve, or at least seriously address, all at the same time, issues of racism, classism, queerness, and feminism. Parker’s examples of how she had placed her body and mind in Maoist and Marxist movements, make it clear that anti-imperialism also must be part of this revolution. We were on quite a roll, as were militant feminists all over the country.
The lesbians who turned out for Gay Women’s Liberation meetings and actions had been involved in lots of movements, from Civil Rights to being allies of the Black Panthers. Parker had been a member of the Black Panthers. Some self-defined as socialists, some communists, some sexual and women’s liberationists. Many more of the people attracted to our meetings had probably never belonged to anything resembling a party or a political affiliation, yet had been drawn to antiwar demonstrations.
To distance ourselves from the large theoretically-based political movements, those of us in my living collective often called ourselves “anarchists,” though let’s be careful here, as to us, “anarchism” certainly didn’t mean mindless violence; it meant militancy without ideology. Non-affiliated militancy. And “militancy” meant absolute insistence and persistence. We were activists, we weren’t laid back, we weren’t waiting for anyone else to liberate us. We opposed the Vietnam War yet were not necessarily into Peace and Love, more like “No Justice, No Peace.”
Not connected to a structured, overarching ideology also meant that the broad base of activist leaders, in roles that shifted personnel constantly, would also constantly stay in touch with what the people around us wanted to see happen and said they needed, rather than imposing shoulds from theories and tracts of the 19th century. Everything was up for discussion. Now, bonded in activist loyalty to each other, we would help to open the floodgates of the multiple forms of feminism, those tempestuous, lively mass movements that have continually redefined themselves as they spread worldwide, with as many fractious factions and additions as rivers have feeder-creeks. Cultural workers, as we artists and performers were called, both reflected and led. We helped develop some terms, phrases and images that would initially stand in for ideology: women-loving-women, woman-centered, rape culture, male domination, patriarchy, male-identified, sisterhood, sister love, gyn-ecology, lesbian nation, army of lovers, dyke, common woman, commonality.
A “simple revolution” has no blueprint, and no preconceived outcome. It also has, ideally, no idealized leaders, though everyone involved is encouraged to take leadership. A “simple revolution” asks, “What do people say they need? What do I need? What does the economy and the earth and the spirit in people need? What does the ending of prejudice need? What do our authentic selves need?” Pat Parker’s poem brought her individual, specific needs into sharp relief to make the point that freedom has many paths, and all of them need to be taken into account for the genuine social revolution we envisioned to succeed.