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Archive for the ‘historic sites’ Category

“… I still think Lillian Smith is the one to read on the topic of segregation,” Cam said. “You know Lillian Smith? Author of Strange Fruit? Now that would make some movie! No benevolent planters or happy darkies singing spirituals on the riverbank!”

Ada nodded, but once again had nothing to add. “I have heard of Miss Smith, of course,” she said, “but I haven’t read her work.”

“Aha! Something I’ve read that Madam Librarian hasn’t! You’d like her, I think. She’s a truly independent woman. Never married. She wrote a nonfiction book that I highly recommend—Killers of the Dream. She talks about how fiercely folks will hold onto something they just take for granted. Like segregation.”

That’s an excerpt from the second chapter of my new novel, The Ada Decades. It’s September 1957, and Ada Shook, a school librarian, has been making friends with her school’s English teacher, Cam Lively. A white woman like Ada, Cam is outspoken on “Negro” rights, especially school integration, and she wants to engage Ada in a discussion of the issue. A young African-American girl has become the first student of color at their Charlotte, NC junior high, and tensions are brewing that will eventually erupt in bullying and violence Ada will have to take a stand on.

What readers don’t know for sure yet but start to suspect is that Cam is also a lesbian. She’s been trying ever so subtly to send signals to Ada – here, she drops code words like “independent woman” and “never married” (wink, wink) for the venerable Southern author Lillian Smith (1897-1966), who shared her life with her female partner, Paula Snelling. Among their many projects, the couple ran a girls’ camp together on Screamer Mountain in Georgia from 1925 to 1948; the property is now part of Piedmont College. In the 1930s, they founded a magazine designed to give writers – including black writers – a forum for discussing civil rights.

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Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling

Although Ada doesn’t immediately get the hints Cam throws out, she knows there’s something different about her new friend. And she’ll be clued in soon enough – stay tuned!

Right now, you can get a copy of The Ada Decades at the Bywater Books website; after March 14, it will be available in paperback and e-book formats through bookstores and other online vendors.

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The-Ada-Decades

Available from Bywater Books

My fourth novel, The Ada Decades, will be hitting bookstores in a few weeks, and to say I’m excited is an understatement. Not only is it my first published novel in 20 years, but it’s also a love letter to lesbian history of the not-so-distant past – one that has been brewing in me for quite a while.

Years ago, I attended a queer history workshop with the great gay historian Allan Berube (Coming Out Under Fire), in which he asked participants to imagine how we would have met lovers if we lived in a different, more closeted era. The gay men said they would have gone to parks or other public spaces; the lesbians among us mentioned schools, colleges, and libraries. It made sense to me – lesbians love books, right?

Since then, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the question of how lesbians found friends and lovers in the past. Some famous couples you may know met in decidedly literary ways: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of Daughters of Bilitis, met working at a publishing house; Willa Cather and Edith Lewis crossed paths after they both published stories in the same women’s magazine; and Sylvia Beach admired Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop in Paris and wandered in to introduce herself. In a similar vein, I decided to make my protagonist in The Ada Decades a librarian in North Carolina, and the woman she falls in love with is a junior high school English teacher with a penchant for the work of Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and Lillian Smith (Strange Fruit).

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Lorraine Hansberry

Over the next few weeks on this site, I’m going to roll out some of the real places associated with the characters in my book – like the mill community where Ada grew up, one of the first schools in Charlotte  to be integrated, and the picturesque town of Davidson, N.C. You might even get to see the pickup truck that Ada and Cam’s gay friend Twig drives. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

In the meantime, The Ada Decades is available exclusively on the Bywater Books website until March 14, when it becomes available everywhere.

 

 

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This week, LGBT history was ready for its close-up when the National Parks Service (NPS) of the Department of the Interior brought together 16 history scholars – myself included – for the launch of an LGBT initiative on June 10. This was a personal thrill for me, getting to hang with colleagues like pioneer gay historian John D’Emilio and to chat about same-sex marriage with the Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

June 10 LGBT roundtable at the Dept. of the Interior; photo by Gerard Koskovich

June 10 LGBT roundtable at the Dept. of the Interior; photo by Gerard Koskovich

Two immediate goals of the LGBT initiative over the next 18 months are to increase the number of LGBT site listings on the National Register of Historic Places and to nominate sites for the more rigorous National Historic Landmarks program, or to amend current designations.

Currently, we have just one landmark – the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan – and four sites on the National Register: Frank Kameny’s home in Washington, DC; the Cherry Grove Community House and Theater on Fire Island; the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT; and the Carrington House on Fire Island.

Considering the richness and breadth of LGBT history in this country, that’s far too few. And in addition, these sites are all very heavily East Coast-centric and “G.” What about the L, B and T? Where are our sites in California, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Florida, and all the other states? Who are the people and what are the events that shaped LGBT history and civil rights in the Heartland or in the Deep South? Put your thinking caps on, folks!

The confab of scholars was a call to all of us to dig in and contribute. LGBT people don’t just live in New York City and San Francisco – we are, literally, everywhere and always have been. The NPS is looking for public input and comments on the initiative, which you can give by heading over to the dedicated website for this project or emailing lgbthistory@nps.gov.

Don’t be afraid to suggest sites that you think have a place on the National Register or to bring attention to LGBT local history projects in your town or city that may be interested in contributing to this historic drive for the visibility of our heritage. Or, if you prefer, email me at queerestplace [at] gmail.com and I’ll be happy to pass your suggestions along.

Let’s take advantage of this opportunity. June 10 was a moving day and I am still on a “history high” realizing that the work queer historians have been doing for years is finally getting the spotlight and recognition it deserves.

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For those readers who live in California … or maybe make a yearly trek to San Francisco … or  just love queer historic sites — there’s a new Facebook page you should definitely check out. It’s called Preserving LGBT Historic Sites in California, and it’s an online archive created by a group of preservationists, dedicated to documenting and preserving the sites of significance to queer history in the Golden State. Meeting places, homes, gay rights landmarks, bars, hangouts — you name it, you’ll find information on it there. So drop in and “Like” this great new resource!

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Lambda Rising Bookstore at its original location


For fans and friends of our nation’s capital, there’s an amazing online history project that attempts to pinpoint and chronicle the social spaces frequented by LGBT people in Washington, D.C., from 1920 to 2000. You’ll have to squint to read the map, but if you click on the database link, you’ll find an exhaustive list of places where queers congregated in the 20th century. Many, of course, were bars, which served as informal queer community centers (and in many places in the country they still serve that function today); but there were also bathhouses, social clubs, parks, churches, bookstores – see the photo above of Lambda Rising Bookstore at its first location in 1974; sadly, the store closed last month after 35 years – and other queer spaces. The author of the project is Mark Meinke, who did a wonderful job of documenting our physical past.

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Rachel Carson Sites

Environmentalist/scientist/writer Rachel Carson, the author of the historic Silent Spring, is generally credited as inspiring the modern environmental movement. She is also the most famous alumna of my own alma mater, Chatham College (when she attended, it was the Pennsylvania College for Women – see below).

Now, we can’t “prove” that Carson was a lesbian. It may be more accurate to call her a “woman-identified woman.” But see the story regarding her intimate friendship in Maine with Dorothy Freeman below.

Here are a few of the most significant sites associated with Carson:

Springdale, Pa.

Rachel Carson birthplace
613 Marion Avenue

Once surrounded by woods, this sweet farmhouse in the Allegheny Valley was the site of Carson‘s birth on May 27, 1907. Both her rural upbringing and her mother’s teaching instilled in her a deep appreciation of nature’s beauty and mystery. “I can remember no time,” Carson wrote, “when I wasn’t interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature.” Her childhood love of the natural world translated into a career of interpreting environmental science for laypeople and exposing the harm being done to the physical environment by humans. “The beauty of the world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind – that and the anger of the senseless, brutish things that were being done,” Carson wrote to a friend after the publication of Silent Spring, her attack on the use of pesticides. “I have felt bound by a solemn obligation to do what I could – if I didn’t at least try I could never again be happy in nature.” Each May, the Carson homestead hosts “Rachel’s Sustainable Feast,” featuring food and music in a day-long event.

 

Pittsburgh, Pa.
Chatham College
Woodland Road

Founded in 1869 and formerly called the Pennsylvania College for Women (PCW), this women’s college claims Carson, class of 1929, as its most celebrated alumna – the school’s science building and a scholarship are named for her. Born in rural Pennsylvania, Carson developed a love of writing early in childhood, which continued throughout high school and college. At PCW, Carson started as an English major but switched to science after an inspirational biology course with Professor Mary Skinker. “I have always wanted to write,” she affirmed, “and biology has given me something to write about. I will try to make animals in the woods and waters, where they live, as alive to others as they are to me.”

And she succeeded at that. Carson‘s brilliant exploration of sea life, The Sea Around Us (1951), won the National Book Award and was an instant bestseller that made her a celebrity and earned enough royalties to secure her living as a writer. The Sea Around Us remained on the bestseller lists for 86 weeks and prompted a reissuing of an earlier book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), which also achieved success. The Edge of the Sea (1955) and her masterpiece, Silent Spring (1962), ensured their author a place in the annals of both science and literature.

White Oak, Md.
Rachel Carson home

11701 Berwick Road (private)

The phenomenal success of her book The Sea Around Us (1951) allowed Carson to purchase this Maryland home, “Quaint Acres,” and a summer cottage off the coast of Maine. It was at Quaint Acres that she feverishly wrote most of Silent Spring (1963), an attack on pesticides, while suffering from what she called “a catalogue of illnesses,” including breast cancer and heart disease. There has been speculation that Carson suspected environmental causes for her own cancer and that of a beloved college professor, which fired her to continue working tirelessly to expose the chemical industry. Between her hospital confinements, Carson worked late into the night on what was to be her final book. “No time for anything,” she wrote to her intimate friend Dorothy Freeman, “unless it is somehow related to the great projects that are uncompleted.”

Carson lived to see both the serialization of Silent Spring in the New Yorker and its publication as a book late in 1962. She was heartened by the public’s strong response and hoped it would bring about a ban on the use of DDT. But Carson quickly became too sick to enjoy the great acclaim that Silent Spring brought with it. “Now all the ‘honors’ have to be received for me by someone else,” she wrote to Freeman. “And all the opportunities to travel to foreign lands – all expenses paid – have to be passed up.” Carson died at her Maryland home in the spring of 1964. Two years later, the Environmental Protection Agency was born after a presidential commission corroborated Carson‘s findings about the hazards of pesticides.


Wells,
Maine
Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge
Route 2

Beginning in the early 1950s, Carson spent summers in a cottage on Southport Island off the Maine coast, studying local ecology and wildlife. It was there that in 1953 she met Dorothy Freeman, a Massachusetts native who vacationed on the island with her husband and who was a fan of Carson‘s The Sea Around Us. Both women were intensely interested in sea life and the environment. Carson and Freeman became intimate friends who exchanged voluminous correspondence during the three seasons of the year they were not together, right up until Carson‘s death. As Rachel Carson wrote to her friend early in their relationship, “I think that the rapid flowering of our friendship, the head-long pace of our correspondence, reflects a feeling, whether consciously recognized or not, for the ‘lost’ years and a desire to make up for all the time we might have enjoyed this, had something brought us together earlier.” Those are pretty strong emotions for “friends.”

Freeman’s granddaughter was the recipient of the women’s correspondence, and she published it (hesitantly) in 1995. She explained that on one of Freeman’s visits to Carson‘s home in Maryland, the two women burned packets of Freeman’s letters together in the fireplace. In addition, each women independently destroyed some of the other’s letters. They were concerned how the intensity of their relationship might look from the outside. The “lesbian question,” however, was never raised by Freeman’s granddaughter.

In Wells, a wildlife refuge was dedicated to Carson‘s memory in 1970, six years after her death. In her best-selling Silent Spring, the book that helped launch the environmental movement, Carson decried the “senseless destruction” of Maine’s natural beauty, its “evergreen forests, roads lined with bayberry and sweet fern, alder and huckleberry.”

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Monroeville, Ala.

Old Courthouse Museum
31 North Alabama Ave.

I’m currently reading Mockingbird, a portrait of writer Harper Lee, and enjoying the bits and pieces of her life that match up with her classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. That novel is a favorite of mine, as is the movie of the same name – I even have much of the dialogue committed to memory. (“Miss Jean Louise – Miss Jean Louise, stand up! Your father’s passing!”)

Scout Finch is, of course, the quintessential queer kid, along with her friend Dill (based on Lee’s childhood friend and neighbor Truman Capote). I dissected the queerness of Lee’s story and the film a few years back – on the occasion of Gregory Peck’s death – in an article called “To Queer a Mockingbird.”

The town of Monroeville – where Lee still lives part of the time – boasts Lee as its claim to fame. The town hosts an amateur performance of a play based on Lee’s novel every May (billed as “Alabama‘s hottest theater ticket”). The play is staged in the Old Courthouse, which was the inspiration for the Maycomb County Courthouse of Lee’s story – the place where Atticus Finch makes his impassioned defense of Tom Robinson (see photo above). The courthouse is also a year-round museum with three permament exhibits, including one on Lee and another on Capote. In town, there is also a guided tour, pointing out local spots of note to fans of Lee and Capote.

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