Interview w/ Letta Neely, Black Lesbian Poet, Playwright, Activist and Mentor
I decided to close Women’s History Month with a conversation with someone who has inspired so much of my work as an activist, and is living proof that we can create change in the world simply by speaking out and staying true to ourselves: Letta Neely.
Letta is the phenomenal woman who inspired me to found Queer Women of Color and Friends (QWOC+ Boston), the only grassroots organization dedicated to serving the needs of queer women of color in New England, and the lead producers of QWOC Week, the nation’s only pride week that exclusively celebrates LGBTQ women of color. We are turning five years old this year, so I think it’s really important for us — and myself as a leader — to not just reflect on our achievements and milestones, but to honor the people who have mentored and supported us through the years. And that certainly includes my friend and mentor, Letta Neely.
In this special edition of my podcast series, Kitchen Table Conversations, Letta, an award-winning black lesbian poet, playwright, and activist, joins me to talk about everything from writing, to activism, to love, and back again. She bares her soul in this interview, and talks about the loss of her brother, wrestling with addiction, burning out as an activist, and schools us all on how ego can win if you let it. But what I loved about my conversation with Letta, is that she (as always), shared her story with so much introspection, candor, and humor, sending the message to anyone who has ever walked a similar path, “You are not alone.”
I couldn’t have been more honored to end Women’s History Month by sharing words with someone I deeply admire, respect, and have come to love as more than just a mentor, but a friend. Letta, you are part of the reason so many people, including myself, are determined to “Write it down!” as you commanded we do, as far as being a visible part of History. Thank you for continuing to be an inspiration to so many people like me, for your friendship, and for always keepin it real.
Listen to Letta Neely
Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the written portion of the interview. Enjoy, share, nourish your spirit.
Many New England artists eventually move to New York to pursue their dreams but you left to come to Boston (of all places), and did the flip. How come?
I was sowing love with a woman who lived in Boston. All that early tending that we did (post weeding, pre-harvest) created a phone bill significantly higher than my rent in Harlem. The love, the money, and mostly, a weird situation with my little brother and baby cuz facilitated my dropping my cat with a friend, getting on a greyhound in the middle of the night with 1 bag of clothes, 2 suitcases of books, and a backpack filled with notebooks and cassettes.
When did your identity as a black lesbian first surface in your work?
In my first year of college, my ma picked me up for thanksgiving . I handed her a group of ten poems I’d bound at Kinko’s. At least half of each poem was a nervous riff or a tenuous riff or a fierce chord of “hey ma, I dig females….No ma, not like your girlfriends….hey ma, girls taste real good.” My ma says she knew even when she didn’t want to. Says that when she told me what wives did (cook, dishes, etc). I responded, “l’ll be getting me one of those”
What led you to become so involved in Boston’s local social justice scene?
My activism has more to do with getting to where I want to go. I think “don’t start none won’t be none “ And yet, so many of the systems involved in our living…I mean, a majority of equations and geometries we are told to solve or travel toward the *dream (American, others) are maintained & enhanced by fucked up asinine insecure greedy people all over the globe from then to know. Their strategies try to labyrinth access to baseline human needs: Food, Water, Spirit, Sleep, Laughter, Self-navigation, Dream, Dance, Open places where we can stretch or sit unadulterated. Basic jazz we’ve all been told we can’t simply access.
During busing, the prices and the taxes became unacceptable to me. My neighborhood unbecame community. We lost each other and became valueless. We killed each other. Where there had been fist fights there were bullets. Where there had been alcohol sold from car trunks on Sundays and spirited home there became crack vials left for 6, 7, 8, year old neophyte archeologists. We evolved into a burial ground, burying so many people each summer we forgot their names by winter. Sadness led to large scale depression. Many of us undead yelled, stamped our feet, protested, trying to wake our nearly dead. But in the protest, we neglected kitchen tables, unrushed collard greens, cook-outs, front porch card games. Trying to be free, we forgot that we were free. We forgot who we are. We became adept at using their tools. We punctured a helluva lot but we didn’t dismantle shit that way.
When I moved here to Boston…our people were being stalked and murdered and disappeared in the same ways. Bodies and decapitated dreams were clogging our pathways. Our articulations regarding justice were building too many separate troops. Struggles around Economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, sexual justice had distinct armies, with distinct guerrilla game plans. Our hungers overwhelmed our sight and we were blindly stabbing comrades we’d labeled enemies. I can’t be Black or Dyke or Broke or Female or Artist or Butch. This “or” shit is the shit that makes us crazy makes us dangerous, abettors to murder.
Most obstacles to any freedom are labeled/celebrated/denigrated/codified as specific social justice issues/initiatives. That’s all fine, well, and probably necessary. But most of this “work”, most of this “involvement” is because when I think “don’t start none, won’t be none”…da shit be already started.
What about being an activist or community organizer do you wish you had known ten years ago?
I wish I had known that asking for help for myself was key. I wish I had known how to take a vacation. I wish [other activists] could have read my mind. I had such a hard time asking for what I needed. And then, I ‘d get upset because it seemed no one anticipated my having a need. What’s more true is that I never asked and when folks asked me, I always, always said, “I’m fine”
What would you say to young leaders who are passionate about working to further equality for LGBT people of color, but need advice/guidance?
Please remember to eat well, sleep well, love well. Leadership is a support position. You are not alone. You will make mistakes. Do better next time. Eat. TELL SOMEBODY EVERYTHING.
About Letta Neely
Letta Neely, originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, is a Black lesbian playwright, performer, poet, mother, teacher and community activist who has been involved in progressive, anti-racist and queer liberation movements all her adult life. Her work focuses on the connections and intersections of queerness, Blackness, and awareness. Letta’s first play, Hamartia Blues, was produced by The Theater Offensive at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2002 and enjoyed great critical acclaim and received two IRNE [Independent Reviewers of New England] award nominations. Letta has written two books of poetry, Juba and Here (Wildheart Press), which were both finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards. Her literary work has been included in numerous anthologies, literary journals and magazines including Through the Cracks; Sinister Wisdom; Common Lives, Lesbian Lives; Rag Shock; African Voices, Rap Pages, Catch the Fire, Does Your Mama Know, and most recently, Roll Call—a Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature & Art.