Pat Parker (1944-1989) was a poet, member of the Black Panthers, founder of the Black Women’s Revolutionary Council, and director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center. Her poetry reflects not only her activism in African American, feminist, and Lesbian communities, but also sensuality, a keen sense of humor, and the desire to remove barriers.
Parker was praised in African American and Lesbian circles for her work. However, her insistence upon using common American English vernacular, resistance to editing, and a preference for stark confrontation lessened her reputation as a serious poet in some literary circles. As such, Parker may be considered an LGBTQ folk poet who eventually gained status in academia.
Parker was born Patricia Cooks in Houston, Texas in 1944, the fourth daughter in a family struggling to make ends meet. In her autobiographical poem, “Goat Child,” she describes her childhood as one of struggle as well as she grew up in what she called “Texas hell”:
“You were a mistake”
my mother told me
ever since i’ve been
trying to make up.
Cooks had been attracted to writing since childhood. She attended City College in Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco after she married Ed Bullins, a playwright and member of the Black Panthers. Her first poem was published under the name of “P. A. Bullens,” and she did further studies at San Francisco State University. After she got divorced (she would later report that her husband was physically abusive), she married Robert F. Parker and gave birth to two daughters, Cassidy and Anastasia, but ended up divorcing again. In “Exodus (To my husbands, lovers)” Parker describes the end of her romantic relationships with men:
Trust me no more —
Our bed is unsafe
Hidden within folds of cloth
a desperate slave
You dare to dismiss my anger
call it woman’s logic
You dare claim my body
call it wifely duty
After the second divorce, she raised her daughters in Oakland, California, doing an assortment of jobs such as proofreading, waiting tables, and teaching creative writing.
Parker published her first book of poetry, Child of Myself, in 1972, and a second book, Pit Stop, in 1973. Parker and Judy Grahn recorded an album of poetry in 1976 for Olivia Records, Where Would I Be Without You, which includes Parker’s poems, “For Straight Folks, Who Don’t Mind Gays But Wish They Weren’t So Blatant” and “Let me come to you naked.”
In 1978, Parker became the Director of Oakland’s Feminist Women’s Health Center. She also published her third book, Womanslaughter, named from a poem she had written about the murder of her sister by her sister’s husband, who was convicted only of manslaughter and released after serving one year in prison because the murder was considered a crime of passion. Parker observes that, in the eyes of the law, “men cannot kill their wives/they passion them to death” and further states:
i have gained many sisters
and if one is beaten or raped or killed
i will not come in mourning black
i will not pick the right flowers
i will not celebrate her death
and it will matter not if she is Black or White
if she loves women or men
i will come with my many sisters
and decorate the streets
with the innards of those brothers in womanslaughter
In 1976, Parker gave testimony concerning her sister’s murder before the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Brussels, Belgium. The first “Take Back the Night” march protesting violence against women occurred at the Tribunal.
Parker published an anthology of her works, Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker, 1961-1978 that same year. This proved to be the most popular of her books. In 1980, she founded the Black Women’s Revolutionary Council. Her last publication was Jonestown and Other Madness (named for the Jonestown massacre in 1978, when Christian minister Jim Jones forced 900 of his followers to kill themselves) published in 1985. She died four years later from breast cancer.
Parker wrote poems that have been described as having “punch lines,” verses that deliver immediate emotional content. Sometimes the punch line is amusing, as the final verse in “A Small Contradiction,” a poem dealing with a theoretical critique of monogamy:
Me, i am
totally opposed to
This humor can also be found in “For Willyce,” a poem in which Parker describes pleasuring her woman, who then exclaims “Oh God” and “Oh Jesus” in response to Parker’s prowess at cunninglingus. Parker then wryly observes:
here it is, some dude’s
getting credit for what
Other times, the punch line reflects her horror when confronting extreme violence in the world, be it the murder of her sister or the massacre at Jonestown in Guyana. But the punch might come from her lived experience as a woman whose various identities and personal loyalties were linked to communities that were at times openly disdainful of each other, such as “A faggot & a dyke, Black”:
My agent couldn’t book us.
It seemed my lesbian audiences
were not ready for my faggot
and I remembered
a law conference
in San Francisco
who loved women threw tomatoes
at a woman who dared
to have a man in her band.
Parker appreciated the paradox of identity. “The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black,” she says in a poem, then, “Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.” She delighted in presenting the wrong identity when she was asked to read her poetry to a particular group — she was likely to deliver dyke poems when in front of a primarily Straight Black audience, and Black Power themes when before a predominantly White feminist group. In Movement in Black, Parker comments on the effect that intolerance had on her as a person with many facets:
If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, “No, you stay home tonight, you won’t be welcome,” because I’m going to an all-white party where I can be gay, but not Black. Or I’m going to a Black poetry reading, and half the poets are antihomosexual, or thousands of situations where something of what I am cannot come with me. The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution.
Parker exhibits what could be called a tendency toward tough tenderness, as in the poem “Legacy” that she wrote for her daughter Anastasia:
Take the pride that you can
never stand small.
Take the rage that you can
never settle for less.
Pat Parker/Vito Russo Center Library, New York City was named for her and writer-filmmaker Vito Russo.
Garber, Linda. Identity Poetics: Race, Class, and the Lesbian-Feminist Roots of Queer Theory. New York: Columbia University, 2001.
Parker, Pat. Child of Myself. San Lorenzo, CA: Shameless Hussy, 1972.
Jonestown and Other Madness. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1985.
Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker, 19761-1978. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1999.
Smith, Barbara. The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, 2000.