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date: 08 December 2019

Parker, Patfree

(20 Jan. 1944–17 June 1989)
  • Julie R. Enszer

Parker, Pat (20 Jan. 1944–17 June 1989), poet, performer, health care administrator, and lesbian-feminist activist, was born Patricia Ann Cooks in Houston, Texas, the youngest of five children of Marie Louise Anderson Cooks, a domestic worker, and Ernest Nathaniel Cooks, who worked as a roofer in the summer and retreaded tires in the winter. Later the family moved outside of Houston to a small, tin-roofed house with an outhouse. Pat recalled writing at an early age, particularly composing greeting cards for festive occasions. In high school, she joined the staff of the local black newspaper and became the first woman junior editor of her school newspaper. She also served as editor her senior year and graduated from Houston’s Evan E. Worthing Senior High School in 1961. That summer, she left Texas and drove to Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, Pat enrolled in Los Angeles City College. She excelled in English and journalism courses, establishing a lifelong practice of writing including active correspondence with family and friends. While journalism was her passion, the head of the school’s department discouraged her aspirations, telling her there was no place for blacks in the field. She did not earn a degree.

Growing up in the segregated South, she had encountered racism regularly and the civil rights, women’s liberation, and Black Power movements politicized her. In Los Angeles, Pat met Ed Bullins, an aspiring writer nine years older, and the couple married in June 1962. They moved to San Francisco in 1964 when Bullins joined the creative writing department at San Francisco State College. Both explored radical politics and participated in early organizing and actions of the Oakland-based Black Panther Party, a revolutionary group that sought to aid and liberate African Americans. Writing and activism aligned for the couple, but the marriage was troubled by Bullins’s violence. At one point, when Pat was five months pregnant, Bullins hit her, and she fell down a flight of stairs and miscarried. They separated, and, in January 1966, a court annulled the marriage because Bullins was already married to another woman in Philadelphia. Her first published works, in Black Dialogue, Perspectives, Negro Digest, Soul Book, and Citadel, appeared under the name P. A. Bullins.

Shortly after separating from Bullins, she met Robert Parker; the two married in January 1966. Pat and Bob, also a poet, wrote together and offered feedback on each other’s work. During the years of this marriage, which did not include children, Parker was active reading her poetry in the Bay Area and honing her craft. She discovered an effusive audience for her work when she came out as a lesbian in the late 1960s. Pat and Bob divorced in March 1971.

During the 1970s, Parker was a member of Gente, a lesbians of color group. The women of Gente sang gospel and revolutionary songs, did fundraisers for community organizations and political prisoners, volunteered in women’s prisons, played in a women’s softball league (Parker coached the team), and provided support and solidarity in the face of racism in society at large and within the women’s movement. Through Gente, Parker learned to reject internalized oppression and love herself.

Alta, a noted Bay Area feminist poet and publisher of Shameless Hussy Press, published Parker’s first collection, Child of Myself, in 1971. A year later, Parker joined the Women’s Press Collective, a fledgling lesbian-feminist publishing collective. The Women’s Press Collective reissued Child of Myself in 1972 with a new cover designed by Wendy Cadden, a visual artist and member of the collective. In 1974, the Women’s Press Collective reprinted Child of Myself and published Parker’s second chapbook, Pit Stop. Parker performed poems from these two chapbooks widely, and many feminist periodicals reprinted the poems.

Throughout the 1970s, Parker performed in lesbian-feminist community spaces, where audiences responded enthusiastically to her work. She and Judy Grahn, another poet and member of the Women’s Press Collective, helped to define womyn’s culture (feminist culture focused on lesbians) in the Bay Area and around the country. In 1977, Parker and Grahn recorded Where Would I Be Without You, the only spoken word album released by feminist music company Olivia Records. In 1978, Parker published a third chapbook, Womanslaughter, which contains her long poem about her sister’s murder and domestic violence. Diana Press, which had merged with Women’s Press Collective, published Womanslaughter as well as Parker’s first full-length collection, Movement in Black. In 1978, Diana Press released simultaneously Movement in Black and Grahn’s collection, The Work of a Common Woman, in hardback editions. Coletta Reid and Casey Czarnik, the Diana Press publishers, wanted to establish Parker and Grahn on equal footing with Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, two lesbian-feminist poets on the east coast attracting wide recognition and accolades.

Parker’s reputation continued to grow in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. She traveled the United States, Europe, and Africa reading from her work in Movement in Black. Parker and other black women performed “Movement in Black” as anthem on the Varied Voices tour in 1978 and 1979; Olivia Records sponsored this tour of African American musicians and spoken word artists. The Crossing Press reissued Movement in Black in 1983. In 1985, Firebrand Books published Parker’s next collection of poetry, Jonestown & other madness. The poems in Jonestown continue to explore Parker’s key themes of racial-sexual equality and struggles for justice by responding narratively to current events. While grounded in tragedies like mass suicide at Jonestown, the poems remained relevant and meaningful.

Family life was important to Parker. She often visited her sisters in Inglewood, California, as well as her nieces and nephew. Parker had two significant relationships with women. Laura Brown and Parker were partners and parented an adopted child, Cassidy. In 1979, Parker met Martha (Marty) Dunham; the two fell in love and remained devoted companions until Parker’s death. Parker and Dunham adopted a baby girl, Anastasia, in 1983. Parker dedicated multiple poems to Marty and Anastasia and wrote lovingly about their family life. Starting in 1978, Parker worked as a director of the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center, supplementing her income with occasional, often token, stipends earned from readings at various universities and festivals.

In October 1986, Parker had an emergency angioplasty while in Hawaii on vacation. She was in intensive care for four days; Dunham was forced to say she was her sister-in-law to stay by her side. Less than a year later, in the fall of 1987, Parker was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy in November 1987 and started chemotherapy in January 1988. During the last year and a half of her life, she continued to read locally in conjunction with poet and musician Avotcja Jiltonilro, write poetry, travel to perform her poems and give speeches, cook gumbo for Monday night football, and volunteer at her children’s schools. One of her last appearances was in southern California where she read with poet Cheryl Clarke. Parker had planned to read at the National Womyn’s Music Festival in Indiana in June 1989, but she slipped into a coma and died in Oakland at the age of forty-five.

Pat Parker’s creative output was substantial. She was an extraordinary performer of her work and a precursor to the spoken word movement. Her poems traveled far and wide appearing in hundreds of lesbian and feminist publications. Parker voiced experiences of African American lesbians negotiating intersectional identities with anger, humor, care, and affection. Parker’s poems bring awe, joy, and power to readers.

Bibliography

Pat Parker’s papers are located at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. The Complete Works of Pat Parker (2016), edited by Julie R. Enszer, presents the most comprehensive collection of her work to date. A special issue of the Journal of Lesbian Studies (19, no. 3 [2015]) examines the work of Parker and Grahn. Brett Breemyn’s “Bibliography of Works by and about Pat Parker (1944–1989)” in SAGE 6, no. 1 (summer 1989): 81, documents many important publications and interviews of Parker. Barbara Smith’s “Naming the Unnameable: The Poetry of Pat Parker” in Conditions: Three (spring 1976): 99–103 examines Parker’s literary contributions.