Segrest, Mab

Rose Norman interviewed Mab Segrest by phone May 10, 2013

Biographical Information

Mab Segrest (b. 1949) was born and raised in Alabama, growing up in Tuskegee, then attending Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL. She earned an MA and PhD in English at Duke University in Durham, NC (PhD 1979). Mab joined the feminist writing collective Feminary in Durham when it began publishing the literary journal Feminary (1978-82). From 1983 to 1990, she worked for North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence (NCARRV), and from 1992 to 2000, she worked for the World Council of Churches (WCC) as coordinator of urban and rural missions in the United States. In 1993, she was one of six co-founders of SONG. She has written three books collecting essays about her social and political activism and her childhood in the Deep South: My Mama’s Dead Squirrel: Lesbian Essays on Southern Culture (Firebrand Books, 1985), Memoir of a Race Traitor (South End Press, 1995), and Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice ( Rutgers, 2002). She is currently Fuller-Maathai Professor of Gender & Women's Studies at Connecticut College.

On the development of SONG

The main goal of this project is to collect unwritten stories of lesbian-feminist activism by Southern women from about 1968 to 1994, to fill what seems to us a gaping hole in contemporary feminist history. That is, the project is mostly one of recovering lost or unwritten herstories. So we were not planning to interview people like you, who have already published well-known memoirs about your work in the books mentioned in the introductory biography. But both Mandy Carter and Suzanne Pharr insisted that the SONG story would not be complete without your story, and in fact, those three books don’t include the story of your part in founding SONG. Can you begin by describing the historical context that SONG came out of?

"SONG did not come from any one of us, but from the moment and the confluence of forces. Creating Change generally had a Thursday workshop on race and class that I think Suzanne Pharr often led or organized. Pam McMichael and Pat Hussain did as well, perhaps later. I had been working with North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence (NCARRV), which had been a project of, among others, Southerners for Economic Justice (SEJ). SEJ had been doing national and global work on globalization of capitalism – kicked into higher gear by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. SEJ had been part of campaigns against NAFTA– the North American Free Trade Act – that would open up Canada, the U.S., and Mexico to increasingly exploitative capitalist arrangements. The year 1992 was also the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in what became the Americas. SEJ had organized a very broad-based conference, attended by people from Mexico and the Caribbean, and translated into Spanish and Chinese (or perhaps Korean – at various points we had those four language groups speaking in meetings). Several of us had been at the Quincentenary event, and I had had a public dialogue with one of the Black guys, who had expressed some homophobia. I had also done workshops on sexuality and queer issues – presenting interesting issues of translation across the various communities involved. We were variously bringing issues of sexuality and heterosexism into the radical analysis of Southern activists going back to SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and into this rich network."

"In 1993 I organized a workshop with SEJ to bring these issues to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) audience at the Durham conference. I was also asked to do the opening keynote, which I was happy to accept. Creating Change generally fell on my daughter’s birthday (November 11), and I had not been able to leave town to attend. But they were coming to Durham, where I lived, so I was happy to accept. My keynote raised the issues of racism and economic injustice, and called the question on how these forces applied to gay people."

"I figured that many people who attended the conference would be freaked out about being in the South, expecting us to be the most backward kind of folks. So I gave a fairly radical critique of North Carolina and how Jesse Helms’s homophobia fit into this broader racist and capitalist world view. I described crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on an exposure visit to the southwest, into barrios where people were coming to work in maquiladoras, or twin plants, built right over the border so multinational companies could benefit from cheaper labor -- the beginnings of a structural shift of de-industrialization in the U.S. I said, "here I [am] standing looking over a sea of cardboard houses, and I ask what does this have to do with gay people?" The speech was a call to look at capitalism and globalization, and take stands on those things, for us as a movement to understand ourselves in a material context."

"The speech is published as ‘A Bridge, not a Wedge’ in Memoir of a Race Traitor [pp 229-246]. This speech stirred a good bit of conversation, but also generated a good bit of enthusiasm among those of us who were coming to identify ourselves as the “queer left.”

"This was a period of intense homophobic backlash building on ballot initiatives in various parts of the country. The right was trying to mobilize in the Black community using religious arguments. At some point Suzanne had moved to Portland to help organize that campaign."

On activist connections to others involved with SONG

How did you know the other co-founders of SONG?

"I had been on the board of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, and had been generally networking with progressive organizations through entities like the Funding Exchange out of New York City since the early 1980's. Maybe some of us had met before that at Womanwrites. Pam McMichael had invited me to speak in Louisville after My Mama’s Dead Squirrel came out in 1985, and we became good friends. Pam also came to Womanwrites. Carla Wallace and Pam were doing great work in Louisville with the Kentucky Alliance Against Racism and Political Oppression and the lesbian and gay Fairness Campaign. They were mentored in anti-racist organizing by Ann Braden. I also knew Suzanne Pharr from these networks, had spoken at the Arkansas Women’s Project that she helped to found, and did a workshop for the Women’s Project when I was working with NCARRV. Suzanne had organized a national workshop on countering domestic violence with a wonderful assortment of women of color and white women, which I had attended. Joan Garner was head of the Fund for Southern Communities (FSC), and NCARRV and CDR had worked with her on the FSC conference on the right wing. Pat Hussain had been working in Atlanta on the Olympics out of Cobb County, and had been a co-chair of the National March on Washington. Mandy had been working with War Resisters’ League nationally and in Durham and was working nationally on Black lesbian/gay issues in the context of Black communities. She and I had worked on electoral campaigns against Jesse Helms in his races for the Senate. In other words, all of us were nationally, regionally, and locally located. We knew we were in alliance. Various of us were comrades and friends and had consulted on the common issues we faced in working in mostly straight progressive Southern organizations."

"Some of us had been involved in national attempts to pull together a queer left. There had been two such conferences, one in upstate New York, one maybe in Florida, funded by the Funding Exchange and maybe Astraea? Kathy Acey, Amber Hollibaugh, Scot Nakagawa, Laura Flanders are some of the people I recall. Those queer left gatherings came out of and flowed back into all of the participants’ work locally, regionally, and nationally."

On "bridging communities" as a basis for SONG

What is your recollection of coming up with the idea for SONG?

"The conception of SONG came in a very intense conversation at Creating Change after my keynote and various events and conversations. I have a sequence of pictures from this moment . Suzanne Pharr, Carla Wallace, Pam McMichael, and I are there with Urvashi Vaid. Pam had just finished a campaign perhaps in Cincinnati against a homophobic ballot initiative, so she had time, and she was a very talented organizer. I met Pat Hussain for the first time at that conference and Pam rapidly drew her into the work at the conference, as we did Mandy. Joan was not there but we contacted her soon thereafter."

"In the 1980's the New Jewish Agenda was a strong presence, organizing Jews for progressive causes, and working on anti-Semitism within the larger progressive movement. That was a model that we also used with SONG – bridging communities."

"If there was one point person for all of this, I would say it was Suzanne."

On activism and organizing before SONG

Tell us a little about what you had been doing before SONG, what led you in that direction.

"I had been in North Carolina since I started graduate school at Duke in 1971 or 72. I finished my graduate degree in 1979, and came out in the middle of that, 1976-77. During that time, I had been involved in lesbian feminist politics, such as the Feminary collective, as well as very vibrant lesbian-feminist organizing at the time that was contrary to the kind of identity politics bad rap that a lot of lesbian-feminism got later on. They were doing work in solidarity with women prisoners, for example. The early issues of Feminary are a good record of that word. I was excited to come out in such a context. I got involved with Feminary and helped to shape that publication as a southern lesbian publication, working on the collective into the 1980's. With Feminary, I started getting into networks, both lesbian and feminist. Feminary had helped to start what became Womonwrites. I was on the original regional organizing committee for Womonwrites and met people through that. Then I left my job at a Southern Baptist college in about 1983 and started doing anti-Klan volunteering, and then started putting North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence (NCARRV) into place with a multi-racial coalition."

"I had also been on the board of the National Anti-Klan Network, which became the Center for Democratic Renewal in the 80's. I was integrating work against homophobia and heterosexism into a kind of broadly anti-racist organization and coalition."

On what attracted Mab to social justice issues

I've asked the other SONG co-founders about their “aha” moment, when they knew they were going to work on anti-racism and social justice issues. You've written at length about your anti-racism work in Memoir of a Race Traitor, and about growing up in Tuskegee, AL in My Mama’s Dead Squirrel, was there an “aha” moment in there?

"Coming out in the mid to late 70's, really coming out—not just having a closeted woman lover—was a long "aha." As soon as I could do that and name myself, then I could go back and articulate a race politics, and locate myself in it. Until then, I really didn't have an explicitly anti-racist politics. I had sensibilities, I had longings, I had guilt. But coming out was really crucial to me. Also, there was a very progressive community in Durham--interracial, anti-racist, for economic justice -- that I pretty soon became a part of. I do remember when I started to do the anti-Klan organizing in 1983, when I left teaching at Campbell College (now Campbell University), I realized that I had left Alabama running away from racist violence, and it was time to do something about it. That was a very big "aha" moment for me. And there is the moment from my adolescence that I wrote about in Memoir of a Race Traitor, and in Born to Belonging, kind of the crack in the cosmic egg for me, in 1963, was the desegregation of Alabama schools, including my high school – fifty years ago this September. It was seeing the Black kids walking across the breezeway where I had been walking for the past nine years of my school life, and how isolated I felt that they were, and my sense of identification with them. I later realized that I was the isolated one, that they probably felt quite empowered as agents of history. That probably was the biggest aha moment of my life."

Image: 

"Empowerment comes from ideas."

Gloria Anzaldúa

"Your silence will not protect you."

Audre Lorde

"Live your lives, honorably and with dignity."

Andrea Dworkin