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From Sinister Wisdom 21 1982 
Ann Allen Shockley reviewer



RED JORDAN AROBATEAU
A Different Kind of Black Lesbian Writer


It was a cool, beautiful San Francisco day in
September when Margaret Cruikshank did me a great
kindness by driving me to Oakland to meet Red Jordan
Arobateau.  I had long wanted to meet the writer,
after being introduced to (her) work in Judy Grahn’s
True-to-Life Adventure stories, vol. I.

Her story, “Susie Q” (spelled Suzie Q in the episode),
had left an impression on me, stirring questions which
sought answers.  My main problem was with her racial
identity.  Was she black?  The story spoke of
blackness as only a black woman could know it, written
in the singular vernacular of black street language.
The experiences of Suzie Q, a whimsical, vacillating
black lesbian prostitute, who moves with insight and
foresight in the murky subculture of the streets, were
indeed a rarity to black lesbian writing.

This type of black female character, lesbian or
heterosexual, has been largely ignored or glossed over
in the whole of Afro-American literature by black
female writers.  Various reasons can be surmised for
the neglect.  Many Afro-American women who write,
exist in an academic environment.  Here, they are
riveted in the isolated, lofty tower of scholarship,
research, and pedagogy.  The literary black female
writers usually focus on allegorical symbolisms, women
in search of a quest, or the ennobling of black women.
Other writers are involved in political rhetoric, or
self-serving pursuits.

The experiences and lifestyle of most black women
writers have been far removed from the social,
economic, and political milieu of the subterranean
ghetto.  The streets are unknown to them, except as a
place to fear at night, or to get from one end of town
to another.  Ho’s, pimps, drug dealers, dope addicts
and boosters are invisible to their lives and
unimportant to their writing.

Red Jordan Arobateau’s Suzie Q brought a new
protagonist to black lesbian fiction, springing to
life the black lesbian street woman in all her hard
glaring reality. The story, too, places the black
prostitute in the personalized role of being human,
rather then portrayed as a piece of meat to be
exploited in pornography, or in such as the Iceberg
Slim pimp stories.

Despite this, when I asked around about the author,
few people knew of her or had read her work.  None
whom I contacted could tell me the racial origin of
the woman with the strange name.  Fortunately, when in
San Francisco, I got her telephone number from the
owners of the Old Wives’ Tales Bookstore, where I
purchased her self-published novel, The Bars Across
Heaven (1975).

After we met, the author shared another publication
with me, her sole remaining copy of Five Stories
(1977).  The book had a tattered green, heavily
stapled paper cover, which held together 235 numbered
typewritten pages produced by Red Jordan Press.  From
this, Suzie Q emerged for Judy Grahn’s collection.

All but one of the five stories on the cover were
scratched out.  The book contained only three: “Ladies
Auxiliary of the Left.”  Alexander D’Oro 1944--To
Infinity,” and, of course, “Suzie Q.”  With the
exception of Suzie Q, the stories are
autobiographical.  The longest, “Alexander D’Oro
1944--Infinity,” is a first-person narrative by June
“Flip” Jordan, which tells of her high-school friend,
Robert “Bobbie” Blake Goldberg, alias Alexander D’Oro,
their circle of friends, lovers, and what it was like
to grow up poor, black, and gay.  Daring to be
different, they tried to ease their painful
loneliness, sharpened by societal repressions, by
“staying drunk or fucked up on pills.”  They had no
role models, and few ventured to help them.  Gays had
not yet developed a “positive culture of self help.”
It is a classic rough-hewn documentation of young,
black gay life on the South Side of Chicago during the
liberal-scaring fifties.

The tongue-in-cheek “Ladies Auxiliary of the Left”
follows Red to San Francisco and the women’s
liberation movement.  The atypical style of the
author, combined with the improvised idioms of black
street jive rap, replete with their sound spellings,
weave the stories together in a believable pattern.

When Margaret Cruikshank deposited me at Red Jordan
Arobateau’s small, modest house, half-hidden by
gnarled trees and bushes, a smiling woman greeted me
at the door.  Red had warned me over the telephone
that she “looked white.”  She did look white or
possibly Latina, with her fair skin and “white folks
straight hair.”  She was dressed in a pair of faded
jeans, a plaid blue flannel shirt, and boots.

I followed her into a front room almost devoid of
furniture, save for three old vertical files, a small
table, and three hard chairs.  We sat down opposite
each other.  I noticed that she smiles easily and
often.  She appeared relaxed, slouched in the chair.
She has a warm earthiness about her.  As I began my
questions, I discerned that she likes to talk.
Information and discoveries sprang forth, allaying my
curiosity.

The thirty-seven-year-old author was a product of a
mixed marriage, which had a profound effect on her
life and writing.  Her father was born in Honduras,
and came to live in Chicago, where there were few
Spanish-speaking people.  He married a light-skinned
black woman with “tight hair,” which when
straightened, made her, too, look white.  Red
resembles the black side of the family, except for
inheriting her father’s “straight hair.”  Hair has
always been a pinnacle of black conversation, and
throughout the talking, Red frequently referred to her
“straight hair.”

She described her family life as having been
“terrible,” filled with emotional stress.  An only
child, she was closer to her father than mother.  Her
father was “something out of this world,” and she
loved him dearly.  When her father left home, she went
with him.  She never saw her mother again after the
age of seventeen.

Living with her father, she led an independent life.
An average high-school student, she went to college
for a year, but finding it a big “social affair”,
dropped out.  Her grandmother and mother were college
graduates.  There is unmistakable pride in her
disclosure.

To look white, but think and feel black, has caused
lifelong psychological and social problems for her.
Particularly around white women who take her for
white.  Unlike Michelle Cliff, she has never passed
for white.  To cope with her emotional frustrations,
she has joined the Mongrels, a group of women born of
mixed heritage.  The organization serves as a refuge
for the women who meet, discuss, and relate to each
other.  She has had both white and black lovers.  Her
“lady” now is black.

She devised her name by putting an “A” in front of
Robateau. Jordan was her black grandmother’s name,
which to her was racial and biblical.  Fifteen years
ago, she had a hairdresser as a lover, who colored her
hair red.  She liked it, for Red denotes passion.  She
readily categorizes herself as a “passionate person.”
Eroticism dominates her themes.

At the age of fifteen, she was browsing through books
on a drugstore rack and came across a lesbian novel.
Perusing the pages, she read about a woman “running
her hands over another woman’s breast.”  The word
electrified her.  Putting the book down, she said to
herself: “This is what I am!”  Even before, she had
crushes on her female teachers, and a couple of male
ones, whom she found out were gay.  As a child, she
knew that she was different.

The gay scene in Chicago, as described in “Alexander
D’Oro 1944--Infinity,” was depressing in her time.
Gays were harassed by Mayor Daley’s police force.  It
was difficult to find women like herself, and she was
lonely without a lover.  Eventually she read about the
flower people’s peace and love offerings in San
Francisco, and of the gay life.  In 1967, she left
Chicago to go where flowers of peace and love were
suppose to bloom.

There, to support herself through the years, she held
almost “any type of job.”  She has been a cook,
cleaning woman, dishwasher, waitress, and caretaker
for disabled people.  Once, she landed a good job
selling credit cards over the telephone. With the
commissions, she bought two houses.  Subsequently, she
sold the houses and bought the one in which she lives.
Now she wants to move.  The neighbors are noisy.
Trash strews their yards.

A black cat stalked majestically in, eyed me
inquisitively, then jumped up in her mistress’s lap.
“This is Mary,” Red smiled.  “Do you like cats?”

Not having been around cats, I couldn’t say, although
I have a natural tendency to like all animals.  I
skirted the question with a comment: “I have two
dogs.”

Placing Mary back down on the floor, she laughed.  “I
have twelve cats and two dogs!”

She began to write when she was thirteen years old.
Poetry, short stories, and long rambling things.
Getting up, she crossed over to the file cabinets.
“Look,” she said, pulling out the drawers, “this is
all the stuff I’ve been writing for years.”

The drawers bulge with completed and uncompleted
works.  I thought: Whee-e-e!  She must hold the
world’s record for being the most prolific unpublished
black lesbian author in the country!  Proudly, she
announces that she has written thirty-seven novels on
both gay and straight themes.  Quickly she reads out
the names of her books: Ash Can Betty, Garbage Can
Sally, Flea Market Molly, Electroshock Doctor, White
Girl, and Boogie Nights, Party Lights.  Titles
suggestive of pulp novels.

She writes in her bedroom and can “bat out a novel in
a month.”  When finished, she xeroxes five copies,
binds the typed pages with paper covers, and
hand-staples them.

The Bars Across Heaven has a more professional
appearance, with a slick printed cover and offset
type.  This is a book for which she is known and has
been reviewed.  It continues the life experiences of
Flip Jordan on the ghetto streets of Oakland.  Flip
lives on welfare checks, food stamps, and penny ante
rip-offs.  She hobnobs with “ho’s” whom she pays for
their services.  Flip desperately searches for the
woman of her dreams and money, but in reality all she
wants is to find peace, joy, and love.

About the characters in her book, Red says: “I’ve
lived in some way experiences in the books.  I’ve been
around it.  I’ve seen it personally.”

In encountering the street life, she has tried drugs,
which ended when she was hospitalized.  But through
all of the sordidness, she kept herself “clean.”
remembering the middle-class upbringing which served
as a buffer.

She has been trying to get published in the last
twenty years with no success.  She attributes this to
a “spiritual thing.”  God isn’t ready for her to get
published yet.  She realizes that she needs an editor
to help refine her work.  Nevertheless, she continues
to write, for writing brings to life her experiences,
life, and energy, and the people whom she meets to
capture on paper.

She is on unemployment compensation. Jokingly, she
calls herself “retired.”  After all, she points out,
look at all the work gone into her writing through the
years.  Some people retire after twenty years, don’t
they?  All she requires is enough to feed her cats and
dogs.

Her life has altered dramatically since the death of
her father nine years ago.  She had been an atheist
most of her life, but when her father died she became
a christian, as he had been. Her new religious
zealousness has turned some people off from her.
There are those who are alarmed by the christian
fundamentalist waves sweeping the country, fearful of
the political effects on their lifestyles, ideas, and
personal freedom. But her religious beliefs are
becoming part of her writing, particularly her
call-and-response poetry.*  She has reconciled her
lesbianism with her christianity, and can even be
witty about it.  She said, “I prayed to Jesus: You can
take the lesbian from me, but please, just don’t make
me straight!”

Red is a member of the Metropolitan Community Church,
which was founded for christian gays and lesbians to
worship freely and without hostility.  Tightening her
gaze on me, she inquired if I went to church.  I
responded negatively.  She quickly asked if I had ever
gone to church.  I nodded yes, thinking there were few
black people of my generation who hadn’t attended
church or been made to go sometime in life.
Immediately, I was invited to Sunday services with
her.  I declined because of another engagement, but
felt it would have been interesting to see hr in the
mansion of her Lord.

*Call-and-response originated in Africa.  It is a
preacher-to-congregation type song.

Copyright ©Ann Allen Shockley, 1982

Ann Allen Shockley is an academic librarian and writer
in Nashville, Tennessee.  Her latest book is a novel,
Say Jesus and Come to Me.
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