This strange season of pandemic social distancing, social unrest, and Pride Month has inspired the Center for Women’s History to meditate on the nature of community and revisit one of our women’s history salons held last November: an evening celebrating the Salsa Soul Sisters. If there was ever one group that exemplified the best of what communities can offer—camraderie, sustenance, and mutual support—it would be the Salsa Soul Sisters.
The first organization dedicated to lesbians of color in this country, Salsa Soul was founded by Rev. Delores Jackson in New York City in 1974. Its membership consisted primarily of African American lesbians and was inclusive of Latinas, Asian American, and indigenous women who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or same-gender-loving. As historically significant as the organization is, however, it is also a family, as many of the evening’s speakers noted. Nearly 70 Sisters gathered to hear panelists Cassandra Grant, Imani Rashid, Roberta Oloyade Stokes, and moderator Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz discuss the struggles and triumphs of their multigenerational community, their creative endeavors, and their activism. (Their remarks have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
The evening opened with a traditional pouring of libations, led by Yoruba priestess Imani Rashid, evoking and thanking the LGBTQ and black communities, both the living and the deceased, and concluded with a plea “that they continue to be with us because it’s they who brought you here, and it’s they who inspire us to do our work every day.”
Following the libations, Chirlane McCray, First Lady of the City of New York and a card-carrying member of Salsa Soul Sisters, delivered her spirited opening remarks. She recalled experiencing what she called a “these are my people” moment shortly after her arrival in New York in 1977 at age 22 with nothing but $35 and a business card. A chance meeting with Yolanda Rios Bots and Yvonne Flowers (as she was known at the time) led to a new home and new community. She described attending her first Salsa Soul meeting with them and one of their best friends, iconic poet Audre Lorde.
I’ll never forget how at one point Audre turned to me, and she said, “It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yes!” … The Sisters were so beautiful, and there were so many of them, in one room! And mind you, that wasn’t a very big room, but for me it was so much, given where I had come from. And these Sisters, they became family for me, you know? Many of them are sitting right up here, my New York family, my first New York family, and they fed my soul, they helped me see and navigate the world… We protected each other from a world that just refused to see us, let alone embrace us.
Cassandra Grant, an original member of the Salsa Soul Board of Directors, shared lively memories of the women’s bar scene that pre-dated the Stonewall uprising and LGBTQ liberation movement. Grant described how, for decades, women had been excluded from these important social spaces. “There was a male bouncer to keep out the undesirables and the blacks— you remember that, right? They kept us out. Or they’d let one in, but when two or three showed up, all of a sudden there was a charge.”
Grant noted the absurdity of the situation—“Can you imagine? I spent my money and had to fight, too?”—and also described the 1974 birth of Salsa, which came from Delores Jackson’s recognition of the need to come together in a place other than bars. “That’s all we had was the bars,” said Grant. “But we are so much more than the bars—come on, sisters!—we are so much more than the bars!” Salsa first participated in the annual Christopher Street Liberation Day march in 1974. It wasn’t easy because of the threat of reprisal; as Grant explained, “You go into a gay bar, your boss sees you, ‘Oh, you’re out.’ So it wasn’t easy to march like it is now, but the Sisters did it. They put on their shirts, they put their badges on, and they went out.”
Roberta Oloyade Stokes’s remarks focused on the network of emotional, creative, and artistic support among the Salsa family. In 1985, Stokes—a choreographer, dancer, and musician—became the first member of Salsa to become pregnant via an anonymous donor insemination (although, as she noted, many women in Salsa were already mothers). Her pregnancy was celebrated by the community—from the three days of multilingual prayer and chanting that accompanied her insemination to the “biggest ever baby shower, ever,” complete with dancing and drumming that Imani Rashid hosted for her on the day her labor began. Stokes gave birth to twins, who instantly became part of the Salsa community, where they were often referred to by the Yoruba term Ibejis. Stokes described how her daughter was supported by sisters that she didn’t even personally know when she attended college out of state: “They looked at her and said ‘Oh, you’re one of the Ibejis…We were a part of that circle when your mom was being inseminated, and chanting and praying.’”
Stokes also recalled the myriad performance groups that grew out of, and were nourished by, the Salsa community, including Edwina Lee Tyler’s A Piece of the World all-women African dance and drum group and the Flamboyant Ladies Theater Company, co-hosted by Gwendolen Hardwick and Alexis De Veaux. “That’s what happens when you have this strong kind of family,” she said. “There wasn’t any other place for us to go and we went and supported each other.… We’re never disconnected.”
Imani Rashid spoke about Salsa’s community celebrations, including formal dances—although, as she recalled, the poet Sapphire used to show up wearing overalls—and the intergenerational celebration of Kwanzaa that’s gone on for over four decades now.
For many years, Rashid also organized Salsa’s Thursday-night workshops, and Saida Moreno, the daughter of one of Salsa’s original members, explained that the name was slightly disingenuous: “When they say ‘Thursday nights,’ it was not Thursday night, the meetings. They would start Thursday and they would go the whole weekend.” Moreno described one particularly memorable meeting:
“It was packed—everyone was there…and my mom got it in her mind that the room was too small – everyone was just like, “Let’s just break through the wall!” So Carletta [Walker] must have had a mallet, I don’t know how this happened, but… they just broke through the wall to make a bigger living room so that everyone could then sit around and read poetry and play music and eat and sleep and sing and dance and play drums. And that was how I grew up.”
Moreno emphasized how central this was to her own identity formation: “That’s something magical to grow up with that inside of your spirit, and know that it doesn’t really matter what anyone says to you: You can break through the wall and create a bigger living room.”
Written by Jeanne Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar, Center for Women’s History