“After staring at hundreds of blank pages….I learned to face myself. I learned that I not only existed but that I had every right to my own existence!”
TRQ: Anita Cornwell, Born September 23, 1923
Writer and poet Anita Cornwell, who wrote the first collection of essays by a Black lesbian, was born in Greenwood, South Carolina on September 23, 1923.
Cornwell’s grandmother Iola shaped her view on life. Iola was born in 1883, after many slaves had been emancipated but not freed. She invited Cornwell to attend the World’s Fair in New York City in 1939. Transformed by her experience in the North, at age 16, Cornwell moved to Pennsylvania to live with her aunt in Yeadon, and then with her mother in Philadelphia.
She attended Temple University to study journalism and graduated in 1948. Afterwards she worked for the Philadelphia Tribune, wrote poetry and essays published in Feminist Review, Labyrinth, Azalea: A Magazine by Third-World Lesbians, and BLACK/OUT.
Cornwell was one of the first to identify as a Black lesbian in her work, which was published in The Ladder and The Negro Digest in the 1950’s. She writes in a sharp style very much her own to claim the right to exist. She writes of the love, lost family members, and Black resistance in Jim Crow South. From the start, she discovered some White publishers were uninterested in Black and lesbian experiences, while others found her young adult books inappropriate for young girls.
On November 9, 1975, Philadelphia’s Gay Alternative published her short story “First Love and Other Sorrows.” In 1983 she published Black Lesbian in White America, in which she discusses internalised both misogyny and homophobia. An interview with Black lesbian essayist Audre Lorde also appears in the book.
Involved in the women’s movement, Cornwell often found herself to be one of few Black women in the room, and sometimes the oldest. She joined the Daughters of Bilitis and helped found the Philadelphia chapter of Radicalesbians.
Cornwell writes, “The thing I find most disturbing regarding womyn in general is the seeming impossibility of their thinking clearly when it comes time to deal with men. Womyn with advanced university degrees often seem utterly unable to dot an ‘i’ when they are confronted with the realities of man’s barbaric treatment of womyn.”
“To put it bluntly, I find it absolutely terrifying to see just how effective men have been in eradicating womyn’s sense of self, a condition that seems to prevail in at least 90 percent of all womyn all over this male-infected globe,” she continues.
Of the lesbian social scene, she commented, “We went to one gay bar, which was called Rusty’s, and it was very prejudiced. I could tell they didn’t want us [black lesbians] there.” Cornwell argued that living in a racist country affected even feminists.
In an interview with Marc Stein, Cornwell explained, “Black women have always been feminists. I mean, that’s the only way we survived, that we were feminists. See, a lot of people think being feminist means you hate men. And straight women hate men more. Most gay women are feminists, to some extent, I think. Well, naturally I was very interested in the women’s movement because that was the only movement that I saw that might include me.”
In 2000, the Annual Lambda Literary Festival in Philadelphia honoured Cornwell for her writing.
Cornwell now lives in a nursing home in Germantown and suffers from dementia. Another lesbian activist, Ahavia Lavana, lived in the same nursing home until she died in November 2018.
Cornwell’s writing exposes tensions around race, gender and sexuality that still confront us today.