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Cheryl Dunye

Janine, (1990)
& She Don't Fade (1991)
by Cheryl Dunye


While race, sexuality and gender are popular themes in media of the 90s, I have come to realize that I can no longer accept the lack of and the misrepresentation of black lesbians in films and videos. I am tired of seeing images in which black lesbians play victims or macho bull daggers who persuade women to "experiment" with their sexuality. These stereotypes are dangerous and further marginalize an identity which celebrates the life I choose to live. I am dedicated to building a visual culture about black lesbian life which focuses on our creativity, our culture and our concerns about a world where we are forgotten.

It took many years for me incorporate my black lesbian voice in my work as a visual artist. I constantly avoided issues of race and sexuality because I thought these were issues too personal to be considered artistic. I made films and videos about "my other" – white men and women whose presence dominated most of the worlds I socialized in. To me they were safe subjects, and in using them I might be better accepted in their worlds – which for a long time was my world. It wasn't until seeing the works of Michelle Parkerson and Marlon Riggs that I was able to consider my experiences as a valid subject. Their voices of Black lesbian and gay subjectivity, respectively, set my mind on fire. I realized I could exist on the screen and began using my marginalization as subject in my work. In Janine, I tell the tale of my relationship with a white girl in high school.

Janine really affected me a lot she was blonde, blue eyed – she seemed so perfect and I just seemed so imperfect. I was the class clown and the fool...just kind of goofy and out of place. And she in one way kind of made me feel like it too or maybe I just made myself feel like it. I don't know I never really kind of got over it...

The issues I raise in Janine aren't easy ones, and I struggle with them daily. Rather than internalizing them, I put them in my videos. Right now I find it important to include myself, physically and autobiographically, as a character in my work. This strategy allows me to explore my identity and its relationship to you, my audience.

My work as a black lesbian video artist has two main goals. The first, to educate those audiences that know little or nothing about black lesbians and our life style. And second, to empower and entertain "the sisters." Never in my life have I seen images of black lesbians loving each other, in love or making love.* It's something that I had hoped to see in works

by other lesbian film and video artists. Rather than waiting, I made She Don't Fade – a video about Shae, a black lesbian who shares the secrets of her "new approach to women."

She (Shae) recently broke up with a lover about a year ago and around that time she started her own vending business which is really, really good's good business. You meet a lot of people you're out on the street you're really self engaged.

It was good to do that at that time because it got me into myself when I had been in relationships with women... consecutive(ly). This last one was three years. The one before that was - so many years... I've been going out with women pretty much as a livelihood for a while. So I decided to get into my own self and I'm going to approach women differently I'm going to have a new kind of rapport with them where it's less this couple thing.

The women in the video are both black and white. There's Zoie, the "dyke yenta" narrator; Paula, Shae's best friend; Margo, a young black photographer Shae meets and then breaks up with; and Nikki, Shae's "erotic fantasy" which comes true in the end. The tape is playful and witty as it explores one aspect of black lesbian life.

Recently, I've begun to question the issue of multiculturalism and how it relates to me as a black lesbian video artist. In the past year my videos have received a lot of attention and it makes me understand how empowering visual imagery can be for any marginalized peoples. My work is usually screened at festivals whose agenda addresses issues of race, sexuality or both, and often the word multicultural is used to describe the politics these institutions are embracing. I often feel torn, and question whether my videos are being shown because they are "good" or because they fulfill the multicultural agenda of a particular program.

An example which comes to mind is The Third Annual New York International Festival of Lesbian and Gay Film, which presented works by Lesbians of Color in a program called, "Poetry In Motion." On the one hand, I feel it is important for my work to be included in a "Lesbians of Color" program because it creates a sense of solidarity through a collective subjectivity. But on the other hand, the category "Lesbians of Color" works to further marginalize my work, as once again I am placed outside – objectified because of the color of my skin.

Perhaps a solution lies in the programming of festivals: Rather than grouping works on issues of race, sexuality and gender, why not group works on thematic and content issues, or even obvious issues of style or length. This method would allow a dialectical exchange to occur between audiences rarely engaged in any critical discourse.

Much of my work as a black lesbian video artist has in one sense just begun. It will be some time before my marginal identity is incorporated in mainstream discourse and media. Rather than wait for inclusion, I choose to use my marginality as what bell hooks calls a site of resistance. In Black lesbianism, I become the subject in a world where I am never "different" or "other" but an authority on who I am and who I am becoming. It is this affirming voice that I articulate in my videos and offer to all marginalized people working to transform present reality.