Cherríe Moraga revisits her foundational book
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, first published in 1981, is a landmark of women of color feminist writing that explores, as co-editor Cherríe Moraga puts it, “the complex confluence of identities—race, class, gender and sexuality—systemic to women of color oppression and liberation.” Thirty-five years later, Bridge continues to reflect an evolving definition of feminism that can help us understand the changing economic and social conditions of women of color everywhere.
Celebrating the fourth reissue of the book, Moraga presented at a spring 2016 quarterly Artists’ Salon sponsored by the Clayman Institute. She read several passages from the book aloud, recounted the story of the book’s origins, and explored its continuing significance. She also commemorated several of the book’s contributors who have died, including her friend and co-editor, Gloria Anzaldúa.
The foundations of a new, intersectional feminism
Moraga began her masters’ program at San Francisco State University in 1977. As a lesbian woman of mestiza Chicana, Native and white ancestry, she was searching for a program—or a movement—that she felt spoke to her and her experiences. At the time, there was no such thing as an academic program in gender, feminist or women’s studies at SFSU. So Moraga designed her own degree in feminist writings, aspiring to create a new feminist canon that reflected her own experience as a queer woman of color.
In San Francisco in the late 1970s, Moraga had found a sisterhood of other budding feminists of color, including Anzaldúa. Together, these women studied the Civil Rights Movement and the gay rights movement, as well as the feminist movement. While they saw elements of their own struggle in each of these movements, they too felt that their full story was not being told. They were inspired by the work of black women writers like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, but found that there was still almost no published work by feminists of Chicana, Native or Asian-American background.
Moraga decided to write an unorthodox masters’ thesis for her unorthodox degree. She and Anzaldúa brought together poems and essays written by her community of feminists of color, creating the groundwork for the first published work dealing with Chicana, Native and Asian-American feminism, This Bridge Called My Back.
With Anzaldúa, in 1981, Moraga published This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, a foundational collection of personal essays, criticism, interviews, testimonials, poetry and visual art based on the intersecting identities of class, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality and gender. The book was recognized with the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and has gone on to garner numerous accolades.
“What never appeared on a reading list”
The book filled in “so much that was missing in my own education,” Moraga said, reading aloud from her afterword to the newest edition, “…what never appeared on a reading list.”
Moraga shared that she was deeply inspired by her mother, a poor Native American woman who dropped out of high school to care for her younger siblings. She saw that her mother suffered from compounded sources of oppression: being Native, being poor, being uneducated, being a woman. In 1989, a decade before the term “intersectionality” was coined by civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Moraga saw the concept in action: these identities worked together to limit her mother’s opportunities.
While Moraga’s mother never finished high school, she was a wise and expressive storyteller. Therefore, Moraga’s mother not only illustrated how marginalized identities compound each other, but also gave Moraga a passion for language and narrative. Moraga explained that in her own education, she never encountered texts like This Bridge Called My Back. The afterword to her book recounts a conversation with her partner that encapsulates the book’s significance:
“There was no body to talk to,” my companion reminds me. We sit at the kitchen table.
“Yes,” I say, “That’s why we wrote the book.”