Black Women Radicals – Interview with Alexis

Galactic Black: Dreaming in Tongues and the Black Otherwhere.

Alexis De Veaux was born and raised in Harlem, the product of two merging streams of Black history in New York City –immigrants from the Caribbean on her mother’s side and migrants from North Carolina on her father’s side –who settled in Harlem in the early decades of the 20th century. The second of eight children, that history was embedded in her mother’s view of life: “You got three strikes against you. You poor, you black, and you female.” But Alexis was drawn to the world of words and books, and literature soon became the means by which she re-imagined the world her mother understood.

The social movements of the 1960s, and the Black writers associated with them, had a determining impact. Alexis began to envision the possibilities of living as a writer. In the early 1970s, she joined the writer’s workshop of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Harlem. The workshop was run by the late writer Fred Hudson. Under his guidance she won first place in a national Black fiction writers’ contest (1972); published her first children’s book, Na-ni (1973); and the fictionalized memoir, Spirits in the Street (1973). By the end of the 1970s, Alexis’s reputation as a writer bridged multiple genres: fiction, children’s literature, playwriting and poetry.

In the ensuing decades, the tensions between the Black Arts Movement, an emerging Black feminist movement, and, later, the Third World Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, were the backdrop for Alexis’s writing. Her work began to be defined by two critical concerns: making the racial and sexual experiences of Black female characters central to her work, and disrupting boundaries between forms. In 1980 she published Don’t Explain, an award-winning biography of jazz great Billie Holiday, written as a prose poem. As a freelance writer and contributing editor for Essence Magazine in the 1980s, Alexis penned several socially relevant articles, traveling on behalf of the magazine to Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Egypt. Alexis published a second award-winning children’s book, An Enchanted Hair Tale (1987) before moving to Buffalo, where she finished graduate school, earning a doctorate in American Studies in 1992. A project nearly ten years in the making, her biography of Audre Lorde, Warrior Poet (2004) has been the recipient of several awards, including the Gustavus Meyers Outstanding Book Award (2004), the Lambda Literary Award for Biography (2004), the Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award, Nonfiction (2005). She is also the author of Yabo (2014), which according to Jewelle Gomez “…speaks in a powerful and insistent cadence about things we may have forgotten: death, desire, magic and the drum beat of resilience.” Her work is available in English, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese and Serbo-Croatian.

Today, Alexis is a celebrated writer and activist recognized for her lifelong contributions to a number of women’s and literary organizations. She has collaborated with the visual artist Valerie Maynard and poet Kathy Engel on the digital project, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been Terrorized?”(available on YouTube); and co-founded with Kathy Engel, Lyrical Democracies, a cultural partnership aimed at communities interested in working with poets to enhance existing social projects.

Black Women Radicals. Author, @EmeraldFaith