The other night I attended the memorial event for Andrea Lewis, renowned journalist at KPFA, New American Media and the Progressive Magazine. It was an evening chock full of inspiring performances, wonderful music, decent poetry (you know me and poetry) and heart-felt testimonials before a standing-room-only crowd of hundreds at the lovely First Unitarian Church in Oakland. The SF Symphony Chorus, of which Andrea was a long-time member, showed up en masse – that must have been 70 people right there, Poet Laureate Al Young performed some pretty good spoken word, and Krissy Keefer and Dance Brigade finished up (batted clean-up, as Andrea would say) with some amazing drumming that could have gone on a lot longer. And running throughout, the rich melodic tones of Andrea's voice, mostly from the radio.
Though I didn't know Andrea well, it was an emotional and satisfying evening for me. I interacted with her at KPFA just enough to admire her profoundly. I was interviewed by her once, on International Women's Day years ago; it was short and not memorable for either of us, though even then, I was impressed by her seamless transitions and easy manner in the studio. In retrospect, knowing what I do about the difficulty of doing live radio, I am more impressed because she made it look so effortless when it really is not.
Last night, in going through piles and piles of papers from the last few years in search of a paper I needed to travel to Canada (we won't go into that now, but suffice it to say that when Andrea's brother talked about her pack-rat-itis, I made a note to myself to try to throw some stuff away before I die), I ran across a handout from a class about interviewing. It said, "An interview is not a conversation, though it may sound like one after you've edited it." I always try to make my interviews sound like conversations, but they rarely do, even after editing. I've learned to use notes instead of a full script, but it's still too obvious when I'm asking a prepared question, and even my candid responses too often sound like speeches.
Andrea prepared superbly for her interviews – insofar as I did know her, it was because I do most of my work at KPFA on weekends, and when I was there on Saturday nights, Andrea was almost always there late into the evening getting ready for her Sunday show. But she always managed to make it sound completely spontaneous. I just listened to a bunch of her old shows, for a tribute that aired on Women's Magazine last week (pretty good, if I do say so myself – hear it at http://kpfawomensmag.blogspot.com). I was struck by how quickly she could create a rapport with her guests. Even if there were times when she didn't do all the research herself, but was handed a pile of papers by her producers – after all, that's what producers are for – but you could never tell. She would say, "I was looking at your website and I noticed …" or "The thing that really grabbed me when I was reading your book," and you believed it 100%. She would always find something to bond over, even if she was less than inspired by them. If she met someone for the first time at 7:35 and interviewed them from 7:40 to 7:45, it was five minutes of intimacy, and that intimacy was irresistible to the listeners. That's why at her memorial, when people tried to engage the crowd by saying, "Raise your hand if Andrea had a nickname for you," "How many of you got one of those 30-minute phone messages from Andrea?" only a few scattered hands went up. Hundreds of folks came out not because they knew her personally, but because they felt like they knew her, and more, because she had enriched their world.
When I started volunteering at KPFA, one of the things I hoped for was to get to know Andrea. I can't say that happened. We would say hi in the kitchen or downstairs, exchange a few words about our shows. Once she admired the Thai food I had brought for the women who were working on our show, and I invited her to join us. She declined, to all of our disappointment. I had two substantive interactions with her. The first was when Lisa and I were trading a DVD of "The L Word." Andrea asked what we were doing with it. Both of us were working on documentaries, and we were both basically using the TV series about high-fashion, mostly rich and white, lesbians in LA to illustrate everything that's wrong with the mainstream gay movement. Andrea defended the show. She had been at some of the shootings, I think, in LA, and had gone to a party to watch the last episode, and she said it moved her to tears. As a Black progressive lesbian from Detroit, she certainly didn't feel like those women represented her, but she just liked that they were out there, on mainstream television, being dykes and having sex. She was inclined, I think, to focus on the positive in popular culture and not expect it to be more than it was.
Then, a couple weeks ago, I was working with some younger lesbians of color who have started producing with us. They were saying that there are not lesbians of color on the radio, which is certainly true in general, and I thought, "Oh, I should make sure they meet Andrea so they know at least they're not the only ones here." I was on my way downstairs, and she was in her office with Mickey, debriefing the show they had just finished and the door was slightly open. I was nervous about interrupting, but I stopped in and asked if she could come by on her way out. She said she was not feeling well, but she would try. When I came back upstairs, she was in our office chatting with Christine and Kiki and Olga about the Richmond homecoming rape, which Kiki has been organizing around. When she left she told them to let her know if they had any extra material that might be good for her show, or if she could help them in any way, and thanked me for making the connection.
If you asked me about Andrea, the first words out of my mouth would be African American Lesbian Feminist. So imagine my surprise when in three hours of people talking about her on Tuesday night, neither the "L Word" nor the "F Word" were spoken. There were a couple oblique allusions to her being lesbian – Larry Samuels said she referred to him as "her weird straight guy friend," and a number of people mentioned that she always called out "racism, sexism and homophobia" (always listed in that order). In the two tributes that aired on the two shows she worked on, The Morning Show and Sunday Sedition, the word "lesbian" was barely mentioned, and only Krissy Keefer spoke about how important the women's movement was to her.
It's pretty amazing because Andrea was not someone to whom feminism or lesbianism were unimportant. There are women at KPFA who are feminists, and probably even lesbians, who don't necessarily consider those core parts of their identities, but Andrea wasn't one of them. She got her start in Bay Area journalism working for a Plexus, a feminist newspaper. Krissy Keefer mentioned in her tribute that Andrea called her a good friend, though they never socialized, and Krissy said she thought that was because they were connected through the women's movement.
In a short interview Lisa did with Andrea about feminism, which aired as part of our tribute, she talked about how she came to feminism as a young teenager, admiring people like Gloria Steinem, and appreciating the songwriting talents of Carole King. When her father denied that a woman could have written all the songs on an album, and told Andrea she shouldn't waste money on college, Andrea says "I just knew he was crazy." She also talked about believing that lesbianism and feminism were "part of the same package, not separate." When I was looking for pieces for our show to illustrate this commitment to women's and queer issues, I didn't find a single show that didn't have something that would have been appropriate. No matter what she was talking about, she always brought those lenses to it.
So I left the memorial asking, "Why is the first thing out of my mouth about this woman I barely knew the last thing out of the mouths of the people who knew her well?" I wasn't alone. As I made my way out of the church, I heard other women talking about how weird it was. This is not the first time I've had this experience relating to KPFA. When Mike Alcalay, a gay activist and doctor who reported on AIDS issues, died a couple years ago, his brother was interviewed on Democracy Now! And did not say that he was gay. In Mike's case, it was even stranger, because he had been married (to a woman) and had twin sons, which was mentioned in the obits. At that time, I wrote in my blog, "When I die, don't let anyone talk about me and not say 'lesbian.'" And some of you were nice enough to make that promise.
I think there are several reasons this keeps happening. One is that, even in 2009 and even in progressive circles, straight people still have trouble saying the words "gay" and "lesbian." I believe they still feel like it's saying something negative. No one thought that saying Andrea was Black or African American or a woman was diminishing her, but I think they felt like alluding to her as a lesbian feminist would make some people not like her, or make her less important than focusing on her love of the arts and sports, her golfing, her singing, and her journalistic brilliance. There's still a belief, in left journalism as well as in the mainstream, that a "lesbian" journalist or a "feminist" journalist is a "niche" journalist, not as "universal" as a straight woman who doesn't identify with those angry, man-hating feminists. Which makes me think of Harvey Fierstein's comment in "The Celluloid Closet," that when people say, "Your work isn't gay, it's universal," his (private) response is "Up yours."
The other piece of this straightwashing phenomenon is that Andrea wasn't married or domestic partnered. If she had a lover or six, no one seems to know about it. If she had had a wife or girlfriend, that person would have been central to her memorial and on air tributes. But when single people die, in our coupleist, nuclear-family-oriented society, it's our families of origin that tend to be centered and most of our families of origin, in Andrea's and my generation certainly (she was 52, two years older than me), even if they are very accepting, are not that comfortable with our sexual orientation. It's like we revert to being kids, and kids are not seen as having sexual orientation.
I had hoped this would be the year when I would conquer my awe of Andrea and find a way to make her a friend. Maybe that's why her death has touched me deeply, maybe it's because I've been around so many others who are grieving deeply for her, or maybe it's the public Andrea I'm grieving: the publicly unapologetic fat lesbian feminist African American woman who incidentally sang and played golf.
Go in peace, cherished sister.