This year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival will close the evening of July 8 with a Sisterfire concert featuring women performers from across the country.The concert marks the 40th anniversary of Roadwork, a Washington, D.C.-based multicultural coalition that promotes women artists and social justice. From 1982 to 1989, Roadwork produced annual Sisterfire music festivals in Washington, D.C., which gave a platform to minority women and lesbian artists.
Writer and activist Alexis De Veaux attended the original Sisterfire festivals. We asked her about the history of the series and its impact on women in the arts.
Q: What are your memories of Sisterfire festivals in the 1980s? How did they inspire you?
A: I remember the Sisterfire festivals in the 1980s as not simply an event but an opportunity for community we all looked forward to. We were all hungry for, and needed, a sense of community that was local and global, and the Sisterfire festivals shaped a weaving of multicultural women’s voices that were necessary to surviving the Reagan era. As black, female-identified and lesbian, I felt particularly in need of, and inspired by, the ways in which Sisterfire politicized the erotics of our resistances.
Q: How did Sisterfire festivals elevate women artists of that era?
A: The festivals provided a venue for our collective visibility, by introducing us to each other across geographies, political agendas and economic realities. There were few, if any, such venues; certainly not another that prioritized a multicultural women’s world view in which art and politics merged in powerful couplings.
Q: How does the legacy of Sisterfire benefit young women artists today?
A: To the extent that we can create necessary intergenerational opportunities for cross-fertilization and knowledge exchange, the history and legacy of Sisterfire is poised to present women artists coming up behind us with a sense of —a model of—what is possible. That’s one of the things Sisterfire did. It made possible what had been impossible. And it can point the way to what can be done now.
Q: Roadwork recently announced an oral history and documentary project, which will cover the evolution of Sisterfire as well as the organization’s ongoing work to promote women performers. What do you hope the public will learn from this project?
A: I believe the public will benefit greatly from this project, primarily because the gathering of oral histories and the documenting of the work of artists and cultural workers who brought Roadwork into being are powerful testaments to the revolutionary potential of women.
As June Jordan once said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Where women go, so goes the entire community of life. The revolution that was begun in the 1980s, that came to be known as the Sisterfire festivals, continues today.
Alexis De Veaux’s writing has bridged multiple genres: fiction, children’s literature, playwriting and poetry. In 1980, she published Don’t Explain, an award-winning prose-poem biography of jazz great Billie Holiday. While working for Essence Magazine, she was chosen to interview Nelson Mandela in 1990 upon his historic release from prison, making her the first North American writer to do so. Her biography of Audre Lorde, Warrior Poet (2004) has received several awards.
De Veaux will participate in a Smithsonian Folklife Festival/Sisterfire spoken word and poetry session at 2:00 pm on July 8, 2018.
Above: Alexis De Veaux attends the 1982 Sisterfire Festival in Washington, D.C.
Image Credit: Courtesy Alexis De Veaux
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