Noelle Lorraine Williams is a Black lesbian artist in the mold of Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Color Purple. A consummate artist, a powerful essayist, a historian pursuing her own original research, Williams is a Renaissance Woman in the full sense of the term and the recipient of the 2021 Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
Out in Jersey caught up with her as she was just launching the virtual multimedia exhibition, Black Power! Newark’s First African American Rebellion in the 19th Century (the full exhibition opened in April at Newark Public Library) and the accompanying Black History Month celebration for NPL, entitled The Art and Beauty of Black Power! A Century of Cinema, Dance and Music. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Noelle, thank you so much for finding some time to sit down with us amid all the projects you are currently working on. In other interviews, you have discussed your interest in reading from an early age and how that love of books has influenced you.
Noelle Lorraine Williams: While I was growing up, books were an important resource to me. One of my favorite plays is For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, which I saw when I was four or five on Channel 13. In the original version, not the Tyler Perry one, the characters talk a lot about journaling and books. For me, developing as a young Black woman, I associated books and art as a part of growing up.
It also helped that my father had come back from Korea during the Vietnam War with a bunch of books. At around eight, I would start picking up and exploring the books on African American social and political thought that my father had on the shelves.
When my family and I moved to Newark from Jersey City, there was a library that was a half-block away, and at age 11 I was able to borrow books, which ranged from Alice Walker to Rita Mae Brown, and Iceberg Slim, who ran the streets with sex workers and drug dealers. I read books on feminism and sexuality. I just had my own free will with books. It got to the point that after I borrowed 30 of them, two librarians came to my house to take the books back.
How did you first get involved in the LGBTQ movement?
NLW: This sounds like it could be part of a public relations campaign, but I actually came out when Kevin Jennings, the founder of GLSEN, visited my girl’s prep school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to talk about gay–straight alliances. I raised my hand and said I was a bisexual woman.
And then, I ended up working for GLSEN as the organization’s first paid student organizer, doing organizing in high school. Going to prep school in 1991, you couldn’t have something that said lesbian, gay, or bisexual. So we called the group “BRIDGE” since it was meant to bridge understanding between LGBTQ and straight people. I was the only out teen in the group.
How did you find the courage and moral force to come out in that way and then become an LGBTQ activist?
NLW: It’s interesting that we’ve been talking about books. At the time, I was reading progressive Black straight female authors, but also bisexual Black women like Alice Walker and also Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, and Pat Parker, who identified as Black lesbians. They inspired me, and I decided to make my politics more personal. I cut my hair and became vegetarian. On the weekends, I would go to Wellesley College and borrow books by radical thinkers and hang out at the college.
You’ve mentioned Alice Walker twice. What influence has Alice Walker had on you?
NLW: Alice Walker, for me as a teenager, was essential because she explores sexuality in her poetry and essays. She discusses open sexuality, not just sleeping with multiple people, but open sexuality as how we define who we are, as part of our spirituality. She came out as pan spiritual, saying she could make love to herself by a tree, with a man, or a woman. That spoke to me. It is important to have an understanding of ourselves as citizens and as community workers but it’s also essential to have a greater connection to the universe and spirituality.
From Alice Walker I also learned how to be strong and handle push-back. When The Temple of My Familiar came out, talking about sacred sweat lodges and making love among trees, some Black folks pushed back. Writers like Terry McMillan felt that Alice Walker should stay in the realm of telling folk stories of the South. During an interview in the 90s when Terry McMillan was still an up-and-coming writer, she publicly shamed Alice Walker, saying she had gone from writing Black agrarian stories to being down with the white people. I got hot and thought, “Alice Walker loves Black people, so what are you talking about? She has done so much writing about our people. But now she’s come out as bisexual and has a different kind of spirituality than what you think Black people should have. Why do you have a problem with that?”
Finally, Alice Walker has impacted my work by showing that it was possible to be a serious artist, a serious thinker, and still conduct new research about African American history. In her book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she goes trudging through a cemetery looking for Black Harlem Renaissance author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave in Florida. It’s only because of Alice Walker that there was this resurgence of interest in Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God was republished. Without Alice Walker, we wouldn’t be talking about Zora Neale Hurston right now!
Alice Walker’s work and the books of Black lesbian feminists, including Barbara Smith and her sister, who were all part of Combahee River Collective (a Black lesbian collective that was named after the river where Harriet Tubman launched a military action). These manifestos of a sort gave me the permission to be a multidisciplinary thinker and worker that connected the radical past to the present. This is something I’ve been reflecting on in the past few months as I was preparing Black Power! Newark’s First African American Rebellion in the 19th Century. For this exhibition, I had to travel to Philadelphia, communicate with dozens of archives, and just walk the streets of Newark to get some of this work done. Alice Walker showed me that you do work in the studio, but you’re also doing it on the street- pounding the pavement and going into uncomfortable spaces.
Would you please tell us more about your findings while completing research for Black Power! 19th Century?
NLW: One of the people I looked into was Brenda Moryck, a Black woman who was part of the Harlem Renaissance and actually attended Wellesley College. She was the great-granddaughter of one of the most prominent Black abolitionists in Newark. She published short stories in Crisis, the newsletter of the NAACP, where many of the Harlem Renaissance luminaries published their work.
Brenda Moryck wrote a story that talks about the tension of living in a Newark building with white folks. A woman who looks like Brenda Moryck moves into a building and the people hate her because she’s a Black woman. Yet she floats above it showing her upper-middle-class graces. Then she ends up moving out of the building, and a lot of the working-class white people are sad because she brought so much “grace” to the building. Moryck was not ashamed of her middle-class Black roots but she stayed committed to all classes in the Black community.
In doing my research, I found lesser-known short stories by Brenda Moryck and I’m compiling all of them for publication to help future researchers.
That’s incredible. Would you please go more into how this rich African American tradition of drawing on past generations has informed your work more generally?
NLW: When I first became an artist, white artists would often say, “Real art doesn’t have a political leaning,” which is ridiculous to me. I was raised around a lot of people who had been nurtured in the Black arts movement in Jersey City and Newark. Artists like Amiri Baraka were friends with people in my family. I was raised believing art, history, and community were intertwined. For example, I do beadwork and after Korryn Gaines was killed when police busted into her house, I created a bead mask of her.
With Black Power! 19th Century: Newark’s First African American Rebellion, one of the goals is to counteract how people think about African Americans in cities like Newark, Philadelphia, and Detroit. The traditional narrative is that Black people moved from the South to Newark in the 1930s and destroyed what was a beautiful, burgeoning city. What my project does is it says, “No. Actually, there were already African Americans living in Newark for hundreds of years, helping shape this democracy and this city, all while working with other Black activists nationwide.” They were there when Newark went from being a town to a city. They helped build what we now call Newark. They helped to define freedom in what we call Newark.
There were African American organizations working to help other African Americans that lived here and people who were migrating from the South, too. While I don’t like to push an upper-class middle-class success narrative, there were also African American landowners. There were Black abolitionists, and I include the word “Black” to keep engendering in people’s minds the fact that these abolitionists were not just white intellectuals. It’s funny how history has them lost. People often know more about Harriet Beecher Stowe than Black Freedom Churches.
A lot of the work I do as a curator is to find this research and to depict it visually, including in two videos I contributed to Black Power in the 19th Century. While I love words and books, I also realize that to communicate with people, it’s often helpful to present the information with sounds and images.
Wow! Hat’s off to you. I’m sure everyone is doing that-but damn! You seem to be changing the consciousness of Newark residents but also of the larger community. We’ve seen the importance of history with the New York Times’ 1619 Project and the white Christian nationalist response of the 1776 report. Looking back at history can help us define who we are.
NLW: As someone who is interested in history, you may know that Dylann Roof, the Charleston church shooter, visited Black historic sites. What we learn from white supremacists is that they are thinking in terms of the 18th century until now. Roof shot up an Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church meeting comprised mainly of older folks because it’s the place where many people believe the Denmark Vesey slave rebellion started. Dylann Roof went so far as to support white supremacists in South Africa. White supremacists are thinking historically and globally. We need to, too.
That’s a wake-up call for all of us. Noelle, thank you for sitting down with us and explaining just how important your work is, to understanding who we are as Americans—and who we choose to be.
Black Power! Newark’s First African American Rebellion in the 19th Century virtual exhibit at: blackpower19thcentury.com