In 1999 C.C. Carter took top honors at the Guild Complex's Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Awards with a performance of her signature poem "The Herstory of My Hips," a loud 'n' proud celebration of her full figure and multicultural background. "These hips are for you to snuggle / for you to cuddle," it runs. "For you to sink into and dream / for you to get lost in all your fantasies / wrap yourself around and let me squeeze you hips / lock you in and yell 'si mama' hips."
"Sometimes," says Carter, who's gay, "taking what seems to be a weakness and putting it in somebody's face makes them shut up before they even come to you."
Carter, 38, lived in Chicago until she was 15, when her family relocated to New York City. She returned eight years ago, got a job teaching English and theater in Dolton, and a year later entered an open mike competition at Paris, a now extinct club in Uptown. To her surprise, she won. Soon she was performing at the Green Mill, Lit-X, the Bailiwick Arts Center, and Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, becoming a fixture on the local scene. Her first collection of poetry, Body Language, was published by Kings Crossing last year and is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, which honors achievement by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender writers. Two weeks ago she inaugurated a weekly open mike at Leo's Den Cocktail Lounge in Grand Crossing, and next week she'll participate in a Guild Complex-sponsored event celebrating the contributions black gay and lesbian writers have made to 20th-century literature.
Carter argues that knowing a writer's sexual orientation can help readers interpret his or her work, citing Langston Hughes's classic "I, Too, Sing America," in which the narrator adamantly refuses to remain a second-class citizen. "He's working the symbolism on all aspects of being male, being black," she says. "The more you read into his biography, the more you can say it even applies to the fact that he was gay. To not put that out there leaves out a whole other perspective that was part of his life.
"Does that stop you from being an American voice in literature? No, it doesn't. It didn't stop Walt Whitman....It didn't stop any of the European white literary canon people. So why is it going to stop us? Why should it stop us to just add that one little thing that could make a difference in the interpretation of the literature and make a difference in somebody?"
Carter got an early education in the poetry of Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Phyllis Wheatley during visits to her grandmother's south-side home. "My grandmother was a closet poet," Carter says. "She was a product of the era where art, being of color and a woman, wasn't going to happen. I believe she was born at the wrong time and she would have been a brilliant poet in contemporary literature. We would go through the house reciting wonderful poetry until somebody came into the room. Then she would say, 'OK, now this is how you bake a cake.' I'm actually starting to write pieces about why it was such a secret to do poetry out loud or do any kind of art out loud for her."
When Carter was 14, other kids started making fun of her maturing figure, so her grandmother gave her a copy of Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman," a celebration of the zaftig. "I would come home crying every day because people picked on me," Carter says. "Little boys tried to pinch my behind. My assignment was to say the Lord's Prayer at night and recite 'Phenomenal Woman' right after it, and every morning before I left the house recite 'Phenomenal Woman.' That became my armor when I walked out into the world."
Carter currently lives on the west side and directs an adult literacy and GED program, but she was still a New Yorker when her first girlfriend outed her to her mother over the phone. "We were breaking up," Carter says. "That was her revenge." Her father was supportive, but her mother was thrown. Over time, however, she came to accept her daughter's sexuality.
Many of Carter's poems don't have overtly gay themes or use the word "lesbian." But her sexual identity strongly influences her work. "If you read my poetry, even the poetry that may or may not contain the word...it's inherently there because I am a woman, I am a woman of color, and I am a lesbian," she says. "And I own all three of those equally. To divorce myself from any of that is not being truthful to my art."
Carter will read from and discuss her work as part of the Guild Complex's "Black Like Us: A Celebration of Queer Black Literature." Moderated by poet Duriel Harris, the event also features Northwestern University chair of African-American studies Dwight McBride and University of Illinois at Chicago English professor Sharon Holland, and will be preceded by an open mike. It starts at 7:30 PM on Wednesday, February 26, at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. Admission is $5, $3 for students and seniors; for more information call 773-227-6117.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.