Honoring Black Lesbian Herstory Through Archives

Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz views the Critical Race lens as an opportunity of seeing the brokenness in our systems. 

By A.Lopez

Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz is archiving Black lesbians in theater with a focus on critical race theory.

Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz views archiving as a way to create an altar for her culture’s history, while discussing the importance of Black voices in queer spaces. 

Smith-Cruz is the Associate Dean for the Teaching, Learning, and Engagement subdivision at New York University’s Division of Libraries, as well as a volunteer of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Her current archival project is named The Rivers of Honey, a cabaret theater featuring women and trans artists of color, which ran from 1998-2016.

Smith-Cruz shared most of her work at the 6th Annual Black Queer Studies Lecture, which was held at CSI on March 28. This work included a large album of photos that she has collected over the years for her project.

“That theater experience itself always had an altar, and it had an altar to Oshun, who was a Yoruba goddess,” said Smith-Cruz. “So I wanted to make the connection between us honoring our ancestors, and us archiving, as one in the same.”

During the lecture, Smith-Cruz delved into the use of critical race theory—a set of ideas holding that racial bias is inherent in many parts of western society—when bringing up the idea that the “Queer Agenda” is racist.

Smith-Cruz claims that queer conversations in the community have largely highlighted a white, Eurocentric perspective.

Past archival work, such as the Salsa Soul Sisters (the first lesbian of color organization in the country), has opened her eyes to how we base queer culture on the white male and female perspective. Additionally, discourse often focuses on the history that was made here in the United States, when Smith-Cruz as well as her colleagues have studied queer history spanning out as far as South Africa and India.

Throughout the years, the voices of the Black queer community have been pushed to the sidelines through the mainstreaming of the queer community, and it isn’t built for people like Smith-Cruz to thrive in.

Through her volunteer work at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Smith-Cruz has met many young queer women of color. When they ask what the database has in regard to queer people of color, they expect the collection to be very small, or nonexistent. 

The Lesbian Herstory Archives, an organization that aims to preserve all lesbian records for future generations, has approximately over 36,490 records available, ranging from videos, to organizational files, to photographs, but it is currently unknown how much of that mentions or centers on Black queer women, who have been integral to the community’s history since the beginning. 

Désirée Yael Vester, a volunteer at the Lesbian Herstory Archives since 1994, has been working on a Black Lesbian Archives Database since 2022, as she says the archives does not quantify the collection by demographic. In examining the special collections, periodicals, and subject files at the archives, she has determined that there are a total of 314 collections dedicated to Black lesbians in just those 3 collections so far.

“I have always been impressed with the diversity of LHA’s collections across race, ethnicity, culture, age, and nationality,” said Vester. “However, it is critical that all archives, special collections and historical societies consider retrospective demographic cataloging of their collections to have a real sense of what they have and to be able to share that information with their community users.”

This sentiment has stuck to many students and staff who attended Smith-Cruz’s lecture, such as Taylor Freeman, a Black queer CSI student who was present at the event.

The idea of critical race theory and how the community isn’t built for someone of Freeman’s identity to thrive stuck out to her the most.

“I’m light skinned, and sometimes the darker skinned side of our community has a way of making you feel left out,” said Freeman. “So when she said this world was designed for me to not thrive in, I felt that because I’m too black for the white community and too white for the black community, so I felt what she was saying in more ways than one.”

Smith-Cruz hopes to give The Rivers of Honey the proper respect it deserves in its archive. She is currently working on getting into contact with previous River of Honey hostesses to conduct an interview with.

She hopes to continue preserving the words of the Black community for everyone to know that they are important to our community’s development.

“What I would love to do is have the ability for people to submit material digitally to the archive,” said Smith-Cruz. “That way we can continue to collect people’s experiences and tell their stories.”

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