History and the people who make it: Byllye Avery – Part 2

Byllye Avery [BA], feminist health activist, was interviewed by Deidre Houchen [H] in May, 2012.

This is the second part of this interview, and 58th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

H: How long were you in Atlanta?

BA: About fifteen, sixteen years. It was wonderful. Moving to Atlanta was just incredible.

H: What year was that?

BA: 1981. When I moved to Atlanta, I knew I had to organize Black Women’s Health Project. 

I had to move to Atlanta in order to get a critical mass of women to sit down and talk to me. The women here were scared of me. I didn’t really know exactly why. 

It might have been because I was a lesbian, it might have been because I was always talking politics, it might have been because we opened the abortion clinic. All I know is that I couldn’t get any traction. It was time for me to leave. 

Atlanta is the chocolate city, from the mayor right on down—I was amazed. They became very supportive of us, and in 1983, we held the first National Conference on Black Women’s Health Issues. 

We thought we’d have three to four hundred women come. We had over two thousand from all over the country as well as Canada. We had seven or eight buses that pulled in. We got a post office box. There would be like five or six envelopes, and twenty registrations in one envelope. Fifty in this one. 

That conference — there are so many women who will tell you it changed their lives. It was like the first time we as Black women came together to talk about the reality of our lives. We included all of who we are. 

We had workshops—we didn’t call it gay or whatever. We called it alternative lifestyles. Black people are very homophobic. They were also anti-feminist. So instead of using the word “feminism,” we used “empowerment.” 

For many women, that was the first contact with the whole idea of that. I invited Audre Lorde because when Audre Lorde came to the University of Florida to speak—she spoke over at the church—I was sick with the flu, but I felt like if I didn’t go to hear her, there would not be another Black woman in the room. 

So, I sat in the back of the room so that she would have at least one Black woman hearing her. I wrote her, and she said, “I remember you. And now with all the public speaking I do, of course I remember one Black woman who comes in a room of White women, and she’s the only one in the room.” She couldn’t come during that time, but she and I became friends, just from that one act.

H: Did you identify as a lesbian when you lived in Gainesville? 

BA: Pretty much, yeah.

H: Were you connected with any of the gay and lesbian groups here?

BA: You’re assuming there were gay and lesbian groups, right?

H: Well there was the Gay Liberation Front.

BA: We had each other, we had ourselves. There were tons of lesbians here. But I wasn’t officially affiliated with any group. There wasn’t a whole lot of stuff happening.

H: That first conference, who were the women who were there?

BA: They were just regular everyday women. I traveled around the country with a slideshow, talking about our health issues. Our theme was “We’re Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired.” So many people identified with that. 

H: What were some of the biggest health issues and concerns?

BA: Same ones we have now. Nothing’s changed. Infant mortality rate among Blacks was twice. Obesity was not quite the issue at that time that it is now. It’s really frightening because of who’s obese. I mean, girls in the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade are just tons. I went to my fiftieth college reunion and we looked better than the graduating class. They were young, and they were beautiful. 

Their feet were falling all over their shoes, and that’s frightening because these women still got to go through child birthing years and all of the complications that come from obesity. 

In the beginning days of the Black Women’s Health Project, we talked about our physical health issues, but what the women really needed to talk about was psychological distress that they’re living in. 

They broke the silence and talked about incest, which was a very very serious, detrimental problem. I hadn’t focused so much on incest because I’m fortunate to be one of the people it did not happen to. I learned it’s a very big problem for Black women. You sit in a circle with twenty-five women, and like eighteen of them have been victims of sexual abuse. It still is a very damaging thing. 

Domestic violence was very very serious. That’s what Black women needed to talk about, so we cried and talked about it, and broke that silence. We focused on psychological well-being, because if your head is not right, the rest of your body is not going to function. We had to figure out how to break down those barriers.

H: MacArthur fellowship. Please tell me more about you getting that. 

BA: You don’t know how the nomination happens, anything about that. I got it in 1989. They’d given it to Billie Jean Young, who was an organizer. She did the Southeast Rural Women’s Association. I think Marian Edelman got it the next year. 

They were giving it to Black women activists. That’s why people kept saying to me, “You gonna get one.” I never let that hang in my mind, you know? You can’t sit around doing anything like that. 

One day, I had been out to lunch, and I came back and Sonya says, “Momma, this man keeps calling you from the MacArthur Foundation.” We made an application to them for a grant, and I thought it was just a grant officer calling for one more piece of information. 

So, he say, “I want to tell you that you won the MacArthur award.” I’m like oh my God. He said, “Are you sitting down?” I said, “Well I’m on the floor.” I told the staff, “I just got the MacArthur award.” The secretary said, “Well how much money did you get?” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know, I forgot to ask him.” 

So you just do what you know in your heart is right to do, and that’s not something you even think about. My only involvement is that sometimes when people have been nominated, they will ask me, “Do you know this person and would you write a recommendation?” That’s the only involvement.

H: There seems to be differences between Black women who consider themselves feminists, and White women. How did those differences play out? 

BA: I was with a group of White women who were really wonderful. Who recognized that they didn’t see the world the way I did, but didn’t invalidate the way I saw the world. 

When I talk about Margaret Terrance and Judy Levy, these were people who I struggled with, to understand where they were coming from, and for them to understand where I was coming from. 

Oh my God, you should read bell hooks, you should read Dr. Lorde, and people like Susan Brownmiller and Adrienne Rich, they really had a very good analysis around class, which we had a lot more difference, many times, than race. Class is huge, but the country is afraid of class. Class unites more people than race, quite frankly, and class cuts across races. 

So back to your point. I was fortunate to be with people who I could struggle with honestly, and disagree with violently, and it still be okay. And we worked through things. It’s a good lesson for me. ‘Cause we can have allies everywhere. And we can have enemies among us, and that was a very painful thing to witness. So that’s sort of how I got there. 

Sometimes the Creator sends you gifts. You might not like the packaging. You have to be able to look at what you can’t see. That’s the lesson I’ve learned. 

Like I’ve been hurt terribly by Black women. The very Black women that I have helped, the very Black women that I’m trying to help. And then I have been helped by White women, who I would have thought would have been against me. Some gave me money out of guilt, and others gave me money because they liked what I was doing. At the end of the day, you need many things to make the work.

One of the things [I] would say to White women is, “Instead of you working with poor Black folks, why don’t you go work with poor White folks?” They’re the ones who vote for Rick Scott and against their interest. A lot of damage is done by those types of people. So go work down your color line. And when you work down your color line, you then understand the whole world in a different way. How many of them are willing to go up into Appalachia to work with the poor people up there? How many of them really really go out to Archer? 

A recording and full transcript of this interview can be found by entering “Byllye Avery” at https://ufdc.ufl.edu/oral.

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