This Scalar project traces Bonnie Johnson, a sister/outsider to borrow Audre Lorde’s term. Although Bonnie Johnson, I eventually learn, held an MA in women’s history from Sarah Lawrence College, her contribution to black feminist thought is largely relegated to quoting her participation in one pivotal publication, "Black Women on Black Women Writers."
As Gloria T. Hull said of Lorde, black feminists live "on that line between the either/or and both/and" the very metaphor invoked by Johnson along with her co-author Camille Bristow in “Both And” given at the 1979 conference, The Second Sex Thirty Years Later, where Lorde delivered what became her infamous The Master’s Tools.
Leaving behind, or rather looking behind this well known work, I trace Johnson using the digital means made possible by the internet-as-archive. Along the way I hit many dead ends revealing the power dynamics at work in even the most open and seemingly unlimited archive.
In particularly I run up against the politics of what precisely gets prioritized for digitization. As Johnson’s friend Cheryl Clarke notes "independent women’s presses and journals” gave “ expression to the multiracial and multicultural feminist movement.” While individual articles have made their way as footnotes of the “academic colony,” the journals themselves are often accessible only within university archives.I'm left with that, this enticing bit of information that someone named Bonnie Johnson served as a "history project" director for an activist/organizing group, the NCHE.
"History can be an organizing tool," haunts me still, as I wonder what else Johnson did after I lose track of her in June 1984.
To a certain extent this is a heuristic pondering. I could, via the more conventional methods of scholarly inquiry, probably locate Bonnie Johnson. I've certainly done it before, and already my graduate school advisor Ellen Dubois, who taught at SUNY Buffalo with Barbara Smith, also a member of the Combahee River Collective, has offered to put me in touch. I could email Christina Greene or Sarah Lawrence's Program in Women's History.
I do consider though, perhaps this Bonnie Johnson wished to remain a ghostly presence. Perhaps I'mouting her her in ways she would not like. That is always the risk of writing.
As Alexis Gumbs explains in her brilliant dissertation on Audre Lorde (2010) “This project is haunted. There is birth somewhere here. There is ink and blood and halted breathing all up in here waiting. There is a history to be invented and time to be stolen. There are ghosts reading this over my shoulder.”