With strangers, McCray can be reserved, careful to remain in control of her own story—“measured” is how one old friend puts it. So I was surprised when, at our first meeting, she came inside from the rain and shook my hand so warmly. Her eyes sparkled. We were at the Little Purity diner near her house in Park Slope, where I also live, and the two of us, both neighborhood parents, chatted with ease about high-stakes testing and public schools, the hassles presented by spring vacation for working parents, and where’s the best takeout—she likes the Chinese restaurant Red & Hot II on Seventh and Mr. Falafel near the Barnes and Noble. “I don’t think you can overestimate how many changes have occurred in my life and Bill’s in the last 130 days,” she said later, admitting that she’s in mourning for the time, not so long ago, when she had time to drink tea with her friends in Park Slope and care for her garden there.
McCray is at heart a New Englander, having grown up among flinty people with uncompromising values—Puritan is, weirdly, the word that kept coming to mind as I sat with her, an African-American woman who has written paeans to sensual pleasure and long ago stopped going to church. Her great-grandmother moved from Barbados to New Hampshire to work for a family who needed domestic help. “She could not possibly have known how cold it was in Claremont, New Hampshire,” McCray joked in a recent speech. “I know she had never been there.” In 1964, when she was 10, McCray and her family moved from Springfield, Massachusetts, to a nearly all-white suburb, Longmeadow, known for its excellent schools. McCray was always the only black kid in her class, and often the only one in the school, where she was not bullied or harassed as much as treated (by other kids and teachers alike) as though she were entirely invisible. And when, at home, young Chirlane mentioned that she yearned for a friend, her parents rebuked her. “You’re not here to be popular; you’re here to get a good education,” she has remembered them saying. “You didn’t complain to our parents at home,” her sister Cynthia Davis reiterated to a reporter. “You were just expected to deal with life as it came.”
All New Yorkers, including Chirlane McCray, mythologize their arrival in New York. She landed in Manhattan after Wellesley College (“How many different kinds of women there were!” she says of her college years, and still, “I didn’t belong”) in the summer of 1977. She had two potential job contacts, a place to sleep, and $35 in her pocket. It was “the summer of Sam,” she recollects, “the summer of the blackout.” It was two years since Gerald Ford had told New York to drop dead, and the city was emptying out—its white middle class, anyway. But it was a thrilling time to be a young, black lesbian and feminist with literary aspirations. Two years earlier, Ntozake Shange had mounted her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Alice Walker would publish The Color Purple in the years ahead. Excluded from mainstream white feminism, black women were also diminished by the male leaders of the Black Power movement who prioritized their own virility and sexuality at the expense of their sisters. “The only kind of sexuality that was really celebrated was black male sexuality,” remembers Marcia Ann Gillespie, who was editor of Essence from 1971 to 1980. “The black male sex machine. The great lover. The great penis. This was celebrated. There was nothing about women. Our sexuality.”
A particular group of women revolted, creating their own activist scene out of their own experience, and McCray was among them, women of color who were also (mostly) gay or bisexual, gathering in homes and bars and coffee shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Staten Island and elsewhere, writing essays and staging plays and performing their poems, starting theater companies and dance troupes and political performance-art collectives like the Salsa Soul Sisters and the Flamboyant Ladies Theater Company. (McCray was briefly an editor of the Salsa Soul Gayzette.) Within these groups, African-dance classes anchored everyone’s weeks; in studios downtown, women would appropriate the realm traditionally reserved for men: As their friends danced, they would drum. The mantras were clear, and McCray absorbed them: The personal was political—all of it, even something as private and intimate as sex, was outward-facing activism. “Women were trying to say, ‘This is who I am fully. I am black and female and a lesbian’—or what we would call today queer—‘and I am trying to live fully as I am,’ ” remembers Alexis De Veaux, the biographer of the poet Audre Lorde. De Veaux remembers McCray from that time as “kind of on the quiet side”—still a little unsure, perhaps, of how she might best perform her own identity in a way that could alter the world around her. “If I were beautiful, I could be angry and cute,” McCray wrote in a poem called “I Used to Think,” “instead of an evil, pouting mammy bitch.”