Ancestress

Book cover of a young white woman's profile who has curly brown hair and is wearing a hydrangea corsage.

Dubbed the “rebel poet” by her contemporary Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912), my maternal great grandmother, was a feminist anarchist lecturer and poet. Voltairine grew up in austere conditions in central Michigan. She was educated until the age of 17 in a convent, from which she famously jumped into Lake Huron to escape. Voltairine was riveted by the Haymarket Affair in 1886 in which Chicago police fired into a crowd of striking workers. Disgusted with the unfair trial, she began writing anarchist essays in 1888 and speaking on a lecture circuit, activities which lasted throughout her life. A prodigious writer, she published in fellow anarchists Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty and Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth among others. Throughout her life, she was also very involved in the well-being and education of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, becoming a Yiddish speaker herself.

Voltairine would certainly be pleased with my recent editorial assistant’s position at Smith College’s Meridians Journal, published by Duke University Press, which “makes scholarship by and about women of color central to contemporary definitions of feminisms in the explorations of women’s economic conditions, cultures, and sexualities, as well as of the forms and meanings of resistance and activist strategies.” The journal importantly includes poetry and creative fiction and non-fiction alongside scholarly essays.

My mother was given the name Voltairine (originally after Voltaire) but later in life, due to its length, shortened it to Renée. I honor my female ancestors by include Renée in my workday sign off.

Written—in—Red

(To our Living Dead in Mexico’s Struggle)

Written in red their protest stands,

For the Gods of the World to see;

On the dooming wall their bodiless hands

Have blazoned “Upharsin,” and flaring brands

Illumine the message: “Seize the lands!

Open the prisons and make men free!”

Flame out the living words of the dead

Written—in—red.

Gods of the World! Their mouths are dumb!

Your guns have spoken and they are dust.

But the shrouded Living, whose hearts were numb,

Have felt the beat of a wakening drum

Within them sounding—the Dead Men’s tongue—

Calling: “Smite off the ancient rust!”

Have beheld “Resurrexit,”

The word of the Dead,

Written—in—red.

Bear it aloft, O roaring flame!

Skyward aloft, where all may see.

Slaves of the World! Our cause is the same;

One is the immemorial shame;

One is the struggle, and in One name—

MANHOOD—we battle to set men free.

“Uncurse us the Land!” burn the words of the Dead,

Written—in—red.

– Voltairine de Cleyre, her last known poem, n.d.

Sources

Avrich, Paul. 1978. An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

de Cleyere, Voltairine. 2004. The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader. Edited by A.J. Brigati. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

de Cleyere, Voltairine. 2005. Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre—Anarchist, Feminist, Genius. Edited by Presley, Sharon and Crispin Sartwell. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Family Lore.

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