Quare Square, a monthly open mic for queer women of color and allies, is a flashback to the now-defunct POWWOW, Inc., the longest-running open mic for Black lesbians in the country and a 2013 inductee into the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame.
"Everyone wanted POWWOW to continue, but for various reasons, it could not," said M. Shelley Conner, who started Quare Square, which "emerged as a minor support for the Black queer community and quickly found itself in demand and position to be of greater assistance to queer artists of color.
"It is not POWWOW; rather, it emerged as its literary offspringdifferent from, yet connected to POWWOW."
POWWOW founder C.C. Carter and member Jackie Anderson are board members of Quare Square Collective, Inc.
"Jackie's involvement demonstrates her commitment to the continuity of creating space for queer artists of color. She was involved with Mountain Moving Coffeehouse, Chicago's now-closed womyn-only space that nurtured feminist artistry and activism. It is my understanding that POWWOW emerged from it, with a desire to serve a population underrepresented, [that being] Black lesbians. Quare Square began similarlywith a desire to continue the work of POWWOW, but also to serve an underrepresented community. Our focus encompasses queer artists of color of all gender identities."
Since May 2013, Quare Square has transitioned from just a monthly open mic event into a nonprofit arts collective in May 2014. "In the months since that transition, we have been focused on strengthening our modest operational infrastructure, increasing membership and developing and maintaining quality programming for the membership and communities that we serve."
Quare Square became an official 501( c )( 3 ) in late 2014.
"We've applied for our first grant for operational purposes [as] our first year was mainly funded out of pocket," Conner said. "We've had a successful year and a half of open mics and six months of Sistah Sinema Chicago, our screenings of films by/about/featuring queer women of color. We also co-sponsored the Chicago leg of the Revivala multi-city, salon-style tour, featuring queer women of color poets."
Quare Square Open Mic served as the home for POWWOW's post-Hall of Fame induction celebration in 2013, which "really symbolized the passing of the torch from POWWOW to Quare Square," Conner said. Lucy Schumpert, the former host of POWWOW, co-hosted the event with Conner.
"Another event that I'm really proud of is Quare Square Collective's performance at [the 2014] Printer's Row Literary Festival in conjunction with the Guild Literary Complex," Conner said. "I was honored that the Guild asked us to participate. We had amazing readings by Quare Square Collective members Denise Miller, Charles Dionysus Sneed, Lucy Schumpert and myself."
Conner said Quare Square hasn't changed much since May 2013, which "speaks to our stability," she said. "We haven't lost any members and we continue to generate interest. However, it seems the mark of the artist to procrastinate things like submitting applications. I know we get so wrapped up in producing the art, [and] we tend to shy away from the administrative tasks that allow us to get the art to the community."
The Quare Square board features Anderson, Carter, Anthony Galloway, E. Patrick Johnson and Conner. The group's vice president is Niki Gee, a spoken-word artist and radio host, and its treasurer is Victoria Cleveland, a poet.
So what's with the group's name?
"The term 'quare' comes from an essay written by board member E. Patrick Johnson featured in the 2007 seminal anthology Black Queer Studies that he also co-edited," Conner said. "In the essay, 'Quare' Studies, or ( Almost ) Everything I Know About Queer Studies I Learned from My Grandmother,' Patrick writes that 'quare…foregrounds the ways in which lesbians, bisexuals, gays and transgender people of color come to sexual knowledge. To me, it most accurately represents the intersectionality of race, sexuality and geography, specifically Blackness and queerness.
"Patrick uses it to describe how the word 'queer' itself becomes queered as 'quare' in the dialect of his southern, Black grandmother. Quare then is infused with the identity of southern Black queerness and the representation of that experience.
"I like to tie it to Alice Walker's analogy as: Womanist is to Feminist as Quare is to Queer."
Conner, 38, lives in Avalon Park and is an English instructor at Loyola University Chicago. She is queer and partnered to Crystal Lynne, who she met at Quare Square Open Mic.
Conner said it is "extremely important" to have an outlet for LGBT artists of color. She even added, "It is life-saving."
"When you live in a city like Chicago, still one of the most racially segregated cities in the U.S., you are often tokenized, rendered invisible and/or hyper-visible and [more]," she said. "But whatever the case, your interest as an LGBT person of color will always be marginalized. And that is life-threatening because art has always been activism, particularly for people of color who are continually disenfranchised. Art has always been a resource for education and a tool for resistance against injustice. To not have an outlet for that, is to stifle the voice that amplifies the cries of its communities. If we do not have that outlet, then 'we can't breathe.'"
Conner said the group's long-term goals include continuing its core programming of monthly open mics and cinema featuring queer women of color. "We are working to develop programming that nurtures the literary development of LGBTQ youth of color and also incarcerated LGBTQ people of color," she said. "We'd like to serve as a permanent resource for queer artists of color in the Midwest. It surprises me that in Chicago, with about 900,000 residents of African descent, there is no institution or support for Black queer artists in the ways of other cities with similar demographics.
"We'd like to be able to facilitate workshops, exhibits, publishing and productions for our members. We want to provide them with support and resources, including travel grants to present their work at conferences and conventions. We want to partner with universities and other organizations to create and host community arts programs."
Conner plans to keep it South Side-based. "It's important that we are located where the majority of people of color reside in the city," she said. "Most LGBTQ events are located on the city's predominantly white north side. I admire organizations like The Rebuild Foundation that re-invest in south side communities. Perhaps my biggest goal is to acquire a property that can serve as space for several nonprofit organizations serving people of color in our communities.
It is also part of our mission to build bridges between communities, to see the larger LGBTQ community support the events of queer artists of color on the south side just as we travel north for Pride [and] to the Center on Halsted [and] to Andersonville [and] to Boystown.
Sistah Sinema started in Seattle in 2011 to showcase the nuances of Queer Women of Color culture, Conner said. "It is hoped that the movies will serve as a vehicle to foster honest dialogue on struggles and opportunities unique to Queer Women of Color," she said. "While discussion will focus on Queer Women of Color, all members of the Queer community are invited to attend. Sistah Sinema is now running in cities all over the U.S. and several [international cities, [too]."
Quare Square Collective, Inc. joined the Sistah Sinema family in July, 2014, to launch Sistah Sinema Chicago, a partnership with UIC's Gallery 400 and UIC's Gender and Sexuality Center. It has offered a diverse range of films from documentaries on Black lesbian motherhood featuring StaceyAnn Chin to October's appropriately-themed collection of Zombie shorts. Each screening is followed by a moderated discussion, which has attracted such community leaders and artists as filmmakers Coquie Hughes, Kellee Terrell and Linda Merchant; spoken word artist Lucy Schumpert; and Project Fierce Executive Director Jackie Boyd.
In March, Sistah Sinema switches to a quarterly schedule. All screenings are $10 ( free to UIC students and faculty ) and are held at Gallery 400, 400 S. Peoria.
Quare Square Open mic is every second Tuesday of the month at Jeffery Pub, 7041 S. Jeffery Blvd. Cover is $5 at the door. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and open mic starts at 8:30 p.m. It ends by 10:30 p.m., and is then followed by dancing.
The first open mic of 2015 is Jan 13.
"We welcome queer people of color and allies to share their poetry, spoken word, music, and essays on our stage. We're very intent on maintaining a welcoming and safe space that honors the experiences of queer people of color and allies that respect those experiences," Conner said. "It's important for Quare Square to stay on the south side, where most of our community resides. As one of the oldest gay bars in the city that is Black-owned, Jeffery Pub seemed the ideal location. However, we're always mindful of being accessible to as many as possible. In the near future, we're looking to shift to a Sunday schedule and finding a south side location closer to rail transportation that can accommodate us."
For more information, go to quare2collective.org .