The Book of Joan

Karen D. Taylor
17 min readMar 18, 2024


(May she rest well — January 17, 1953-March 12, 2024)

SEND MESSAGES OF CONDOLENCE TO: Maferefun (Mafe) Lavezzari, 487 Lincoln Place-Apt. 1D, Brooklyn, NY 11238

We are myriad communities in mourning.

We are the socialists. The people who say Cuba Si. We are the lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people. We are the Black Panthers. The revolutionary-nationalists. We are the political prisoners. We are constitutional-scholar attorneys and advocates for civil liberties. We are immigrants. We are the activists in ACT UP. We are the formerly incarcerated, who want the right to vote. We are the drug boys on the corner. We are those in need of new congressional lines, so we can get our just due.

We are myriad communities in mourning for one woman, whose love for humanity was as multilayered as her pursuit of justice. So much so that she devoted nearly her entire life — from adolescence to death — to easing the constrictions and restrictions of unencumbered patriarchal capitalism on top of racism, sexism, and hatred of any non-hetero sexuality.

She was a conversationalist and a storyteller — a consummate raconteur. Could turn a mishap or a tragedy into a hilarious tale. She had that kind of humor. We spoke one day about my second failed marriage —

“You know I introduced Dhoruba to Tanaquil, and you to Joe, so I guess it’s time for me to end my career as a matchmaker.”

We hollered! I hear her voice in my mind’s ear.

Her campaigns did not only include the political. I know this up close and personal. When she found out that I hadn’t finished my bachelors, did she not cajole, badger, and harass, finally introducing me to the director of SUNY Empire State? Oh, yes, she did! And when I graduated she took me out to dinner.

I called her Joan Phyllis, and we all know that she did not go into law to become a rich partner in some fancy, corporate, white-shoe law firm. Sometimes, she and I would talk about sexuality. She felt that the hardest thing for people to get over, even on the Left, is homophobia. And when I say Left, I do not mean the Democratic Party. I am speaking of those young men and women, who were simply ready to die for their beliefs in equity and peace — in short, fuck capitalism and all its fuckery. She became a lawyer, at Afeni Shakur’s suggestion, to defend the people and to defend her life as a lesbian, because Afeni told her, as a lawyer people would have no choice but to respect her. So she went to Rutgers Law and, in addition to the respect that she garnered, she also garnered love.

She was from Swan Quarter, North Carolina — a little, tiny place on the Atlantic coast. I asked her whether she knew anyone who had been lynched. She told me about her aunt, who was organizing a library for Black people down there. The Klan killed her. Joan loved reading and study, and I bet her aunt’s murder had something to do with the expansiveness of her home library, which could have been her way of honoring her aunt’s memory, because Joan, literally, had more books than her neighborhood NYPL branch.

Esmeralda Simmons founded the Center for Law and Social Justice (CLSJ). Joan was general counsel there for many years. Esmeralda said, “We had Joan Gibbs, one of the best activist lawyers in the country — dare I say world — who came and served as our general counsel and definitely pushed us forward in the work that she did; she wasn’t afraid to take on anything.”

Joan Phyllis Gibbs, that singular, petite person, rolled through this plane like mighty thunder and the after-quiet that steals your attention. Who was this woman? She was no mere mortal. She was in it for the long haul. She and Florence Morgan, another devoted attorney, represented Sundiata Acoli for decades, and when they felt their work was done, they paid for a different attorney resulting in Sundiata’s release. Joan was one of the most principled people that I have ever known.

Esmeralda Simmons, Joan, Elizabeth Yeampierre. (As an aside, the law firm of Simmons, Gibbs, and Yeampierre would have been a powerhouse.) This picture was taken on July 30, 2016, in front of 409 Edgecombe Avenue, at a sidewalk panel discussion, “Judicial Firsts, Judicial Influence: Jurists in the House” to honor the many judges and attorneys who lived at 409, including Bill Patterson and Thurgood Marshall. Joan moderated. Esmeralda was overcome with emotion because of the courageous legal struggles that have been waged by Black lawyers on behalf of democracy.

The last time I saw her was on January 4th. I was driving down Gates, on my way from a funeral, and when I got to Classon, I said to myself, let me see if I can find Joan. I had not seen her in quite some time and I heard she was not well. I turned the corner and lo and behold, I saw Lateefah getting out of her car. She had taken Joan food shopping, and as I sat there in the car talking to Lateefah, Joan came out of the house to get more of her groceries. I was ecstatic. I was also concerned because she looked so tiny and drawn.

“Joan, you up to company?”

“Yes, come on in.”

“Lemme find a parking spot.” There was one right on the corner.

As she put her groceries away, she brought me up to speed about her health challenges. I asked her why she had no home- care aide. She said it was too frustrating to deal with the one the agency sent her, because the woman only spoke Russian. We had fun that day.

Before I left, something told me to take a picture with her. I’m not too much into that, so it was odd. I was feeling something, but I didn’t think that it would be the last time I would see my friend.

This was taken on January 4th.

Here’s a link to Joan’s oral history with ACT Up!

The link below is to Top Ranking: A Collection of Articles on Racism and Classism In the Lesbian Community, compiled by our Joan and Sarah Bennett

Here are some people’s comments from Facebook —

Mae Jackson — Today, we struggle with our grief over the loss of our comrade-friend, Joan Gibbs, that many of us have had the opportunity to live, love, and fight side by side with. Most of us have known each other at least fifty years. We have argued for hours, but not one of us has walked away from this struggle. We have had political differences, stood in each other’s face trying to out argue the other. Sometimes we work on each other’s nerves, stop talking, but we have never turned away from one another. The minute something went down we were right back together again as comrades.

Joan Gibbs loved to read. Her favorite author was Toni Morrison. If Morrison was not your favorite author, Joan would use her lawyer skills to debate you.

In our pain, we might wonder how we are going to get through this. Well, the same way we’ve always gotten through it, by holding on to one another, by not allowing our differences or our grief to become more powerful than our love for each other and for humanity.

Joan Gibbs, we will look for you in the whirlwind.

Say her name

Say her name

Say her name

This was taken in the early 2000s, at Fulton Park, on Fulton Street, on a beautiful Summer afternoon. That’s Brenda Stokeley on the left, Nellie Bailey, Joan, Rosemari, me, and Cleo Silvers. We called ourselves Harriet’s Daughters. Our purpose was to pay homage to women in the movement who were undersung. That day, we honored Amina Baraka, Mae Jackson, and Iyaluua Ferguson.
Joan, Amina Baraka (one of the women Harriet’s Daughters honored), and Jackie Limehouse, executive director of My Sister’s Lighthouse Resource Center in Newark, New Jersey

Azalea is a lesbian literary publication that Joan founded. Here’s the archive.

Suzanne Ross — COMRADE SISTER JOAN GIBBS, PRESENTE! I join the many activists who have acknowledged the important contributions Joan made on so many fronts. But it has not yet been mentioned, to my knowledge, that when Mumia was on death row and was scheduled by the State of Pennsylvania to be executed back in 1995, Joan was actively involved in the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition of New York. She was our attorney. Thus she and Safiya Bukhari wrote a legal brief on our behalf to US Attorney General Janet Reno. It was also Joan who coordinated the security for our first rally in NYC after an execution date had been set for Mumia. 1000 people showed up on just a couple of days notice. There were many other ways in which Joan played an important role in strategizing and doing what needed to be done at that frightening moment in the case.

I won’t restate all the other ways in which Joan was a pillar in our movement over decades before she even went to Law School. Her work as an activist on the Grand Jury Project was key at a time when the state was trying to use the Grand Jury as a repressive tool against the Movement. She played an important role in the National Association of Black Lawyers, in the LGBT movement, in the political prisoner movement as in the case of Dhoruba, Mumia, Sundiata Acoli and others, and in the Cuba Solidarity Movement. Joan’s love for the Cuban Revolution engaged her deeply for the last decades of her life. As a young radical lawyer Joan worked at the ACLU, CCR, and for the rest of her career at the Medgar Evers Center for Law and Justice.

Finally, Movement activists always knew that when they had a legal crisis they could count on Joan to step in and help.

We will all miss Joan terribly. I know I thought she would always be there.

With much love, respect, and appreciation for the many roles Joan played over so many years and the generous, kind, and humble person she was.


Zenzele Tanya Bell — Oh my goodness, this is so sad. I kept planning to meet with her at the spot where we talked for hours when I learned that she was born in the exact same town my family’s from, especially given how small that town is. Rise in Power, Joan.

Ada Gay Griffin — Joan was everything. Top Rankin! A devoted sister to every freedom fighter, poet, and peacenik in every liberation movement on earth.

Malkia Devish Cyril — On March 14, Joan Gibbs, a constitutional, civil rights and immigration attorney who served many of our Black political prisoners, died. Rise. Stand with her memory.

I grew up with her as my auntie in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. When I came out fully at 13, she was the only lesbian I knew who was also a leader in the Black liberation movement. She lived around the corner from my family and we were always at each other’s house. She was, for a very long while, one of my mother’s best friends and one of my closest aunties. She is part of the reason I stand so firmly at my intersections as a Marxist and an internationalist and a feminist. As an attorney at Medgar Evers College Center for Law and Social Justice, and as a legal observer for Act Up, Joan helped me understand the law as a viable and formidable frontline for Black power. She worked with Baba Chokwe Lumumba on the Katrina Tribunal. Joan read everything and solidified in me a love for what books can do for a spirit and a movement. She always had a cigarette and a drink, and I felt normal as a young transmasculine Black dyke because of her. She let my girlfriend live in her upstairs apartment. She introduced me to global feminism, alongside my mother. She helped raise me.

When Joan’s mother died and then my mother died, something more died too, and we became estranged. Though we reconnected, it was never the same. I was mad at her, and we didn’t always agree politically, but I did love her and it is almost as if my mother has died again. Joan carried part of my childhood in her hands, and now she is gone. I’m tired. I know as I age I will lose more and more people, but the loss hasn’t grown with age. It’s not even an escalation. Being Black anywhere in the world often means coping with a scope of loss in a lifetime that is unfathomable to people outside of war. Ours is a slow war, but it is still very deadly. Grief, for Black communities, is a racialized burden intricately woven into the fundamental structure of American power.

Thank you, Joan. May we live fully and freely until we die. Rise in Power Joan Gibbs.

Marilyn Nance — My buddy. We raised so much hell in high school. Went to many demonstrations and rallies. We loved Nina Simone, and Mose Allison.

[Link to “See-Line Woman” by Nina Simone]

[Link to “Soldier” by Erykah Badu]

[Link to My People, Hold On by Eddie Kendricks]

Robert Boyle — A great person.

Sheila Kennedy — Dearest Joan. An authentic, committed, fervent, loving and giving warrior. I met her my first day of high school and she educated me more than any school diploma. Art, jazz, culture, politics, history, commitment. She was unwavering in the fight for justice her entire life. Rest is Power dear Joan.

Max Uhlenbeck — Oh no I’m so sorry — we love Joan.

Elise Harris — This list is from Elise, one of Joan’s former partners —

1. On July 2, 1992, the day of the Casey decision, Joan was the lawyer for the “Holland Tunnel 199”. Slim in a black suit, with long dreads, she walked swiftly and decisively past activists in a large holding room in Central Booking. She was moving, gesturing. Everyone got an ACD (adjournment in contemplation of dismissal).

2. Privately, she thought that civil disobedience meant you should complete your sentence, not take an ACD.

3. She felt that ACT UP was the second best thing to come out of the LGBT community, after Stonewall. She loved talking about the FDA demo, when ACT UP members literally pulled bricks out of the building.

4. Once she booked a plane ticket to avoid being home alone on the anniversary of her sister’s death. Every year she came up with a workaround for this day.

5. Reading about the wild inventiveness of Icelandic “poetician” Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who helped defend Chelsea Manning in 2012, made Joan recall the 1970 Black Panther constitutional convention in Philadelphia. How many people had that scope of experience, to compare those two things?

6. In her youth, Joan had hoped that ending capitalism would end mental illness. There was a tentative, sad, uncertain tone when she spoke about this, that felt like regret.

7. Joan’s mother told her a lawyer was “a professional liar.” That may have been a joke.

8. When Joan’s mother was disabled, they spent every Saturday night together. Later, Joan spent Saturday nights at Barnes and Noble. She would choose three or four 400-page books, often biographies, buy food in the cafe, prop open a book, and read all night.

9. Joan missed her mother terribly. But in her youth she once went to live with her father, because “you know how mothers are.”

10. My mother could not handle Joan, but Joan always asked after her anyway, and had advice for how to make her take her Lipitor.

11. She said “mothers don’t like it when you have a girlfriend, because they don’t like being replaced. It took me a long time to understand that.” That was evidently true for her.

12. She became an empty nester after Mafe went to college upstate. Early on I was leaving her house one morning, and she asked “do you have your bus pass?” I was 40 at the time.

13. She could fight for two days easily, over, say, DOL regulations of home health care workers. She could admit when she was wrong, although it required ironclad data and argumentation to refute her. She once cooked breakfast as an apology.

14. Before BLM, the lack of a younger black left pained her. Her Twitter lit up after the movement re energized. “Don’t cathedralize any one tactic” was one tweet.

15. Politics aside, she was realistic about money. When she bought her house in the 80s, a realtor told her the neighborhood would gentrify. And she said that if she had needed money and had family to support she would have gotten a job on Wall Street. She was stubborn but not doctrinaire, and did not romanticize suffering.

16. “The left has not figured out how to handle mental illness [within the movement] any more than the rest of the world has.” She said this once when someone was doing harm and creating more work for her.

17. Once, the Stalinists at the Brecht were unhappy about a Trotskyite syllabus on the Spanish Civil War. Joan wrote the letter that placated the Stalinists.

18. She had great affection for the gay community historian Jonathan Ned Katz.

19. When post 9/11 conservatism crushed many social movements, she adjusted her hopes, for the sake of young people like her goddaughters. Social democracy became the floor. “Maybe we can get them some healthcare,” she said. “AT LEAST!”

20. She studied theater in college. She liked Marat/Sade.

21. If there was a book she wanted to read she would pout or mimic crying until she could go to the bookstore. Once she had the book, she would smile.

22. She announced a Selma James talk with a gesture like Ed Sullivan used to introduce a Beatles performance.

23. In Mexico City, Joan bought a Trotsky poster to put next to her Khruschev poster.

24. She loved Marxist theory, but did not love academic Marxists who could not care about “the black woman in Queens who lost her home in the housing crisis.” She said it just offended her core, her very being.

25. She was not super impressed by Occupy initially. She thought they looked at Tahrir Square and “just mimicked it.”

26. She held a welcome home party for Susan Rosenberg and had a painting by Sundiata Acoli on her wall. Her basement was full of Jericho literature. She spoke about May 19 and the BLA often. They had experienced great suffering, but could also make her laugh. She recalled someone who wanted to meet her on the steps of the central post office, “as if he had been reading a spy novel.”

27. She said “there are many stories of the Black left that will never be told.”

28. She wanted the Brecht to attract the working class.

29. Her poems were published in the Iowa Review.

30. She was still writing poems in her 50s.

31. She loved Naiad lesbian romance novels.

32. She said that each of her ex-girlfriends was perfect in her own way.

33. She was very physically beautiful, although people rarely mention that. I could look at her all day. From some photos, she was more androgynous in youth. She said “now I love being a woman.”

34. She wore a long caftan around her house. It looked like it might have been from Morocco.

35. She drank Chardonnay while watching documentaries on Link TV. When her goddaughters came over, she served Pepsi.

36. At 58, she could still remember how it felt to be 16, listening to political debates among adults at BPP events and meetings. “I miss it terribly,” she said of her political world of the 70s and 80s.

37. She was afraid of growing older alone. “My days filled with work and my nights at meetings.” She wanted to write fiction in retirement.

38. Issues we fought over: Israel-Palestine, sanctions on Iran, drone attacks, trans identity, the abolition framing, marriage, tactics.

39. People often speak of her dedication and perseverance. But what makes lifelong activists tick? Is it an inability to give up? A decision to persist? What part of it is attachment to a dream?

40. “I just wish I could have seen it,” she said once about the Soviet Union.

41. On her birthday, someone sang “when the saints go marching in” to her. Everyone felt it was true, she was in that number. Including Joan Little who attended.

42. We went together to a redistricting hearing on Long Island. I introduced myself to a data scientist and mapmaker I admired. He made the very best maps. I awkwardly asked him if I could have some copies. I can still see her eyes brighten with glee as she relished the new material to mock me with.

43. Once I made a joke that landed, if I do say so myself. She took a day to compose a response. “That was one of your better jokes,” she said dryly.

44. She stuck to her Lipton tea. She did not want any other kind of tea.

45. Once I said I thought we might both be a little bit on the spectrum. “Speak for yourself!” she replied.

46. What are saints like? How do they get that way?

47. On her wall, there was a painting with the words, “The strong Black woman. Who is she?”

Patti Byrd — Blessings. She was a wonderful powerful woman warrior for justice. She is already greatly missed. Thank you, Sister, for all that you gave to us.

Leslie Cagan — I have been trying to absorb this news since I first heard it early this morning. It’s still hard for me to believe it is real. Such a tremendous loss.

Paula Marie Seniors — When my mother was in the hospital, Joan called pretending she was a family member to find out what was happening. She spoke to me constantly and gave me solace and told me what to do. When my mother died, she with some other wonderful people arranged the funeral. She came with me and my friends to the funeral home. She told our enemies at the Center for Constitutional Rights that they were not welcome to the funeral and I quote, “The family might retaliate physically if they showed up, and there was no guarantee for their safety.” Forget the fact that it was a family of ONE — ME. After it was all over, we would hang out going to movies and shows. We saw “Bring in Da Noise.” And when her father died that same year my mother died, I tried to be there for her as she was for me. These past couple of years of friendship have meant so much to me. Going to shows, dinners, the Schomburg and such. She, like my Mommy, loved to read. I just wish she had not stopped picking up her phone last year and this year. I wish she had let me know that someone was taking care of her last year. I will miss Joan greatly. She was a kind, sweet and understanding woman.

Joan with Paula’s family and friends at a Broadway play

Malika Iman — Heavenly Blessings, Queen Joan Gibbs. Your brilliance and commitment to the struggle is remembered with much honor, respect and love.

Esperanza “Espe” Martell — Remembering her love for Humanity. In gratitude for her life work. She will always walk with me. Hay Amor.

Cuba Solidarity — Rosemari Mealy (left), Espe Martell, Joan, and others successfully lobbied the New York City Council to pass a resolution to end the Cuban embargo and travel ban, and to remove Cuba from the US list of terrorists.

Frankye Johnson — A relentless fighter and advocate for human rights and social justice. My sincere condolences to her family and comrades. Long live her fighting spirit.

Brian Moon Zabcik — Joan was one of our favorite people in ACT Up and we’re in shock over this.

Thandisizwe Chimurenga — I am so sorry to hear this. I was supposed to interview her on my show and allowed so much other “stuff” to distract me. “And now she is gone.” Just damn. Rise in Power Joan Gibbs. Thank you for your service to our people.

Karen Moulding — Joan was one of my very first friends in New York. She was a brilliant attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights when I was a student intern and baby queer, and later worked at CCR. We would go out for margaritas after work at that weird Mexican place on Broadway, which for some reason I remember having a gigantic sculpture outside. Gonsalves or something? Could be tricks of memory. But what I do remember is her kindness (I can see her face right now, across the table at that gaudy restaurant), almost shyness, gentle voice, in such juxtaposition to her fierce lawyering for justice. She quietly devoted her entire life to justice. We worked on several cases together for CCR and I saw her at protests and then didn’t really see her for years until an ACT UP reunion. But somehow her kindness was always there, yes, on silly Facebook. And, of course, now when she’s gone, I feel her heart and generosity like a whisper you only hear later, after the person is gone. — Rest in peace, sweet Joan.

Charlie Franchino — Forever grateful to her. She represented 7 of us ACT UP members at a court hearing after we all missed the original date. The judge wasn’t happy and instead of dismissing the charges “ in the interest of justice “ opted for a trial. It was her lawyering that got us off. Convinced the judge to release us on some technical ground.

Jackie Rudin — Terribly sad sad news. Extraordinary woman and fantastic lawyer — and a soul above and beyond all others.

Bernard White — WOW!!! A consistent warrior for her people. She leaves a vacuum.



Karen D. Taylor

Karen D. Taylor is an essayist, editor, sometime vocalist, and the founder/executive director of Harlem preservation organization, While We Are Still Here.