This is my very first Audre Lorde. I have never been much into poetry, so it’s not completely surprising. However, I’ve been trying to read more diversely, including more diverse nonfiction, so to be honest, from that perspective, it’s about time I picked something up that she’s written. A few months ago, I put out a call for recommendations on bookstagram for where to start with her works and I didn’t get a lot of responses, but all the ones I did get suggested Sister Outsider. On a recent book exchange trip to my local indie/used bookstore, I decided that was as good a time as ever to jump in, and grabbed a copy of this gorgeous new edition with the store credit I had. And oh my goodness am I glad I chose it.
Even though this is a collection of essays and speeches, I’m going to treat it the way I usually handle short story collections. I’ll give a short overview of my feels for the collection as a whole and then give a little blurb about each story/essay, along with any pull quotes (of which there will be a lot) that stood out to me. I just had so many thoughts and reactions while reading this (and listening too – I did a mix of both), and don’t think there’s any other way to share it all with you.
First, let me just say that this was one of the most comprehensive and articulate collections on race, gender, sexuality, and the intersection of the three, that I have ever read. (Of note, there is little to nothing about gender fluidity/trans populations – this is still a sub-topic of intersectionality that needs much more attention and acknowledgement and Lorde’s writing is not a fix for that specific situation.) Lorde’s way with words is direct and intense. She softens no blows and uses no euphemisms. She does not apologize for the ugly truths she is telling, nor does she try to hide them. Yet there is deep and open emotion in her writing – it’s inviting and moving for all that it is sometimes incredibly difficult to read. Her willingness to educate and freely discourse is clear in every line, yet it appears alongside her completely understandable frustration that is, always, down to “her” (the minority) to take responsibility to spread that education, as opposed to it being sought out by those who need it most. That honesty, and willingness to continue on despite it, was something I felt deeply from her throughout the collection. And I admire her greatly for it. Her passion is so clear and the writing so precise, I was blown away page after page.
Notes From a Trip to Russia – This was a great opening essay. It allowed me to get a sense for Lorde’s writing style and politics with more of a mix of memoir and pointed writing. Some of this essay was truly just reflections on parts of her trip and what she did/enjoyed, like a normal traveler’s journal. But sprinkled in, there are some comparisons between Russia and the US, with advantages and disadvantages to both political/cultural “systems” that starts to give the reader insight into Lorde’s thought processes and outlooks. And I enjoyed some of those subtle “call-outs” of the US about, if we think we are so much better, then why are we not, in fact, that much better (especially on a day-to-day basis and especially for minorities). “What gets me about the United States is that it pretends to be honest and therefore has so little room to move toward hope.”
Poetry is Not a Luxury – This is one of her most famous pieces. And I can see why. It was a gorgeous reflection on poetry and dreams and the power and promise they hold and elicit for the future. This lauding of the creative, something that is often put down by the objectively (financially) successful persons in a capitalist society, spoke deeply to me. Poetry is the language of dreams and creativity gives voice and power to that in a way that nothing else can. We cannot hope for more if we do not have a way to express that hope. Gorgeous. So impactful. “If what we need to dream, to move our spirits more deeply and directly toward and through promise, is discounted as a luxury, then we give up the core – the fountain – of our power, our womanness; we give up the future of our worlds.”
The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action – This speech was particularly inspiring for me. Lorde speaks with strength and vision about the importance of taking our experiences and using them to fight for more. The idea that you’ll suffer whether you speak out about your pain or not, so you may as well work to share it and gain something from it, is powerful. This sentiment really got me. “In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgement, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.” “And I remind myself all the time now that if I were to have been born mute, or had maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered, and I would still die. It is very good for establishing perspective.” “…for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”
Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving – This is a tough one to read, because no matter who you are, no matter what your background, it truly forces you to look in the mirror and question the role you’ve played in oppression. The very scientific look she takes at the way the oppressor instigated horizontal infighting among the oppressed, in order to prevent united vertical action to change the actual systems of oppression is horrifying and tragic. The way she is able to simultaneously call out both the white oppressor and the oppressed, but somehow not united, black men and women, is impressive. And her call that it will take all of us working together to change the systems is very important. “This kind of action is a prevalent error among oppressed peoples. It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going as spoils to the victor or the stronger.”
Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power – The use of the word erotic here, in the sense she uses it, is new to me. And it’s something I had to adjust to. Which is exactly her point. The connotation of the word has been warped/stolen by the powers that be and must be reclaimed. The sentiment behind this essay, letting our internal needs/feelings act as a guide (instead of ignoring/burying them), connecting us to our erotic (creative and emotional) power, in a fight against the (white male) power structure/perspective of order and unfeeling, is a combination of some of the individual foci from earlier essays in a comprehensively rousing way. “The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance.”
Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface – This one, for me, had very similar points as Scratching the Surface earlier. However, it was much more specific in its focus, based on a critique of a particular publication/study that perpetuated the lies that encourage horizontal infighting and prevent unification for vertical change. Some much deeper educational points were made in this essay that I really learned from.
An Open Letter to Mary Daly – This published letter is an incredibly important questioning (calling-out) of white-centric feminism. This is a difficult topic, as feminism is important and has done a lot of good work. But there are many times when it, as a movement, has overlooked its LGBTQ and race-minority allies…to everyone’s detriment. And that is rarely addressed. The good the feminist movement has done should never cause these populations, their fights/sacrifices, their histories, to be ignored or overlooked and we (I include myself here, as a white female feminist) must be better about this in the future and not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response – Stunning thoughts on healthy, non-toxic, masculinity. Lorde speaks about her experience with raising a son into being a man that women want to life with/around. This was, and is, so incredibly important, especially (sadly) looking at the actions of those who lead our country today. I loved this essay. “Men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly ‘inferior’ capacity to feel deeply. But in this way also, men deny themselves their own essential humanity, becoming trapped in dependency and fear.”
An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich – This was a great interlude between the heavier philosophical and educational essays before and after it. There are, of course, still some poignant quotes and teaching moments from Lorde, but this interview was also a wonderful chance to hear more about her life and general background. It provided some great context to me, as the reader, for the rest of her writing, giving insight into her own experiences with oppression and the way that affected and burdened her life. It was also a wonderful example of constructive, positive, open and, sometimes, difficult, conversation can happen between black and white people, black and white women. “The way you get people to testify against themselves is not to have police tactics and oppressive techniques. What you do is to build it in so people learn to distrust everything in themselves that has not been sanctioned, to reject what is most creative in themselves to begin with, so you don’t even need to stamp it out.”
The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House – OMG. This essay. Race and sexuality are so ingrained in any topic of life that there is no way to relegate them to a single discussion. Rather, they must be included in every discussion. They are not a single lens through which to see a perspective, but an integral part of every lens and every perspective. And that even in realms like feminism and feminist theory conferences, realms that should be more inclusive and aware, they are an afterthought, or a single panel discussion (as opposed to being included in every panel discussion) makes me grind my teeth so much. We must recognize and celebrate and include and cooperate with our differences, not shove them to the side. “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”
Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference – This essay was one of the ones that affected me most. Lorde speaks deeply to the false dichotomy of most of history, superior/inferior and dominant/subordinate, which is all completely man-made. There is a place and a space for us all. And the fear of our differences is due only to years of institutionalizing surface-level differences…nothing deeper than that. However, it will now take even more years of work and effort to reverse the effects. So, and this is my interpretation, while that may not seem “fair” to those have profited by being in the falsely “superior” group, it’s time to suck it the fuck up and be better. WHAT A CALL TO ACTION THAT IS. “In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes. […] The oppressors maintain the position and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” “Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.” “For as long as any difference between us means one of us must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt.” “The need for unity os often misnamed as a need for homogeneity…” “It is not our differences which separate women, but our reluctance to recognize those differences and to deal effectively with the distortions which have resulted from the ignoring and misnaming of those differences.”
The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism – UGH. What Lorde, and all other women, black women, LGBTQ black women, experience…it’s impossible not to be angry about it. Which is exactly the point. There should be anger. And there are ways to effectively use it. But it should not be hidden or bottled up – it should be clear and present and shared widely. “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” “No woman is responsible for altering the psyche of her oppressor…”
Learning from the 60s – Fascinating look back and the history of the fight for racial justice and the methods employed. Lorde’s musing and reflections and just so interesting to read. And the way she connects and extrapolates to the present day (her present day), what worked and what’s she come to accept over time and what could/should still be better, is done so intelligently. “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger – This one was really, truly, heartbreaking. Lorde really opens up here about the macro and micro aggressions that she personally experienced growing up and how (and this is the part that is so painful) she internalized those to understand that “black = bad.” This internalized understanding of what you are as something bad, when started from childhood, is impossible to fight and resist and is now so weaponized that, as Lorde explains, black women (who should have a natural sisterhood and support born from similar experiences/suffering) cannot trust or be sure of each other. This essay in particular left me asking how is it possible, with so many years of ostensible progress, does so much of this sound familiar to things I’ve read from more contemporary authors? The message is shattering. To read about the inner competition/turmoil/false support that thrives in the black female community due to the racist environment in the US that I am sure I’ve contributed to (the fact that it would have been unintentional doesn’t change the end result) and haven’t worked hard enough to change because it’s not so directly affecting to my daily life. And again, here’s a call to action that speaks loudly, with strength and power. “It is easier to deal with the external manifestations of racism and sexism than it is to deal with the results of those distortions internalized within our consciousness of ourselves and one another.” “…we still know that the power to kill is less than the power to create, for it produces an ending rather than the beginning of something new.” “And the road to anger is paved with our unexpressed fear of each other’s judgement.” “And political work will not save our souls, no matter how correct and necessary that work is. Yet it is true that without political work we cannot hope to survive long enough to effect any change. And self-empowerment is the most deeply political work there is, and the most difficult.” “There is a distinction I am beginning to make in my living between pain and suffering. Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named, and then used in some way in order for the experience to change, to be transformed into something else, strength or knowledge or action. Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare of reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain. When I live through pain without recognizing it, self-consciously, I rob myself of the power that can come through using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it.” “Eventually, if we speak the truth to each other, it will become unavoidable to ourselves.”
Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report – What a searing condemnation of the US following its own interests internationally, as opposed to the aid/amity that it purports. And though that alone is a great, and consistent with the US foreign policy of today as well, it is not necessarily even the primary message of this essay. Lorde draws profound parallels between the way the US treats “inferior” countries (and their people) to the way is treats the “inferior” people within its own borders…as well as pointing out what message the treatment of these foreign entities sends to the US population about the acceptability of dealing with all peoples that looks like that with similar treatment. Using poor foreign nations for national gain is equated with using poor internal minorities for personal gain is a way that is impossible to miss. Along with that, the divisive and misleading military and media tactics Lorde calls out have, if anything, only gotten worse today. This was just an incredibly powerful closing essay. What an “ending.”
In conclusion, like I mentioned above (a long time ago…this is a long review – props to you if you’ve stuck with me until now), this is such an articulate, wonderfully (at times unpleasantly) thought-provoking collection. And though some issues have improved since Lorde wrote these essays or gave these speeches, still more of these insights are just as applicable today. There is a lot of work left to be done in the US. But acknowledging that is step one. And now we must on to the next steps: being open to learning more, searching out resources and primary voices to help us do that (i.e. – go read this brilliant collection now), and being open to what will undoubtedly be some uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary, dialogue and cooperation. We cannot shy away from the painful interactions or we will never be able to move forward together.