Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There is something spellbinding about reading this book, as though one had stepped into a room where someone was speaking, quietly and clearly, and a crowd of people were listening intently, feeling together in mutual awareness and sympathy. It must be because I know so many women have read this book and felt their hearts answer Lorde. It must be because she is a poet and creates with words that space within us, that bridge where separate senses of being can cross and touch.
Perhaps the spell of a poet speaking about feminist praxis is in healing a breech, in reorienting us away from the false and foolish dichotomy between emotion and thought, which in her essays Poetry is not a Luxury and Uses of the Erotic Lorde shows us how to unlearn. Feminist work questions such patriarchal assumptions that make us easier to control by splitting one part of us off and denigrating it, calling us hysterical and unbalanced.
Audre Lorde: Black Lesbian feminist mother, lover, cancer survivor, daughter of Grendian immigrants to the USA, socialist, shows how one struggle is bound up with another: I am not free while others are in chains. She draws us towards wholeness, with ourselves and with each other: not in the denial of difference but in the recognition that difference is strength.
Notes from a Trip to Russia Lorde’s notes from a visit she made in 1976 as an observer of the African-Asian Writer’s Conference. She talks about dreaming Russia before she talks about being there: she notes that the socialism she dreams of does not really exist anywhere, and she is not uncritical, but her account is largely positive. She does not experience any individual racial prejudice (though people look interestedly) and this makes her aware of racism in the USA as the texture of everyday life. Her observation is fine-grained, a vital snapshot, highly personal, aesthetic, emotionally rich, acutely political. She compares Soviet cities to cities in West Africa. She is critical of the conference and the lack of attention to black people in the USA, with whom there is no meaningful solidarity expressed. Above all she is impressed by the fact that basic needs are met: healthcare is free, and everyone has enough to eat. This compared very favourably to black populations in the US.
Poetry is not a Luxury “I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word to mean in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.””The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free” I got so much from reading this essay, slowly, word by word. Lorde asserts boldly that there are “no new ideas, only new ways of making them felt”. We feel our ways towards what we want to build, towards change and freedom. To me hers is a beautiful and profound expression of the barrenness of rationality without feeling self-interrogation and empathy. Much is true that we lack words to express, bound as we are by a culture and language of white supremacist patriarchy. “For women, then, poetry… is a vital necessity of our existence” because it is the means by which we name the nameless and speak the unheard.
The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action Lorde makes a passionate case for not being silent, because when we speak we can come together and overcome fears, and create change. I felt this paragraph especially, considering the marginalisation of many women within feminist movement: “And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own. For instance, ‘I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing – their experience is so different from mine.’ Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust?… Or ‘she’s a lesbian and what would my husband say, or my chairman’… And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of each other.”
Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving Lorde begins by asserting that racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia are “forms of human blindness [that] stem from… an inability to recognise the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one that is enriching rather than threatening to the defined self, when there are shared goals”. This idea alone deserves deep thought and endless repetition. The essay is about lesbophobia particularly in the Black US community. She explains how white supremacist patriarchy functions to manufacture it, and why Black woman-identified women are not a threat to Black men or to the community in general. She talks about accepted practices of love and forms of marriage between women in West African communities, which is fascinating. The essay may be less urgently needed today, but the arguments are fresh and clear, and returning to them is fruitful.
Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power
This is my favourite ever feminist essay. I think if I had my own apartment, I would paint the words of it all around the room where I worked and wrote and thought. It’s a further development of ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’, on the power of feeling:
As women we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to psychically milked.
Lorde rehabilitates eros, the life force as a vivifying principle for our actions:
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire[...] Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.
It requires the matchless eloquence and sensitivity of a poet to articulate this radically expanded and renewed idea of the erotic. I will read this many times and each time draw a new lesson from it.
Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface In this response to an article by Robert Staples in The Black Scholar, Lorde addresses anti-feminism and sexism in the Black community, and the re-weaponisation of racism against Black women by Black men (with the ongoing complicity of White feminists).
In this country, Black women traditionally have had compassion for everybody except ourselves. We have cared for whites because we had to for pay or survival; we have cared for our children and our fathers and our brothers and our lovers. History and popular culture, as well as our personal lives, are full of tales of Black women who had ‘compassion for misguided black men.’ Our scarred, broken, battered and dead daughters and sisters are a mute testament to that reality. We need to learn to have compassion for ourselves, also.
An Open Letter to Mary Daly Another classic and much-shared (but evidently still not enough read) essay on the failure of white feminists to examine their own racism, to divest from white supremacist patriarchal constructions of Black and non-European women, to actually read the work of women of colour and hear it, feel it and respond to it rather than appropriate and plagiarise it. At the end she says “I felt it was wasted energy [to speak to white women about racism] because of destructive guilt and defensiveness, and because whatever I had to say might better be said by white women to one another at far less emotional cost to the speaker, and probably with a better hearing.” This is not her first or last expression of the wish for white people to teach each other about racism. Lorde’s words are still needed, and once met, turned to again and again, because the problem will not go away while our education remains silent on structural racism and our culture refuses to mark whiteness.
Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response This is a very touching essay about raising boys, specifically as a Black woman raising a Black boy, and as a Lesbian. There are many insights, one being that she has to teach her son that women do not exist to do men’s emotional labour. She sheds light on how parents inadvertantly inculcate in their children the lesson so culturally ingrained that might makes right: how family life can be complicit and contributary to a culture of domination and assymetrical power relationships.
An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich I have read works that quoted Rich’s feminist work and I have one of her poetry books on my TBR, but I did not know she had interviewed Lorde. She seems to do a good job of drawing her out, making space for her to talk about her ways of thinking and working and sources of inspiration. Every time Audre speaks the music of her style swells gorgeously across the page. Her stories, whether of aesthetic experiences, teaching or writing, are dense with insights. The two come into conflict when Audre upbraids Adrienne for asking for ‘documentation’, for more than intuition, and Adrienne insists on her position: “Help me to perceive what you perceive” as white women so often plead. Audre is patient, she explains that ‘the one thing I’ve had to fight with my whole life [is] preserving my perceptions of how things are… doing this in the face of tremendous opposition and cruel judgement. Adrienne says that she asks herself what she can do with Lorde’s ideas, how she can use them, which Lorde says is the oft-missed ‘essential step’
The Master’s Tools will never Dismantle the Master’s House Lorde has done her work to equip us, or rather to show us how to equip ourselves, with our own tools, forged in the recognition of difference and the use and celebration of its fruitful, creative potential, and in the need and desire to nurture each other. Yet academic white American feminists, she argues, do not reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower” “Now we hear that it is the task of women of Colour to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought”
Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference Lorde here expands her lament about the oppressed being expected to educate the oppressor, explaining how all of these binaries and hierarchies serve a racist patriarchal capitalism: “institutionalised rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people” She describes the american ‘mythical norm’ of the thin, white, male, young, heterosexual, financially secure “those of us who stand outside this power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practicing. By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus on their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a pretence to the homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.”
Lorde’s argument that difference is fruitful and powerful grows out, I feel, from her arguments in The Uses of the Erotic, because ‘the erotic cannot be felt secondhand’ but it can be shared, taught and understood across difference, and its affirmative power affirms others rather than struggling for a position from which to dominate them. In recognition of each other we can direct the power we each derive from the erotic towards common political goals (QUICK NB – Lorde is not talking about that ‘erotic capital’ thing! This has nothing to do with reinscribing and co-opting patriarchal sexual norms)
The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism “Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal and cooptation” “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strenthening act of clarification” “Mainstream communication does not want women, particularly white women, responding to racism. It wants racism to be accepted as an immutable given in the fabric of your existence”. Lorde critiques Consciousness Raising groups which helped white women to articulate their anger against men, but not against other women across barriers of difference “No tools were developed to deal with other women’s anger except to avoid it, deflect it, or flee from it under a blanket of guilt”. There can be no collective action when white women evade instead of “meet[ing] us, face to face, beyond objectification and beyond guilt”
Learning from the 60s Some thoughts on Malcolm X, heterosexism and homophobia in the Black community, and US foreign policy (interventionist, imperialistic) and social policy (anti-welfare, atomising) in the 80s
Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger Here Lorde discusses anger and animosity between Black women at great length. I never realised how the treatment of Black women by daily and structural manifestations of white supremacist patriarchy came to engender distrust and hate between Black women themselves. As she often does, Audre draws on histories of African women collaborating with and sharing power with each other, supporting and loving each other, offering these resources for Black American women. She also offers wisdom from the I Ching and from fellow Black women poets. She explains how the destruction of self esteem makes Black women devalue each other as well as themselves. She decries the dehumanising idea that ‘white folks feel, Black folks DO’.
Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report This is a witness testimony. Lorde, of Grenadian parents, visited the island before the bloodless New Jewel coup which overthrew a wasteful, corrupt US sanctioned regime, after the coup during the rule of the People’s Revolutionary Government, and then after the US invasion of 1983. She is furious, because the PRG had improved every aspect of life for the people of Grenada, creatively, sutainably, and independently. And the invasion, patently unjustified and cynically motivated, is a wave of destruction uprooting that progress. I’ve probably read Chomsky’s account of the same events, but Lorde tells it with personal horror and rage.
Sister Outsider is a profound work, and a strong, deep root out of which feminist praxis can take nourishment and grow. Lorde points out what must be done, and tells us how to begin our work together, with the power of our own deeply felt truths.
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