The Legacy of Audre Lorde

By Roxane Gay September 17, 2020

ARTS & CULTURE

AUDRE LORDE. PHOTO: ELSA DORFMAN. CC BY-SA (HTTP://CREATIVECOMMONS.ORG/LICENSES/BY-SA/3.0/).

There is this thing that happens, all too often, when a Black woman is being introduced in a professional setting. Her accomplishments tend to be diminished. The introducer might laugh awkwardly, rushing through whatever impoverished remarks they have prepared. Rarely do they do the necessary research to offer any sense of whom they are introducing. The Black woman is spoken of in terms of anecdote rather than accomplishment. She is referred to as sassy on Twitter, maybe, or as a lover of bacon, random tidbits bearing no relation to the reasons she is in that professional setting. Whenever this happens to me or I witness it happening to another Black woman, I turn to Audre Lorde. I wonder how Lorde would respond to such a microaggression because in her prescient writings she demonstrated, time and again, a remarkable and necessary ability to stand up for herself, her intellectual prowess and that of all Black women, with power and grace. She recognized the importance of speaking up because silence would not protect her or anyone. She recognized that there would never be a perfect time to speak up because “while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

In 1979, for example, Audre Lorde wrote a letter to Mary Daly, and when Daly did not respond, Lorde made her entreaty an open letter. Lorde was primarily concerned with the erasure of Black women in Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, a manifesto urging women toward a more radical feminism. In her open letter, Lorde wrote: “So the question arises in my mind, Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women? Did you ever read my words, or did you merely finger through them for quotations which you thought might valuably support an already conceived idea concerning some old and distorted connection between us? This is not a rhetorical question.” The letter is both gracious and incisive. What Lorde is really demanding of Daly and white feminists more broadly is for them to seriously engage with and acknowledge Black women’s intellectual labor.

In the thirty years since Lorde wrote that open letter, Black women have continued to implore white women to recognize and engage with their intellectual contributions and the material realities of their lives. They have asked white women to acknowledge that, as Lorde also wrote in her open letter to Daly, “the oppression of women knows no ethnic nor racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean it is identical within those differences.” One of the hallmarks of Lorde’s prose and poetry is her willingness to recognize, acknowledge, and honor the lived realities of women—not only those who share her subject position but also those who do not. Her thinking always embodied what we now know as intersectionality and did so long before intersectionality became a defining feature of contemporary feminism in word if not in deed.

Lorde never grappled with only one aspect of identity. She was as concerned with class, gender, and sexuality as she was with race. She held these concerns and did so with care because she valued community and the diversity of the people who were part of any given community. She valued the differences between us as strengths rather than weaknesses. Doing this was of particular urgency, because to her mind, “the future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference.”

But how do you best represent a significant, in all senses of the word, body of work? This is the question that has consumed me as I assembled The Selected Works of Audre Lorde. Lorde is a towering figure in the world of letters, at least for me. I first encountered her writing in my early twenties, as a young Black queer woman. She was the first writer I ever read who lived and loved the way I did and also looked like me. She was a beacon, a guiding light. And she was far more than that because her prose and poetry astonished me—intelligent, fierce, powerful, sensual, provocative, indelible.

When I read her books, I underlined and annotated avidly. I whispered her intimately crafted turns of phrase, enjoying the sound and feel of them in my mouth, on my tongue. Lorde was the first person who actively demonstrated for me that a writer could be intensely concerned with the inner and outer lives of Black queer women, that our experiences could be the center instead of relegated to the periphery. She wrote beyond the white gaze and imagined a Black reality that did not subvert itself to the cultural norms dictated by whiteness. She valorized the body as much as she valorized the mind. She valorized nurturing as much as she valorized holding people accountable for their actions, calling out people and practices that decentered the Black queer woman’s experience and knowledge. Most important, she prioritized the collective because “without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.” As a reader, it is gratifying to see the legacy Lorde has created and to see the genealogy of her work in the writing of the women who have followed in her footsteps. Without Lorde’s essay “The Uses of Anger,” we might never have known Claudia Rankine’s manifesto of poetic prose, Citizen.

In one of her most fiery essays, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde asks, “What does it mean when tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” She quickly answers her own question: “It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.” Lorde gave these remarks in 1979 after being invited to an academic conference where there was only one panel with a Black feminist or lesbian perspective and only two Black women presenters. Forty years later, such meager representation is still an issue in many supposedly feminist and inclusive spaces. The essay is pointed, identifying pernicious issues marginalized people face in certain oppressive spaces—having to be the sole representative of their subject position, having to use their intellectual and emotional labor to address oppression instead of any of their other intellectual interests as if the marginalized are equipped to talk about only their marginalization.

This is a reality we often lose sight of when we surrender to assimilationist ideas about social change. There is, for example, a strain of feminism that believes if only women act like men, we will achieve the equality we seek. Lorde asks us to do the more difficult and radical work of imagining what our realities might look like if masculinity were not the ideal to which we aspire, if heterosexuality were not the ideal to which we aspire, if whiteness were not the ideal to which we aspire.

In Lorde’s body of work, we see her defying this idea of the dominant culture as the default, this idea that she should write about only her oppression, but while doing so she never abandons her subject position. She is empathetic, curious, critical, intuitive. She is as open about her weaknesses as she is about her strengths. She is an exemplar of public intellectualism who is as relevant in this century as she was in the last.

We are rather attached to the notion of truth as singular, but the best writing reminds us that truth is complex and subjective. The best writing reminds us that we need not relegate the truth to the narrow perimeters of right and wrong, black and white, good and evil. I have thought about how narrow the perimeters of change really are when we insist on using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This narrow brand of thinking has only intensified since the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump was elected. Whatever progress it seemed like we were making during the Obama era has retracted sharply, painfully. We live in a very fractured time, one where difference has become weaponized, demonized, and where discourse demands allegiance to extremes instead of nuanced points of view. We live in a time where the president of the United States flouts all conventions of the office, decorum, and decency. Police brutality persists, unabated. Women share their experiences with sexual harassment or violence but rarely receive any kind of justice.

It seems like things have gotten only worse since the height of Lorde’s career, when she was writing about the very things we continue to deal with—the place of women and, more specifically, Black women in the world, what it means to raise Black girls and boys in a world that will not welcome them, what it means to live in a world so harshly stratified by class, what it means to live in a vulnerable body, what it means to live. There are very few voices for women and even fewer voices for Black women, speaking from the center of consciousness, from the I am out to the we are, but Lorde was, throughout her storied career, one such voice. In her poem “Power,” Lorde wrote about a white police officer who murdered a ten-year-old Black boy and was acquitted by a jury of eleven of his peers and one Black woman who succumbed to the will of those peers. She captured the rage of such injustice and how futile it feels to try to fight such injustice, but she also demonstrated that even in the face of futility, silence is never an option.

A great deal of Lorde’s writing was committed to articulating her worldview in service of the greater good. She crafted lyrical manifestos. The essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” made the case for the importance of poetry, arguing that poetry “is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” In “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Lorde examines women using their erotic power to benefit themselves instead of benefiting men. She notes that women are often vilified for their erotic power and treated as inferior. She suggests that we can rethink and reframe this paradigm. This is what is so remarkable about Lorde’s writing—how she encourages women to understand weaknesses as strengths. She writes: “As women, we need to examine the ways in which our world can be truly different. I am speaking here of the necessity for reassessing the quality of all aspects of our lives and our work, and how we move toward and through them.” In this, she offers an expansive definition of the erotic, one that goes well beyond the carnal to encompass a wide range of sensate experiences.

Rethinking and reframing paradigms is a recurring theme in Lorde’s writing. As the child of immigrants who came to the United States for their American dream only to have that dream shattered by the Great Depression, Lorde understood the nuances of oppression from an early age. It was poetry that gave her the language to make sense of that oppression and to resist it, and she was a prolific poet with several collections to her name, including The First CitiesCables to RageFrom a Land Where Other People LiveCoal, and The Black Unicorn.

Her work took other forms—teaching; cofounding Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press; public speaking; and a range of advocacy efforts for women, lesbians, and Black people. During her time in Germany, she gave rise to the Afro-German movement—helping Black German women use their voices to join the sisterhood she valued so dearly. She also demanded that white German women confront their whiteness, even when it made them defensive or uncomfortable. In an essay about Lorde’s time in Germany, Dagmar Schultz wrote that “many white women learned to be more conscious of their privileges and more responsible in the use of their power.”

Lorde was not constrained by boundaries. She combined the personal and the political, the spiritual and the secular. As an academic she fearlessly wrote about the sensual and the sexual even though the academy has long disdained such interests. Her erotic life was as valuable as her intellectual life and she was unabashed in making this known. This refusal to be constrained was notably apparent in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, which she called a “biomythography.” In her definitive biography of Lorde, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, Alexis De Veaux describes Zami as a book that “recovers from existing male-dominated literary genres (history, mythology, autobiography, and fiction) whatever was inextricably female, female-centered.” In Zami and much of her other work, Lorde expressed the radical idea that Black women could hold the center, be the center, and she was unwavering in this belief.

At her most vulnerable, Lorde gave the world some of her most powerful writing with her work in The Cancer Journals, which chronicled her life with breast cancer and having a double mastectomy. “But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.” With these words, she assumed as much control as she could over a body succumbing to disease and a public narrative that, until then, allowed a singular narrative about what it meant to live with illness. She made herself visible and gave other women permission to make themselves visible in a world that would prefer that they disappear, stay silent.

In all of her writing, Audre Lorde offers us language to articulate how we might heal our fractured sociopolitical climate. She gives us instructions for making tools with which we can dismantle the houses of our oppressors. She remakes language with which we can revel in our sensual and sexual selves. She forges a space within which we can hold ourselves and each other accountable to both our needs and the greater good.

All too often, people misappropriate the words and ideas of Black women. They do so selectively, using the parts that serve their aims, and abandoning those parts that don’t. People will, for example, parrot Lorde’s ideas about dismantling the master’s house without taking into account the context from which Lorde crafted those ideas. Lorde is such a brilliant and eloquent writer; she has such a way of shaping language that of course people want to repeat her words to their own ends. But her work is far more than something pretty to parrot. In The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, you will be able to appreciate the grace, power, and fierce intelligence of her writing, to understand where she was writing from and why, and to bear witness to all the unforgettable ways she made herself, and all Black women, gloriously visible.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014Best American Short Stories 2012Best Sex Writing 2012Harper’s BazaarA Public SpaceMcSweeney’sTin HouseOxford AmericanAmerican Short FictionVirginia Quarterly Review, and many other publications. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books AyitiAn Untamed State, the New York Times best-selling Bad Feminist, the nationally best-selling Difficult Women, and New York Times best-selling Hunger: A Memoir of My Body. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel and the editor of Best American Short Stories 2018. She is currently at work on film and television projects, a book of writing advice, an essay collection about television and culture, and a YA novel entitled The Year I Learned Everything.

Reprinted from The Selected Works of Audre Lorde. Copyright © 2020 by Roxane Gay. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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