Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a Black American lesbian feminist poet, mother, socialist and cancer survivor. She wrote 11 books of poetry and was part of the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These days, though, she is probably best known for “Sister Outsider” (1984), a book of essays often used in women’s studies at universities.
As a Black lesbian feminist socialist, she found herself at the wrong end of most of the isms that shape US society: racism, homophobia, sexism, capitalism, etc. She saw them as part of the same many-headed beast:
“… the Black male consciousness must be raised to the realization that sexism and woman-hating are critically dysfunctional to his liberation as a Black man because they arise out of the same constellation that engenders racism and homophobia.”
Likewise, most socialist countries are racist and sexist.
She looked at the root: how people think about differences.
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
Our differences are treasures – like how jazz grew out of African music and European music (my example). But we are made to think of differences as a bad thing, as something to “tolerate” or be ashamed of. We get drawn into “horizontal hostility” – like Black men against Black women – instead of broad-based vertical ones that would change society for the better. We wind up fighting over crumbs. Divide and conquer.
She did not begin to understand this till she left the US:
“I’d always had the feeling I was strange, different, that there was something wrong with me … In Mexico I learned to walk upright, to say the things I felt. I became conscious that I hadn’t the courage to speak up.”
In fighting racism and sexism, too often Black men and White women wind up copying White men. But copying one’s oppressor only leads to more oppression:
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Her parents came to New York from the Caribbean, from Barbados and Grenada, to make some money, but then got stuck in the US because of the Great Depression. She grew up in Harlem, at 142nd and Lenox. She did not speak till age four – but learned to read that same year, dropping the y from her first name. She learned to read at the public library that once stood where the Schomburg Center now stands. In time she became a librarian herself, then a well-known poet, then an English professor.
She joined the Harlem Writers Guild. Langston Hughes saw her promise, but she never felt accepted there because of their homophobia.
One night she went to see some of her students sing at Carnegie Hall. When they were singing “What the World Needs Now is Love”, they were suddenly stopped: news had just come in that Martin Luther King had been killed. Duke Ellington started to cry. The chorus did not know what to do but to sing the song again – in tears.
– Abagond, 2016.
- Welcome to Black Women’s History Month 2016!
- Audre Lorde: Eye to Eye – one of the essays in “Sister Outsider”.
- June Jordan
- Langston Hughes: The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain
- RFK on the death of MLK