Audre Lorde taught us that power begins with knowing and accepting ourselves.
In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.
We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.
It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.
The reading list for the contemporary poetry seminar during my first semester in the MA program at Iowa State was an interesting one. Elizabeth Bird, Louise Erdrich, Richard Wright, Charles Wright, Gary Snider, Carolyn Forché, plus a couple others I can’t recall right now. Also, the point of today’s story, Audre Lorde, a writer I had never heard of.
It was Fall of 1987 and it was a fascinating, albeit frustrating class. It featured some pretty pedestrian (if self-absorbed and overwrought) writers, some I found myself liking a lot (Snider and Bird), and two who were utterly transformative. No living poet has exerted the sort of influence on me as an artist that Charles Wright did, and very few artists have done more for my self-awareness than Lorde.
The program was chock full of talented thinkers and writers. But it was, for me, a very new and alien experience. This was the first time I had left home and Ames, Iowa was a different animal from Winston-Salem, NC, where I had spent my entire life to that point. The biggest issue I faced (other than basic grad student poverty) had to do with my outlander status: Politically, culturally, academically, artistically – I didn’t fit at all.
I had zero experience with academic radical feminism at that point. I didn’t consider myself a feminist. I thought that all people, regardless of gender or race or whatever, were equal on the face of it and ought to have the same rights and opportunities, and I didn’t know that was the core of feminism, and I certainly knew dick about the deeper nuances of gender politics in society. So I kind of was and wasn’t a feminist in ways that neither I nor anyone else around me quite understood.
There was a strong cohort of strongly feminist writers in the program, as you’d expect, and they seem to have hated me on sight, for what I think must have been mostly symbolic reasons. I made no attempt to cozy up to them – I was no doubt guilty of some of what they thought of me, and I didn’t have a diplomatic bone in my body. But in general, I was The Yokel – a white Southern man, and the hostility was damned near tangible at times. I think I probably looked like so much of what they hated in the world, and when that guy doesn’t go out of his way to win you over, it’s easy for the preconceptions to ossify.
As a result, their contempt for me was concealed barely and rarely.
So we’re about halfway through the semester when we arrive at The Black Unicorn, Lorde’s 1978 tour de force. The glee was palpable, and one of them even said it out loud: “you’re really going to love Lorde, I bet.” Sarcasm and snickering and knowing glances cutting every which way – what the hell, I wondered. I soon learned. Lorde was a:
She was the Anti-Sam, and they could not wait to see my head explode.
Funny thing happened, though. I loved Lorde, pretty much from the opening line. And oddly, none of the women in question liked her much at all. For a week the world was upside down.
Lorde’s vision was crystal clear, her language as powerful as it was spare and her imagery vivid and undeniable. Better, though, was a nigh-magical knack she had for articulating the injustice she had faced in a way that was inclusive. As the list above suggests, there was much about Audre Lorde’s life that might invite everything from garden-variety ignorant prejudice to active oppression to potentially physical threats. Let’s be clear about this – many people have died for less than being female, black, homosexual and/or politically radical.
Given this, it was clear that she was writing from a position of informed, first-hand knowledge, and if ever a poet had reason to rage at the machine it was her. But she didn’t – she simply situated all these issues within a quiet, compelling frame that invited me to empathize. The Black Unicorn called me to the cause of social justice.
Despite the fact that Lorde and I could hardly have been more different demographically, I felt an aesthetic and moral kinship to the words I was reading.
During my final semester, Spring 1989, we learned that Lorde had terminal cancer (she died in 1992). Remarkably, despite knowing her days were numbered, she was going to travel and speak. And she was coming to Iowa State.
I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. She was not in great shape that day, and she apologized for not being up to reading. But she spoke to us and she took questions. The one I will always remember came from a young woman, an undergrad, with long, unkempt blonde hair and a loose patterned dress. As she asked her question, the passion and intensity and inner conflict fairly radiated off her thin frame.
The question went something like this. She was appalled and overburdened by the injustice in the world, all of which was perpetrated by a white, racist, sexist, patriarchal system. She was disgusted by the fact that she was white, she said. How could she be a part of the solution when her very race made her part of the problem?
Lorde cut her off. You cannot do this, she said. Whatever power you are ever to have in this world begins with accepting who and what you are and harnessing the power you have. You cannot have power if you deny your own identity.
This was not the answer the coed expected (or hoped for, I think). And I feel certain that young woman, wherever she is today, remembers Lorde’s answer as vividly as I do. I hope it energized her the way it did me, the way it does me to this day.
This scene seems strange to me now, living as I do in a society where we don’t talk with each other, we scream at what we imagine others to be. We’re easily offended, to the point where some people seem to seek out opportunities to get offended. We wallow in our victimhood. We wear our disenfranchisement like a fetish.
This isn’t to say there is no reason for outrage. There is, at every turn. But rage is only useful if it is transformed into social power and channeled toward productive action. When that happens, the final shape of it may not look or sound like rage at all. And if rage isn’t transformed, it is almost certain to immolate us and those around us.
Scholars & Rogues honors Audre Lorde, and we are honored to have learned the lessons she taught with her art and her life. We’d be a better society if everyone could set aside a couple hours for her Collected Poems.
A Woman Speaks
Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.
I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did
I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
and not white.