Essay

Dear Sister Outsider

On Audre Lorde and writing oneself into existence
Audre Lorde

Dear Audre,

Two years, ago your name came up in one of the most improbable places. A few weeks before the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam, making him the first openly gay player in NFL history, a white male sportscaster in Texas named Dale Hansen gave a passionate response to Sam’s critics: “Civil rights activist Audre Lorde said, ‘It is not our differences that divide us, it is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’” I never thought I’d see the day that a silver-haired, Southern white sportscaster with a Texas accent would publicly quote you, a black lesbian feminist socialist poet, and would do so in defense of a black gay professional football player, but here we are. Hansen’s full statement was powerful and drew attention. But the moment also made me wary. I thought about how this story of a gay athlete coming out in a major male sport was indicative of an assimilationist moment in queer politics. I wondered about your being reduced to an innocuous “civil rights activist” and not the militant poet who criticized the US invasion of your ancestral homeland Grenada, who spent time in the Soviet Union, and who might be critical of the macho, brutal sport that the young man plays or the billion-dollar corporation that runs it.

The lines that Hansen quoted are widely attributed to you on the web, but I can’t find the original source. Some references cite the 1986 poetry collection Our Dead Behind Us, but it’s not there. Certainly, the quote sounds like yours, and this idea of “difference” is one you expressed so well in your poetry and essays. Though Nancy Bereano reminded us in her 1983 introduction to the original edition of Sister Outsider that you thought of yourself as a poet first and not a theorist, your conception of difference has profoundly influenced feminist thought as a way of articulating the overlapping and intersecting ways in which marginalized people can identify. As you wrote in the essay “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” (1980), in a passage that sounds close to what Hansen quoted:

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.

The way you invoked difference was not as mere liberal tolerance and not about a corporate market niche but as a mode of resistance against white supremacist patriarchal norms. In that essay you also wrote this:

Too often, we pour the energy needed for recognizing and exploring difference into pretending those differences are insurmountable barriers, or that they do not exist at all. This results in a voluntary isolation or false and treacherous connections. Either way, we do not develop tools for using human difference as a springboard for creative change within our lives.

Those words feel so necessary right now when any reference to structural oppression or inequalities is met with false equivalences and faulty universalism.

When I heard Hansen’s quote, I thought about your 1982 novel Zami, an autobiographical book you described as a “biomythography”—a mixture of history, biography, and myth:   

Being women together was not enough. We were different. Being gay-girls together was not enough. We were different. Being Black together was not enough. We were different. Being Black women together was not enough. We were different. Being Black dykes together was not enough. We were different.

My copy of Zami, with its distinctive bright orange cover in the Crossing Press edition, is one of my most cherished books. Picking it up again recently, I noticed that in the margin next to that passage I’d scribbled the words the inevitability of difference. I must have made the note sometime in 2001, when I was reading your books and work by other black queer writers, searching for words to help me face my own black queer self. It was your writing, along with E. Lynn Harris and Samuel Delany and James Baldwin and many others, that introduced to me the possibility of writing myself into existence. From you, I learned that we can work across those boundaries of social difference but never from a belief in color-blindness or a denial of other people’s particular experiences in this world.

In her beautiful book Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, Alexis De Veaux describes Zami as a text that “recovers from existing male-dominated literary genres (history, mythology, autobiography, and fiction) whatever was inextricably female, female-centered” (314). That female-centeredness is at the heart of my favorite volume of yours, The Black Unicorn (1978), a collection of poems that celebrates women’s bodies and desires and that creates a “mythworld” in which women’s experience and feeling are central.  

The poem “Between Ourselves” helped me locate my particular blackness, helped me articulate my feelings that I was marginal within a community that I still found valuable and important.   

Once when I walked into a room
my eyes would seek out the one or two black faces
for contact or reassurance or a sign
I was not alone
now walking into rooms full of black faces
that would destroy me for any difference
where shall my eyes look?
Once it was easy to know
who were my people.

I came to that poem after having graduated from a black college, after being schooled in the ways of black solidarity, and yet learning that so many of us who were queer were shunned and shamed. I believe that now we are in a moment when black people are questioning what you referred to in that poem as an “easy blackness as salvation,” that we are no longer willing to accept that signing on to black liberation means submitting to heteropatriarchy. I see in the political movements of today efforts to embrace feminism and queerness, even as the respectable mainstays of the black church and the black college continue to hold sway over black political discourse.

When I finally decided to come out to my family, I turned to your words from “A Litany for Survival” for encouragement and support

… And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

I’ve often thought about the multiple meanings of that last line. As black people in America, we were considered chattel, disposable property, and we were never meant to live free, never meant to grow up, grow old, become educated, write books, become scholars or artists or business owners. It is from that specific condition that we understand the larger universal reality that as human beings in this mortality, we are all blips on the screen of eternity, that none of us were ever meant to survive, and therefore we must speak while we can.

In a 1978 journal entry quoted in Warrior Poet, you wrote this while undergoing cancer treatment:

There’s a kind of protection the bleak unfeeling walls of a hospital give that allows me to look into the face of death and still dare to be joyful. I want to move toward death if I must with the certain knowledge that I leave some thing rich and part of the Great Going Forward behind me.   

You indeed left a rich legacy behind you. I see your legacy in the work of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, three black queer women who gave the Black Lives Matter movement its name and helped galvanize a new era in civil rights activism. I see your legacy in the conversations women are having about white feminism and its complicity with white supremacy, something you also addressed in Sister Outsider’s “Age, Race, Class and Sex”: “Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.”

I see your legacy in the voices of overworked, underpaid, unappreciated black women in academia who insist on self-care as an act of defiance, who keep a close watch over their own fatigue and sickness and despair as a means for survival in a harsh system because, as you put it in the epilogue to A Burst of Light, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”  

Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich, 1980. Image Courtesy of K. Kendall via Flickr.


I see your legacy in the faces of my own City University of New York students, products of immigrant New York much like the ones you taught at John Jay College and Hunter College, students from the Islands, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America, all shades of white, black, brown, and yellow, sitting together in our dingy, well-worn classrooms, living out those same immigrant dreams in the metropolis.

Earlier this year I attended the first meeting of the African American Intellectual History Society in Chapel Hill, where we watched footage of you in Dagmar Schultz’s documentary Audre Lorde - The Berlin Years, 1984 to 1992. I was proud to sit among this group of scholars who recognized a black lesbian poet as an important contributor to black intellectual history, an acknowledgement that felt unlikely to me when I was an undergraduate history student not that long ago.

Recently, I noticed an image passed around the Internet, emblazoned with your bold words, taken from a journal entry written during the last years of your life, collected in A Burst of Light:

I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my noseholes—everywhere. Until it's every breath I breathe. I'm going to go out like a fucking meteor!

I think about these lines when I find myself distracted and need to rediscover my purpose in this writing life.

Your legacy lives on in the LGBT movement, even though I often wish we would listen more intently to your voice telling us not to relinquish our difference. These days, the movement seems less about celebrating the unique and particular gifts of queerness and more about integrating into heteronormative institutions. The focus now is on gay athletes, marriage equality, adoption, military service, and the clergy.

Here in your home state, New York, the Empire State Pride Agenda literally disbanded after the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015 set a judicial precedent that recognizes same-sex marriage in all 50 states. In its last statement, the Pride Agenda declared that because same-sex marriage had been achieved, its work was done. However, in that same year, more than 20 transgender women in America were murdered, most of them poor women of color. An alarming 41 percent of trans people will attempt suicide at least once, a rate four times that of the general public. Rates of HIV infection continue to climb in poor black and brown communities without access to adequate health care and among people who live in states where sex education and LGBT legal protections are being suppressed.    

I often wonder what you would think about the current presidential administration, of our beautiful black president; his smart, gorgeous wife; his two brown girls who have grown up before our eyes in the past eight years, knowing that this same black president is also the head of an empire, commander in chief of a military machine that rains down death upon thousands of people caught in the crossfires of conflict.

I think of how your writing is so vital to understanding these contradictions that we live with, that we live in a time when the price of assimilation for people such as Michael Sam is to become one-dimensional heroes and to relinquish the ability to be human and vulnerable. I thought about this as I read De Veaux’s Warrior Poet. The occasion of a biography is often an awkward airing of dirty laundry, including all the embarrassing details that even the most candid writers want to leave out. I want you to know that De Veaux did you proud, Sister Audre. Her elegant book lets us into your world to reveal the complex, beautiful life you led as a black feminist poet, making up a life for yourself and carving out possibilities that the rest of us could find and imagine for ourselves. I want the contradictory Audre Lorde, the one who was defiantly promiscuous; who had her moments of jealousy, anger, duplicitousness, and hypocrisy; who had white lovers and did not apologize to her black friends for it; and who grappled with the meaning of this racial complexity, in the faces of her own children from a black mother and white father, who raised them despite the divorce and helped them learn to accept her lesbian partners.

I think about your poetry in these trying times, such as the underrated 1974 collection New York Head Shop and Museum, a series of poems that express your love and fascination for the city of your birth and yet are imbued with an apocalyptic sensibility.  

There is nothing beautiful left in the streets of this city.
I have come to believe in death and renewal by fire.
Past questioning the necessities of blood
or why it must be mine or my children’s time

that will see the grim city quake to be reborn perhaps
blackened again but this time with a sense of purpose;
tired of the past tense forever, of assertion and repetition
of the ego-trips through an incomplete self
—from “New York City”  

I suppose there was never a period when everyone felt at ease with the world, but Audre, these feel like apocalyptic times: daily mass shootings in America so frequent that they barely register anymore; the suicide bombs of jihadists in Nigeria, Somalia, Turkey, Belgium, Iraq, Pakistan; the looming climate changes with unprecedented storms; and the situation in Flint, Michigan, where thousands of children were poisoned with lead while politicians trucked in clean water for themselves.

We need your outrage now in these times when we are encouraged to see our black president as a symbol of progress even as black children are gunned down in the streets. Your 1976 poem “Power” expresses some of the anger we felt decades later at the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot down on a Cleveland playground by a cop who was never indicted.  

A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn't notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

There are the tapes to prove Tamir’s death too, but it has led to nothing. And that’s why it is so important that “Power” imagines how our sorrow can turn into an unhealthy despair or a destructive vengeance.

I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire …

When I started this letter, I feared that addressing you this way is too familiar. As a teacher, I’ve often had to correct my students’ writing when they casually refer to women writers by their first names: Gwendolyn, Harriet, Zadie. I worried that writing to you this way when I’ve written about male writers in more formal ways could be interpreted as a lack of respect for your craft. But I also wanted to take this risk. I wanted to speak in the way you taught us in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” when you wrote, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised and misunderstood.” I wanted to honor your work in “The Uses of the Erotic,” when you took the risk of celebrating women’s sexuality even though some people felt that by writing about the erotic as a feminine force you were reifying old stereotypes of the emotional woman and rational man.  

I am not sure where we are going, dear Audre, Sister Outsider, old courage-teacher. I carry your books around with me on the subways of your city, which is now my city, and I dream about what more I can do to transform my own silences into language and action. I’m trying to learn what it means to be guided by black feminism in this white man’s world. I’m trying to do what you suggested in “Eye to Eye” in Sister Outsider: “We can practice being gentle with each other by being gentle with that piece of ourselves that is hardest to hold, by giving more to the brave bruised girlchild within each of us.” You were speaking to black women then, but I wonder what kind of world we might create if we all develop the capacity to imagine ourselves as that black girl moving through the world feeling vulnerable, unprotected, and hated.

We need your hope now, the hope you had when you faced cancer with the same candor and intelligence you brought to every piece of poetry and prose you wrote. When I think about this losing game we all play and how we have to find the courage to play it anyway, I often come back to this passage from A Burst of Light.

This is why the work is so important. Its power doesn’t lie in the me that lives in the words as much as in the heart’s blood pumping behind the eye that is reading, the muscle behind the desire that is sparked by the word – hope as a living state that propels us, open-eyed and fearful, into all the battles of our lives. And some of those battles we do not win.

But some of them we do.
Originally Published: May 18th, 2016

Lavelle Porter is a writer and scholar of African-American literature. He is an assistant professor of English at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY), and he is currently working on a book about academic fiction and black higher education.

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  1. May 18, 2016
     Thomas L. Vaultonburg

    She was one of the best outsider poets and empowered a lot of future writers http://not-quite-blank.tumblr....

  2. May 29, 2016
     Rose Kim

    Powerful, moving essay. I love your deep reading of Audre Lorde.