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Audre Lorde: A Lasting Legacy

Audre Lorde: A Lasting Legacy

Something interesting happens when a Black woman is introduced in a professional setting. Her achievements are reduced down to quirks that have no relation to the reasons she is there, or the person introducing her will rush through a few blurbs they prepared just moments prior. This is a classic example of a microaggression, and it has happened to me more than once. I’ve also witnessed it happening to other Black women. It makes me wonder how Audre Lorde would address it right there on the spot, as she always unapologetically stood up for herself.

In her public appearances, Lorde notoriously introduced herself the same way: “I am a Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Sometimes, she would offer up a twist: “I am a Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet doing my work, coming to ask you if you’re doing yours.” It was her way of challenging the assumption that she could not take up space as her full self.

Through her writings, Audre Lorde taught us how to take up space and stand up for ourselves with power and grace. She understood the importance of speaking up because silence would not protect her or anyone. She recognized that there is never 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, Lorde wrote a letter to Mary Daly, a radical feminist, academic, and theologian. When Daly did not respond, Lorde penned an open letter. Her primary concern was the omission of Black women in Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, a declaration urging women toward radical feminism. 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 gracious but also razor-sharp. What Lorde is really demanding of Daly and other white feminists, is for them to seriously engage with and acknowledge Black women’s intellectual labor.

Since that letter, Black women are still demanding recognition for our intellectual contributions. One of the trademarks of Lorde’s work is her ability to acknowledge all women – not only those who shared her positions but also those who didn’t. Her thinking always represented what we now know as intersectionality — a concept in which identities overlap; a theory that studies the interactions between these identities, and the oppression, domination, and discrimination that results.

When you study not just read, Lorde’s work, it’s more than a source of tweetable quotes or just a poet describing her life. But a sophisticated theorist that provides explanations of social reality. A corner of her work that I have found insightful: the tension she identifies between safety and security on the one hand and the pursuit of survival on the other. In her essay Poetry Is Not a Luxury, she stresses the importance of poetry, arguing that poetry “is a vital necessity for 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.”

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As a poet, I absolutely agree. I believe that poets have the unique ability to say the difficult words that need to be said, particularly during challenging times. People turn to poets and writers to give breath to what is happening in the world.

As the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Lorde understood the concept of oppression from an early age. Poetry gave her the language to make sense of that oppression and resist it. She had nine volumes of poetry, including my personal favorite The Black Unicorn.

Sister Outsider is probably one of Lorde’s most recognizable works. In this collection of 15 essays, the one that resonates with me the most is Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface. In it, she asks the question, “And why are Black women supposed to absorb that male rage in silence?” She explores why Black women are often expected to be all things to all people and speak everyone else’s position but our own. The first time I read this essay, I felt seen. It has been a guide for my own writing – speaking honestly and unapologetically about issues that concern Black women.

At the most vulnerable time of her life, Lorde gave us some of her most powerful writing with The Cancer Journals, which chronicled her battle 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.” She made herself visible and gave other women permission to make themselves visible.  

I believe people often quote Audre Lorde’s ideas and words, but may not take into account the context from which she crafted those ideas. She was a brilliant writer and had a special way with language. I often share her quotes on social media, as they seem to say exactly how I feel. One of my favorites, “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing” hangs on the wall in my home office. But her work is so much more than tweetable quotes. I say ‘is’ and not ‘was’ because her brilliant insight continues to teach us and sustain us. We’ll always be able to appreciate her power, grace, and intelligence through her work. It gives us a glimpse of the place deep down inside in which she wrote from and to bear witness to the ways she made herself, and all Black women, visible.

Other Resources:

Poetry Foundation

Sister Outsider

Your Silence Will Not Protect You

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