My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity. – Audre Lorde
Audre Geraldine Lorde 1934 – 1992
Audre Lorde was born in New York City on February 18, 1924. She earned a B.A. from Hunter College in 1959 and a master’s in library science from Columbia University in 1960; was poet in residence at Tougaloo College; and taught at Lehman College in the Bronx and John Jay College, City College of New York. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for poetry and a Cultural Council Foundation grant, also for poetry.
In her 1979 essay Man Child, Lorde was among the first to discuss an issue that troubled many feminists and lesbians: how to raise male children and accept the roles they would take on as men. She argued that her job was to help the male child become the adult he is destined to be, and that she could both love him and let him go. She also spoke against excluding male children over a certain age from feminist separatist gatherings (a common practice at the time), because she was responsible for his education and he was just as necessarily a part of the future world as her daughter.
While Linda (her mother) is trained to survive in a social practical sense, Lorde learns to survive in her own particular ways, including her need to break away from her mother’s home in order to find self-gratification and same-sex desire. The mix of love and tension between Lorde and her mother is telling of Lordes wish to cherish the Afro-Caribbean creolized legacy she inherits from her mother and foremothers and her need to break away from any rule-bound tradition in order to write her own subjectivity and history toward a narrative space of freedom and self-autonomy. Lordes text, in recording this tension, is a manifestation both of individual and collective memory and of self-invention.
Following a prolonged battle with cancer, Audre Lorde passed away in 1992, leaving behind a body of work that’s still a cornerstone in any Women’s Studies 101 course. She was among the first to criticize the second-wave feminist movement for focusing almost exclusively on the experiences of white, heterosexual, middle-class women and to recognize the importance of acknowledging difference.
Audre Lorde was, in many ways, a survivor who worked to end the many silences in black women’s history. As a mother, lesbian, feminist, African American, and a cancer survivor, Lorde reflects the multiplicity of black women’s existence. Lorde teaches that learning to dream the future is only possible by learning to speak through the silence of the past.
“We are Black women born into a society of entrenched loathing and contempt for whatever is Black and female. We are strong and enduring. We are also deeply scarred.”
“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.”
“There is a kind of name-calling increasingly being used to keep young Black women in line. Often as soon as any young Black woman begins to recognize that she is oppressed as a woman as well as a Black, she is called a lesbian no matter how she identifies herself sexually. “What do you mean you don’t want to make coffee take notes wash dishes go to bed with me, you a lesbian or something?” And at the threat of such a dreaded taint, all too often she falls meekly into line, however covertly. But the word lesbian is only threatening to those Black women who are intimidated by their sexuality, or who allow themselves to be defined by it and from outside themselves. Black women in struggle from our own perspective, speaking up for ourselves, sharing close ties with one another politically and emotionally, are not the enemies of Black men. We are Black women who seek our own definitions, recognizing diversity among ourselves with respect. We have been around within our communities for a very long time, and we have played pivotal parts in the survival of those communities: from Hat Shep Sut through Harriet Tubman to Daisy Bates and Fannie Lou Hamer to Lorraine Hansberry to your Aunt Maydine to some of you who sit before me now.”
“Black women being told that we can be somehow better, and are worse, but never equal. To Black men. To other women. To human beings.”
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself — whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. — because that’s the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else.
“I am who I am, doing what I came to do, acting upon you like a drug or a chisel to remind you of your me-ness, as I discover you in myself.”
“Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface. Black women have particular and legitimate issues which affect our lives as Black women, and addressing those issues does not make us any less Black. To attempt to open dialogue between Black women and Black men by attacking Black feminists seems shortsighted and self-defeating.”
“Raising Black children — female and male — in the mouth of a racist, sexist, suicidal dragon is perilous and chancy. If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive. And in order to survive they must let go. This is what mothers teach — love, survival — that is, self-definition and letting go. For each of these, the ability to feel strongly and to recognize those feelings is central: how to feel love, how to neither discount fear nor be overwhelmed by it, how to enjoy feeling deeply.
I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine. I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self.
For me, this task begins with teaching my son that I do not exist to do his feeling for him.
Men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly “inferior” capacity to feel deeply. But in this way also, men deny themselves their own essential humanity, becoming trapped in dependency and fear.
As a Black woman committed to a liveable future, and as a mother loving and raising a boy who will become a man, I must examine all my possibilities of being within such a destructive system.”
“Black women who once insisted that lesbianism was a white woman’s problem now insist that Black lesbians are a threat to Black nationhood, are consorting with the enemy, are basically un-Black. These accusations, coming from the very women to whom we look for deep and real understanding, have served to keep many Black lesbians in hiding, caught between the racism of white women and the homophobia of their sisters. Often, their work has been ignored, trivialized, or misnamed, as with the work of Angelina Grimke, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Lorraine Hansberry. Yet women-bonded women have always been some part of the power of Black communities, from our unmarried aunts to the amazons of Dahomey.”
“Before he was killed, Malcolm had altered and broadened his opinions concerning the role of women in society and the revolution. He was beginning to speak with increasing respect of the connection between himself and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose policies of nonviolence appeared to be so opposite to his own. And he began to examine the societal conditions under which alliances and coalitions must indeed occur. He had also begun to discuss those scars of oppression which lead us to war against ourselves in each other rather than against our enemies.”
“In the 60s, white america — racist and liberal alike — was more than pleased to sit back as spectator while Black militant fought Black Muslim, Black Nationalist badmouthed the nonviolent, and Black women were told that our only useful position in the Black Power movement was prone. The existence of Black lesbian and gay people was not even allowed to cross the public consciousness of Black america. We know in the 1980s, from documents gained through the Freedom of Information Act, that the FBI and CIA used our intolerance of difference to foment confusion and tragedy in segment after segment of Black communities of the 60s. Black was beautiful, but still suspect, and too often our forums for debate became stages for playing who’s-Blacker-than-who or who’s-poorer-than-who games, ones in which there can be no winners.”
“All too often the message comes loud and clear to Black women from Black men: “I am the only prize worth having and there are not too many of me, and remember, I can always go elsewhere. So if you want me, you’d better stay in your place which is away from one another, or I will call you ‘lesbian’ and wipe you out.” Black women are programmed to define ourselves within this male attention and to compete with each other for it rather than to recognize and move upon our common interests.”
Lorde, Audre, To the Poet Who Happens to Be Black and the Black Poet Who Happens to Be a Woman [from Our Dead Behind Us (1986)