Years ago, when I was a young Black woman barely recognizable to myself because of the churn of heat and anger just beneath my surface, I found the writings of Audre Lorde. It was the universe, or the ancestors, or intuition that brought Audre Lorde to me, a Black woman, a Black woman writer, and a Black mother. I was in my mid-twenties and had just given birth to a daughter before relocating to Brooklyn, New York. I found a new home in Bed-Stuy and attempted to raise a culturally aware, healthy, and actualized Black girl child. While I sought to understand my place in the world as a working mother, to unlearn the atrocities continually normalized as acts of injustice (see: police brutality, drug addiction as punishable rather than rehabilitative, and a government that refuses to support economically deprived citizens), I realized I was losing my footing (see: self) in this full-time balancing act. And it began to weaken me.
My anger seethed when I was called “girl”by a white man during a meeting with male colleagues. My rage bubbled and spilled when I was called “ghetto”after trying to board a subway with my child (see: audacity of a woman who refuses to let a man force her and her child aside so that he could board the train first). These consistent acts of violence required balm… a healing property. And so, I found Audre Lorde. Her text was hidden to the average eye (not listed as required reading in my college literature syllabi as often as Gramsci or Foucault). However, it was Lorde who brought me back from the brink of an all-consuming violence when I read essays like “An Open Letter to Mary Daly,”“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,”and “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.”Lorde explained intersectionality, righteous rage, and the responsibility of artists when dismantling destructive ideologies practiced and disguised as nationalism.
Born in the Bay Area to parents surviving addiction, the mass incarceration system, and other inhumane calamities natural to the economically impoverished citizens of America, I am aware of the ways in which I can bring pause to a conversation about whiteness when discussing this nation’s standards of femininity. Standing five foot eight, eyes eager and observational, mouth set, with brown skin, I’ve frequently heard from people who meet me, “I was so intimidated by you!”I think: I am only Black and alive and breathing. I only have this woman body, this gift of language and many of my physical abilities. I don’t scowl or suck my teeth without reason, so why am I a threat? This is when I realize, like Audre Lorde, that opening my woman mouth has little to do with being threatening. Simply being is the threat.
The gall to gift myself my own name is also a reason to fear a Black woman. As a daughter named after a father I barely know, I decided to change my name when I became an artist. I changed my name to meet the needs of the woman writer I would become. I changed my name to reflect the kind of mother I was determined to be. At the age of five, my daughter understood very clearly the importance of calling people by their chosen name and would correct anyone who tried to ignore my request to be acknowledged by the name signifying my rebirth. Audre Lorde (born Audrey Lorde) dropped the y for “artistic symmetry”and is legendary for this act of audacity. She spoke against patriarchy and white supremacy while teaching at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She wrote a love poem to a woman when open lesbianism from a Black woman was unheard of. Lorde talked poetry and rage in a time when rage was condemned for its in articulation. She wrote about racism and Black identity, investigating interpersonal relationships between Black men and Black women with an unyielding pen and precise gaze. I reckon, Lorde perfected the art of audacity.
In her essay “Man Child,”Lorde wrote, “For survival, Black children in america must be raised to be warriors. For survival, they must also recognize the enemy’s many faces.”What better way to recognize your enemy’s many faces than to walk through their institutions with a full scholarship or paid internship? It was during my stint as a graduate in an MFA program in Brooklyn that my double consciousness became a vital way in which I truly understood how I presented to the world. As an adult student attending a prestigious private school as a candidate for Writing & Activism, it took very little time for me to recognize the racism running rampant and unsheathing its tail within the program and across campus. I was forced to detangle the difference between true allyship and well-meaning white folk propagandizing their own agenda, which only enlisted my body for a picket line or protest but never addressed my concerns as an intersectional Black feminist.
In the gracious offering “An Open Letter…”Lorde unpacks the weight of the singular mind-set that ignores intersectionality, which in turn fortifies the raggedy structure of white feminism (see: a consistent disregard when feminists engage singular ideas of oppression). Lorde constantly unpacks what it means to be a Black lesbian mother warrior poet. Her essays and letters became translatory practice notes for classrooms, salons, syllabi, and community meetings. Lorde’s classic writings serve as a blueprint for the academic and the archivist. The essays in Sister Outsider (Crossing Press, 1984) are a testament to that work. Lorde dismantled the intricate ideas of individualized and homogenized thinking and was acutely aware of the risk when others were allowed to speak for her. Instead, she relied on her prose, essays, and poems to do the certain and heavy lifting of her own ideas, legacy, and name.
In her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,”arguments of antiquated assigned gender roles breed ideas that challenge Lorde’s mission as an activist and writer. This misunderstanding requires Lorde to clarify her quote “The Black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.”In “An Interview,”with Adrienne Rich, Lorde responded to those who assumed the quote prescribed patriarchal hierarchies. She insists that “if you’re traveling a road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere, the ownership of that the road is meaningless.”Lorde, always facilitating conversations that decenter whiteness, remains my foundation when reevaluating my own voice and my body. The body can be an echo chamber full of chaotic noise. We vibrate energies, push back into the space given to us, both light and dark, grief and joy. The Black woman body can tremor resilience and remorse, trauma suppression and survival; joy as resistance, and liberation as fashion. The Black woman aesthetic is trendsetting in its ability to endure. Hence “Black don’t crack”and other elements of Black folklore that sing praise of a restored body that appears youthful, despite the systematic pitfalls designed to create a future of hopelessness.
As an educator, afraid of failing terribly, Lorde recognized teaching was a “survival tactic”and still barreled forward. I know that kick of fear. The one that forms in your belly when walking into classrooms. Whether teaching in detention centers or lecture halls, I am aware how fear can extract a voice from the body, rendering us silent. Fear can stifle hope and joy, burrow into the darkest places, where desire and hope should be. Fear promotes stagnancy, and stagnancy encourages death. To direct a room using poetry as a compass is exhilarating and absolutely frightening. During an undergraduate social science course, I opened the semester with Lorde’s essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex.”Witnessing the effect of the essay was equivalent to watching a game of Jenga confetti and cascade to the feet of my frustrated students. The text we investigated required us to disassemble our ideas of oppressor and responsibility. Each of us gulped for air when we realized how closely related we all were to the same titles we considered our nemeses. Venn diagrams revealed the ways in which we shared space, as the definitions revealed our personal intersections and unpacked biases. The blocks, those invisible walls surrounding us, came tumbling down. This is how our class in Art as Protest (Protest as Praxis) became a sustainable education and activism model.
Lorde wrote her poetry to explain her emotions to the world. I believe Lorde penned her essays to explain the world to our children. “Man Child,”a selection I return to (particularly now, in a time of absolute terror), especially rings true: “If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive.”And who are we to die without purpose or a fight? Her work instilled a hope, an expectation I didn’t realize was my birthright. Sister Outsider in particular is an heirloom for our children and our child selves. These collected writings, passed down to each of us, hold the power of information. Each of us holds to our chest what solidifies our understanding of our place in this world. What can a body do with such an understanding? What kind of potential unearthed, what insurmountable possibilities are presented? How are we reinforced with this inheritance of truth? Our communities bloom endlessly with this knowing. Audre Lorde’s work is a contribution to the transformation of our very being. Our humanity requires it.
Excerpted from Sister Outsider (Penguin Classics, 2020). Reprinted in the Fall-Winter 2019 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2019 by Mahogany L. Browne. To receive American Poets, become a member.
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