Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While reading the chapter “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich,” I realized that while I was earning my English major, I read plenty of Adrienne Rich, but I don’t recall hearing about Audre Lorde until I saw a quote by her on a poster in the basement of my UU church.

I looked back in my copy of “The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women” and Lorde was there, about five poems’ worth of her work and a brief bio, but I have no memory of reading her poetry for any class assignments. Why was this, I wondered?

I suspect it’s for the very reasons that Lorde suggests in these essays. She’s a Black lesbian radical feminist. People can engage with her if she identifies as one thing at a time, but Lorde insists on being a whole human being, offering the entire nuanced package in everything she does making her tough to categorize neatly.

This insistence on wholeness is also the source of great strength and meaning within her writing. It took me a while to read this book because every other page, it blew my mind. First, I engaged with it on a personal level. Lorde’s essay on “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” arrived for me at a moment when I felt a great need to speak but also feared the exposure of speaking out. Lorde writes:

“[W]e have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for the final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” (44)

I derived—and continue to derive—great comfort from this. It feels like a call-to-arms.

Lorde also writes about the totality of human experience in her essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” which I read with my hands carefully placed over key words while sitting on the sidelines of a homeschool nature class my children were in. Lorde’s words struck me because she talks about the importance of engaging with every experience, from a loving encounter to a heated argument, with awareness of how it affects the entire body. My interpretation of Lorde’s words is likely more prudish than Lorde intended, but I think it’s still within the spirit of her meaning. This is a powerful message of wholeness that I think is too often pushed aside in favor of the brain-only intellectual way of viewing things.

I was surprised, also, to connect with Lorde as a mother. In her essay “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response,” she writes about the way her own personal fury and issues with power manifest themselves in her raising of her son. Although I only identify with one of the three descriptors in the subtitle, I absolutely see the power dynamics in my relationship and in my spouse’s relationship with our son, even though I’d not really thought about it in those terms before.

I connected to this book in all of these ways, but what really hit me across the face while reading this book was the raw and open discussion about race. I’d read about the division between white feminists and Black feminists, but to hear about that division from the perspective of a Black feminist was eye-opening. I am very familiar with the ways in which women are devalued and victimized and encouraged to fight amongst ourselves within our culture, but I didn’t really consider that extra layer that racism adds for women of color until I read Sister Outsider. I recognize that the awareness that I’m feeling is just the tip of the iceberg, but even that little bit is overwhelming.

The conversation between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich was so encouraging to me, though. I read it and I thought, “This is how it can happen. This is how we can have a dialogue of mutual respect between races.” It involves recognizing at the outset that it’s not always going to be pretty. It will be messy and it will be painful and it will be scary, but the only way we can move forward is by walking through the fear and pain and messiness and staying by one another’s side throughout the process.

Another huge message that I got from this book, which came at a time when I’ve been pondering this exact same thing while reading and listening to coverage of Black Lives Matter protests and protests on college campuses, is the recognition that rage makes sense as a reaction to racism. In “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” the keynote address at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in June 1981, Lorde says:

“Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes do not change. To those women here who fear the anger of women of Color more than their own unscrutinized racist attitudes, I ask: Is the anger of women of Color more threatening than the woman-hatred that tinges all aspects of our lives?” (129)

Lorde makes a distinction between “anger” and “hatred”: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” (129) Hatred intends to destroy, but anger is potentially creative. I think about this—and thought about it before without a framework—when I hear people minimizing protests about race on college campuses or the demonstrations in Ferguson or Baltimore or Chicago in the wake of events and actions that absolutely call for anger, arguing that it’s safe to discount these reactions because they’re too emotional. Not reasoned and dispassionate. Maybe we can get to reasoned and dispassionate, but I don’t think it makes sense nor is it healthy to jump right past emotion as though the heart and head aren’t part of the same body. At the very least, it doesn’t make sense to discount someone else’s reaction because it makes me feel uncomfortable.

The most difficult thing for me about reading this book is that it’s clear just how much in the same place the United States has stayed in the past 40 years. Lorde refers to a case in the late 70’s or early 80’s in which a white police officer shot a Black child and was acquitted. (106) I could have looked it up but I didn’t because I didn’t want to cope with the details of yet another case like this. I felt confident accepting her comments and reaction at face value. Reading this, I thought, it doesn’t change, does it? It doesn’t stop. Our—white people’s—awareness might ebb and flow but the violence and the hatred against Black people in this country has never stopped. So the most difficult thing for me while reading this book was seeing the words through my tears.

I’m not unaware of these problems. These revelations aren’t entirely new to me, but still this book turns my perception of my race and the way in which my aligning myself with the dominant culture necessarily subjugates other people, not just in the U.S., but around the world. If it’s this difficult to read for someone already partially aware, I can only imagine how challenging it would be for someone who’s not thought about these things at all. Is this why Audre Lorde’s writings weren’t assigned to my classes at our majority white, middle- to upper-middle-class liberal arts college?

One quote to close out this review:

“Mainstream communication does not want women, particularly white women, responding to racism. It wants racism to be accepted as an immutable given in the fabric of your existence, like eveningtime or the common cold.” (128)

I don’t generally feel aligned with the mainstream, but this is just one more reason to reevaluate my relationship to the power structures of my culture. Who benefits if I stay in the dark? Who benefits if I stay silent?

View all my reviews

Sister Outsider was the November 2015 selection for the SBC. Please join us in December when we’re reading Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

3 Replies to “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde”

Your turn! What's on your mind?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s