Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde


Four stars, read in March and April 2017.

I have meant to read Audre Lorde for so long, and now that I have, I see the irony of it having been her prose that I read first, and not her poetry. Poetry was everything to Lorde, not just a form of art but a framework for living, feeling, becoming a full person—and for social revolution. It’s interesting because although I always prefer prose, her essay entitled “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” was the first of this book that really got to me.

The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives . . . As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.

Lorde defines poetry “as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean—in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.” I love that description, although to me, the word “poetry” is too specific a name for the abstract thing she’s describing. But I can see why she chooses it.

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought . . . As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.

I couldn’t help sharing at least one passage from each section, and there were so many more that I couldn’t include. The essays in this book cover a variety of topics, including Lorde’s experiences visiting the Soviet Union in the 70s and Grenada in the 80s, each of which provides a very different framework for examining the racism of the United States. I was fascinated by all the scenes in Russia and Uzbekistan, when she spoke with people who were just bewildered by the lack of social safety nets in the United States.

Note: Any italics in the upcoming quotes are Lorde’s. Anything that’s bolded is mine.

From “Grenada Revisited”:

The ready acceptance by the majority of americans of the Grenadian invasion and of the shady U.S. involvement in the events leading up to the assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop both happen in an america whose moral and ethical fiber is weakened by racism as thoroughly as wood is weakened by dry rot. White america has been well-schooled in the dehumanization of Black people . . .

From “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”:

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 or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.

This is one of my favorite essays from the book, one of the most personal to me, because my entire adult life has been about breaking silences and dealing with the fallout. This is the same thing I have learned: that the speaking is necessary, regardless of its effect. Even when I know people will change their opinions of me because of it. Even when I know they’ll intentionally misunderstand me. Because they’re not the ones I’m saying it for—I’m saying it for me.

In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear—fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live . . . For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson—that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, Black or not. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid . . .

It is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth. And it is never without fear—of visibility, of the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps judgment, of pain, of death. But we have lived through all of those already, in silence, except death. And I remind myself all the time now that if I were to have been born mute, or had maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered, and I would still die.

From “Uses of the Erotic”:

This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.

From “Man Child”, so you know how to answer every time someone can’t understand the concept of women-only spaces:

I feel the want and need often for the society of women, exclusively. I recognize that our own spaces are essential for developing and recharging. As a Black woman, I find it necessary to withdraw into all-Black groups at times for exactly the same reasons—differences in stages of development and differences in levels of interaction. Frequently, when speaking with men and white women, I am reminded of how difficult and time-consuming it is to have to reinvent the pencil every time you want to send a message.

I actually did have this conversation with a coworker recently, a young male feminist ally, and I used Lorde’s pencil analogy. Because how can we ever move forward if we have to constantly be looking back, explaining the basics to every new person who joins the group?

From “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich” (in which I am embarrassed to admit that I first learned Adrienne Rich was a white woman. Why have I always specifically thought she was black?):

I knew, as I had always known, that the only way you can head people off from using who you are against you is to be honest and open first, to talk about yourself before they talk about you. It wasn’t even courage. Speaking up was a protective mechanism for myself . . .

One thing has always kept me going—and it’s not really courage or bravery, unless that’s what courage or bravery is made of—is a sense that there are so many ways in which I’m vulnerable and cannot help but be vulnerable, I’m not going to be more vulnerable by putting weapons of silence in my enemies’ hands. Being an open lesbian in the Black community is not easy, although being closeted is even harder.

As she says later, in another essay, “Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me.”

The way you get people to testify against themselves is not to have police tactics and oppressive techniques. What you do is to build it in so people learn to distrust everything in themselves that has not been sanctioned, to reject what is most creative in themselves to begin with, so you don’t even need to stamp it out.

This is the element of oppression I think many of us know most personally, because it’s the most internal. And because of that, I think it might be the cruelest one. When you get people to question themselves—or, even further, to never reach that stage of questioning, because they don’t attempt any exploration beyond what’s “sanctioned”—when you have people judging themselves according to the standards of their own oppressors . . . That is true oppression.

Their conversation about documentation versus perception was so interesting to me, and raised more questions than it answered. There was Adrienne Rich saying, “if I ask for documentation, it’s because I take seriously the spaces between us that difference has created, that racism has created. There are times when I simply cannot assume that I know what you know, unless you show me what you mean.” Which is how I feel too, but then Audre Lorde points out that she’s “used to associating a request for documentation as a questioning of [her] perceptions, an attempt to devalue what [she’s] in the process of discovering,” which is also very much a thing that happens to women and people of color.

From “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”:

Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic . . . Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily 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.

From “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”:

By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a pretense to homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist . . .

Refusing to recognize difference makes it impossible to see the different problems and pitfalls facing us as women. Thus, in a patriarchal power system where whiteskin privilege is a major prop, the entrapments used to neutralize Black women and white women are not the same. For example, it is easy for Black women to be used by the power structure against Black men, not because they are men, but because they are Black . . .

On the other hand, white women face the pitfall of being seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. This possibility does not exist in the same way for women of Color. The tokenism that is sometimes extended to us is not an invitation to join power; our racial “otherness” is a visible reality that makes that quite clear. For white women there is a wider range of pretended choices and rewards for identifying with patriarchal power and its tools. 

I think this is the most critical thing white women don’t pay enough attention to. Lorde discusses it with Adrienne Rich back in their interview together, about the different ways that white women and women of color are approached by patriarchy. For white women it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you make yourself fit, if you marry the guy and have the children and conform yourself to the “ideal” of womanhood, then you’ll be safe. But in patriarchy, none of us are safe. The way patriarchy “shares” power with women is a lie.

From “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”:

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

From “Learning from the 60s”:

If we are to keep the enormity of the forces aligned against us from establishing a false hierarchy of oppression, we must school ourselves to recognize that any attack against Blacks, any attack against women, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the systems we support. Each one of us here is a link in the connection between antipoor legislation, gay shootings, the burning of synagogues, street harassment, attacks against women, and resurgent violence against Black people . . . We are women trying to knit a future in a country where an Equal Rights Amendment was defeated as subversive legislation. We are Lesbians and gay men who, as the most obvious target of the New Right, are threatened with castration, imprisonment, and death in the streets. And we know that our erasure only paves the way for erasure of other people of Color, of the old, of the poor, of all those who do not fit that mythic dehumanizing norm. Can we really still afford to be fighting each other?

We can’t afford it, but we do it anyway. Still.

The most important idea I took from this book is something I would like to literally tattoo on my body, because it’s something I have to remind myself constantly:

To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up. Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it. Militancy no longer means guns at high noon, if it ever did. It means actively working for change, sometimes in the absence of any surety that change is coming.

It’s that word I need to remember—militancy. It’s stuck in my head in the months since I read this book, and I’m thinking about getting it tattooed on my hand so I can always see it. It usually comes with violent connotations, but I don’t think it has to (though it’s also perfectly reasonable for violence to be involved in this context, because the requirement that oppressed peoples throw off their oppression politely is just an absurd continuation of that oppression, not to mention unbearably hypocritical because do you think systematic oppression happens without violence? It does not). And I have to admit, I am extraordinarily susceptible to the passivity of despair. I need that reminder, that it doesn’t matter how impossible it is, we have to do it anyway.

It’s been long enough now that just reading through my own post about the book makes me feel like reading the book again. Audre Lorde is such an important figure in our recent literary history, and the essays and speeches in this book cover pretty much every significant issue we’re still struggling with. I’ll have to pick up some of her poetry next.

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