Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches (Lorde)

An eye-opening collection. More than once, I found myself pausing in appreciation at Lorde’s insights and wishing that I had encountered her work sooner. If this collection can be said to have a thesis, this might be it –

You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongisde each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness.

Although I don’t think Lorde ever uses the word ‘diversity’ (after a while, I was looking for it – I suspect her work pre-dates its popularity), isn’t the above quotation the best explanation as to why we need, indeed must have, differences around the table? Here, she has turned a common belief – that differences are the cause of problems (race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.) – and instead, points out that they should be a source of strength, “a springboard for creative change.” The problem, she points out, is that “we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.” Instead, those who are oppressed, in turn, oppress others. At the bottom of this capitalistic / dragon-based hierarchy are black women, and particularly black lesbians. This is, in part, because we so woefully and willfully misunderstand the notion of the erotic. (The essay, “The Uses of the Erotic,” is worth the whole price of admission here.)

I have repeatedly been told that my anger has no uses. Indeed, I have seen how it has been a big obstacle in my life. Lorde, though, sees the need for it. “If I speak to you in anger,” she writes, “at least I have spoken to you.” Absolutely right.

I also appreciated her view of history. I’ve never had a lot of enthusiasm for the cliche that says we study history in order to learn from our mistakes. I prefer Lorde’s take: “We do not have to romanticize our past in order to be aware of how it seeds our present.”

Lorde stresses the need for us each to do our own work. In what way(s) are we contributing to the oppression of others? What have we internalized?

I only found one place to quibble with Lorde. She is right in several places, but I refer here to the essay, “Age, Race, Class and Sex,” to point out the absence of the work of black women in college courses. She says its absence is due to (among other reasons) the reluctance of whites to teach such texts. The result, she argues, is a kind of historical amnesia. We keep repeataing the same patterns, the same mistakes. What she, for all of her pointed criticisms about capitalism, doesn’t point out is that college itself is a privilege. And while I do not have any troubles teaching the works (her list) of the likes of Shakespeare, Moliere, Dostoyefsky and Aristophanes, it is not only because I was trained on works like these, it is also because if I get them wrong, there are few who would object. I am preparing to teach Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I do wonder whether I, as a white male, can teach it. Are there aspects that I can’t access? And if I can teach it, should I? And then there’s the issue of balance. I can only work with so many books each year. Is it tokenism to teach just one by a female of color? Am I asking Hurston to speak for black female authors? And I wonder if Lorde would still argue for distinctly named Women’s Studies programs.

An amazing collection. I wish I’d read it sooner. I will read it again. And I need to find her poetry.



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