Friday, March 03, 2006


by Max Gordon
Sapience Magazine
March 2006

I mentioned to a new acquaintance that I was writing about Audre Lorde, the great activist poet, for Women’s Month. He told me he hadn’t heard of her. His response spoke to the fact that her contributions still have not been properly acknowledged. (Another friend knew her only as one half of Callen-Lorde, a community health center here in New York.) Of course, if you have heard of Audre, and especially if you are an activist and gay, then you probably consider her written work and speeches to be like “food…air…water…a very necessary sustenance” as the late black gay writer Essex Hemphill once said - something required for survival.

In preparation for this article, I have to admit to some resistance to writing about Audre Lorde. For those who know of her work and legacy, she is considered so vital to a community of activists and writers that I feared I’d write the “wrong thing.” I knew it would be impossible to do an overview of all Audre’s contributions in the space I have here, nor do I feel qualified to offer a formal critique of her work. The approach I was interested in was personal, based on what she means to me, as an artist, as a black gay man. After pulling down the well-worn, lent, re-lent, borrowed, never returned copies of Audre’s books from the shelves, I was also troubled by the fact that I’ve been in an emotionally difficult place this past month, and, frankly, part of me didn’t want to go anywhere near her writing. Audre’s work can be a pain in the ass when you want to avoid yourself, when you want to hide from something. Like an escaped prisoner trying to outrun searchlights, the relentlessness of Audre’s gaze is unmistakable in her work, as are her aggressively compelling ideas, her uncompromising expectations. When it came time to write, I told myself on more than one occasion that I just didn’t “feel like it.” Further examination, however, forced me to acknowledge that part of my ambivalence was that I’ve been trying for a higher level of integrity in my own life lately and I’m very scared right now. So I’ve been indulging in compulsive behavior (the less deadly ones for me, but still numbing out – compulsive spending, movie watching, overeating) and the bottom line was that I didn’t want Audre’s judgment to get in the way of my addictions. At the same time, I needed her help again, and looked forward to re-reading her eventually, knowing that she also dealt with depression in her life and that once I started, I’d find answers in her work, encouragement, and hope.

I had been aware of most of Audre’s public achievements and accolades, among them her nomination for the National Book Award for From a Land Where Other People Live in 1974, the American Book Award for A Burst of Light in 1989, and her achievement as the first African-American and woman poet laureate of the State of New York in 1991. But I learned with fascination more about Audre’s childhood: some details could be found in her biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, but Alexis De Veaux’s Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde provided further insight. Biography is crucial, and specifically, biography written by someone else. When someone has achieved a certain iconic status it is sometimes hard to resist the belief that they emerged on the political scene fully formed, without horror stories, emotional damage or a wrecked past. Encouraged to believe only in the myth, one becomes impatient with one’s own struggles to become. I was relieved to know that Audre Lorde, like most artists I admired, hadn’t always been sure of everything, hadn’t always had all the answers.

Lorde was born in 1934 and grew up in Manhattan, in Harlem, of West Indian parents, her father from Barbados, her mother from Granada. Her parents never considered America home. Lorde was born legally blind, (no one knew until she was three years old), and attended Catholic schools. She was seen by her family as the “bad girl”, and her emotionally distant mother repeatedly beat her to get her to be “good”. In Ada Gay Griffin's and Michelle Parkerson’s film A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, Audre recalls, “Every day the nuns used to send home a note to my mother, by my sisters who were “good”, and they would say, don’t put so many heavy clothes on her, because she doesn’t feel the strap.” Lorde admitted in published interviews that she sometimes stole money from her father and on one occasion sat across a table from him, his loaded revolver between them, as he tried to scare her into making a confession.

She began writing poems in the eight grade. “I started writing because I had a need inside of me to create something that was not there.” Her first published poem was a love sonnet, rejected by the faculty advisor of her school magazine who originally dismissed it because of the content. Lorde sent it off to Seventeen magazine and they bought it. “I made more money from that one poem than I made for the next ten years.” She left her parents’ home, which was the beginning of her coming-out process, although she dated boys and later married a man. While she found a community of women who were also gay, Lorde acknowledges in the film: “We lost a lot of women, to isolation, to alcohol, to suicide.” She describes the invisibility of being a black feminist during the Sixties and the greater invisibility of being a black feminist lesbian. The film and biography chronicle the pivotal points in her life: Lorde’s further politicization during the McCarthy Era, the Rosenberg trial and execution and the Supreme Court desegregation of schools; her interracial marriage to Edward Rollins and the birth of her two children; her published work that became increasingly more lesbian-identified and the pivotal friendships, including her work with writers like Sonya Sanchez and Adrienne Rich; life-changing trips to Africa and Russia; her teaching, public speaking and influence on the publishing world when she started Kitchen Table Press with Barbara Smith; her cancer diagnosis and the unprecedented writing of her experience published as The Cancer Journals, her move to the Caribbean where she lived with her partner and caretaker, Gloria Joseph, and her continued status, after her death, as an icon of resistance.

In the Griffin and Parkerson film, the lesbian poet and writer Sapphire spoke of Lorde’s effect on her own coming-out, what it meant to be gay in the Sixties: “I had nothing to lose…by coming out. I was on the bottom. And then her being ‘out’ on the top was a message to me that this is far more than some empty rebellion. That coming out was how you stay alive. …(W)hen she stood up in front of Black Nationalists…and said, ‘I am a lesbian,’ that blew my mind. And these were back-to-Africa niggers, talking about ‘Let’s kill the lesbians, let’s eliminate the homosexuals’… there was great terror about being different in those days, and for her to stand up…was not just moving the mountain, it was creating a new world for us.”

I met Audre Lorde briefly when I was a student at the University of Michigan, a few years before she died. Those were years of discovery for me and exposure to life-changing personalities: prior to seeing Lorde, my 1st year English seminar teacher told me about a writer and activist named Andrea Dworkin who was going to speak about pornography and the objectification of women. Other than that introduction, I went to the auditorium with no idea who Andrea Dworkin was. There were several rows of us there waiting expectantly at four in the afternoon, when an enormous white woman with unruly black hair, wearing overalls and not a lick of make-up walked onto the stage and blasted us sky high with her outrage. When I hit the stairs after the lecture was over, it was as if someone had pried the top of my head open, and I felt completely raw; even the sunlight outside felt too harsh on my skin. I hadn’t known you could get that angry, at least not in public, and even though I’d been warned that Dworkin was “too much” for some people, I was amazed that she spoke to us with the full thrust of her anger, which was also about trusting us with her pain. I felt embarrassed for her, until it occurred to me that maybe it should be more embarrassing and shameful to keep pretending that everything was fine when it wasn’t, and that even though to some her diatribe was sloppy, overemotional and undignified, at least it was out there for us to deal with instead of being quietly trapped inside her. I was still thinking about her anger when I went to bed that night.

A few years later, the black gay poet Craig Harris arrived for a gay pride celebration. We marched through the streets with Craig, who appeared, to our great surprise, with a close-cut dyed blonde afro, not like the picture on the Tongues Untied anthology his work appeared in. Craig’s white hair contrasted with his smooth brown skin, and he completed the look with candy-apple red boots which sliced through our Ann Arbor streets. He led the march with chants, songs, dancing, and boisterous laughter, like a beautiful black superhero descended from the sky. I followed him, hoping to catch some of the sparks off his New York sassiness, sparks which illuminated our march like red fireworks. In the spirit of camaraderie and brother/sisterhood, several of us were holding hands and Craig took mine. I remember thinking, damn, I’m out, but I’m not that out, and gently took it back. I knew at some point he was going to get on a plane with those red boots and I was going to have to walk those streets again without him. When Craig read his work, hot anger also rose from the indignation in his words. I don’t know if Craig Harris and Andrea Dworkin, black gay male poet and white Jewish feminist lesbian, ever met each other in real life, but they definitely made their acquaintance in my psyche: two gay people who didn’t give a fuck what other people thought about them, and if they did, didn’t let it stop them from expressing the truth.

The year that Audre came, I had only recently learned who she was, and I had no idea of the impact her work would later have on my life. I knew she was a black lesbian poet, and her writing was vital to most of the activists I was getting to know at the time. When Audre reached the podium, a hush descended over the audience. In my recollection, she wore a wrap around her head and a multi-colored gown which looked African to me, and stood tall like a high priestess. She cut through the silence with the words: “I am a black, feminist, lesbian, mother, poet, warrior…” I don’t remember if that was the exact order of her words that night, but what I do remember with clarity is that her voice boomed out, loud and clear, filling the space wall to wall with who she was. It was as if she were saying to us, I’m letting you know right now, up front and before we begin, who is standing in front of you. There isn’t going to be any lying tonight, because we tell so many lies every day; so now you know exactly who I am. Each word was carefully enunciated, and with the care she chose to express herself, one immediately understood that each of those aspects of her identity had come after a journey of pain and self-acceptance: I am a black (memories of Audre’s mother’s internalized racism and the distrust of blacks and anyone with darker skin that she tried to instill in her daughters), lesbian (Audre’s years of heterosexual marriage, her coming-out process in the Village in New York, her female lovers, black and white, the isolation, retribution and homophobia she faced in political circles), poet (the years of writing in isolation without the acknowledgement of “literary reflection”, readings, or a publisher, the rejections, the eventual recognition), warrior (the fight against patriarchy, institutional oppression, and the cancer in her body, which she likened to her fight against racism and sexism), mother (a great source of pride, her children, but also her status in the movement as a wise woman, a truthteller for activists all over the world).

For those of us hiding in our closet, an identity list like that can be as horrifying as holy water tossed on the devil in The Exorcist; the tension may make you want to run from the room. You are forced to confront your own identities, from the surface ones – I am a student, I am middle class, I want to get good grades and make people happy, we are the world, we are the children - to the ones that dig deeper to the core - I am black, I am gay, I am a survivor of childhood trauma, I am an addict. When Audre revealed herself from the start of her reading, the room took on the stillness and potential of a séance. She was calling forth other identities to come forward and join her, and you couldn’t help but think, well damn, if she’s all the things in that long-ass list, who the hell am I?

After the reading, there was a reception for her. As I recall, it was held in one of those awful carpeted classrooms that all colleges have, but somehow Audre’s aura transformed it into something else. Audre was sitting in a chair and there was a line for people to greet her. She wasn’t the usual academic or guest lecturer, and the space around her, the people waiting and wanting benedictions, prayers, advice, or just to sit and cry with her, reminded me of books or movies where the griot or the old woman healer has a line outside her bedroom: people stand and wait, carrying chickens, food, jewelry, whatever they can afford, to find out whom they are going to marry, whether someone is going to die, how to break a curse or keep from getting old and sick. I might not have had the courage to join that line, but at the time, the mother of a friend of mine was a well-known feminist activist and my friend knew Audre, less as an icon and more as a great-aunt. When she approached, Audre’s face warmed and they reached for each other.

I probably had half a minute talking alone with Audre Lorde. I say alone, although there was a chattering, expectant crowd around us, more than a few staring at us, and I’m sure, an assistant or administrator who was concerned about Audre’s being overtired, and wanted to keep the people moving so that she could go somewhere and rest. Audre had that penetrating stare that obliterated all onlookers, and when I sat down in the chair across from her, we were instantly jettisoned into private, dark, free-floating outer space. She took my hands and locked my eyes with hers. She’d known me exactly five seconds and instantly our conversation was deadly serious - the world depended on it. The words she said may have been uttered often that day to others, but it didn’t matter, because Audre said them to me, and the grip she had on my hands was insistent.

“Do your work,” she commanded. “I need you. There are people who will hear the message from you that won’t hear it from me, that I could never reach.”

There was a bit of gossip about Audre that floated within my circle of political friends: someone we knew had worked on a project with her, and Audre, as the story went, had been sharp with this woman over the phone. This amazed us all, of course, because Audre was perfect and never made mistakes. The way the rest of the story went was that after they had finished the conversation, my friend who was devastated to have been criticized harshly by her mentor, the great Audre Lorde, heard her phone ring moments later. It was Audre calling to apologize, and the second conversation ended in laughter. It may be irresponsible to share that story here because I have no way to verify it, but I trust its source, and it is a story that makes me appreciate Audre even more as someone who was always in process, who could be self-critical and reflective. We expect so much from our icons, and it helps me to imagine an Audre that made mistakes and who could pause from “the struggle” to say to another comarade, “I’m sorry.” I can think of a dozen other icons who would never have been able to make that phone call, who wouldn’t have understood how important it was to “our empowerment”, even if the empowerment in question belonged only to the person on the other end of the line.

An interview with Audre appears in the film Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community. It is 1984 and she sits in an outdoor café in Greenwich Village with activist Yvonne Flowers, being interviewed by the author Jewell Gomez. There is sunlight behind Audre. She wears a patterned blue scarf around her neck and she is plump and lovely, gesticulating wildly and clearly enjoying herself and the conversation. Gomez asks her off-screen, “What happened in the parties you went to, black parties? How were they different from going to the bars?” Audre replies, “Oh honey, first of all, they had good food. And you have to remember we are, all of us, strong healthy women… and we liked to eat. That’s for starters. But white women’s parties never had food. They had little potato chips or they had a little dip…Black parties always had food.” Her observations might seem silly to someone who wants only political gravitas from Audre, but I’m thankful for this portrait of her. I’m attracted to this Audre; I can relate to her as an artist who has a sense of humor about herself, who is not yet iconic, not yet seen as the “mother” Gomez describes in A Litany for Survival. On the outtakes of this interview included on the DVD, there is footage of the filmmakers clicking the clapboard in Audre’s face. After the second or third interruption, she draws back and gives the filmmakers an “oh no-you-did-not Miss Thing” look, and finally says in the overemphasized, overarticulated, clipped voice that some writers use to intimidate: “I didn’t realize that that had a function. I must find out what it is.” Audre is sexy here – brassy, vibrant and fun.

I’ve thought about Audre Lorde many times during these years of George W. Bush’s presidency, and I’ve mourned her absence. When I think of the kind of white man Dick Cheney is, when I consider the malevolence towards people of color, gays, and the environment that rules our country, perpetuated by that man and others like him, Audre comes to mind as the artist spiritually powerful enough to take him on. I imagine her and Cheney locked in a room, him without his guns and bombs and his press secretary - having to face those eyes, that integrity. Perhaps the horror that some of us feel these days comes not just from the death of important artists, which happens to every generation, but from the loss of visionaries, whom we can’t spare at the moment. We’ve lost June Jordan, Nina Simone, Shirley Chisholm, Ossie Davis, August Wilson, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Anzuldua and, just this past month, Octavia Butler. I feel the temptation to give into hopelessness. Who’s left? Who’s on the front line? The great are dying and they aren’t being replaced. There is a point, however, when mourning becomes self-indulgent and lazy, when it means you wish someone would come back from death because your want them to do you work for you (I can feel Audre’s impatience); you want to keep relying on their courage without ever having to test your own.

I am grateful for what Audre left us, for her “Uses of the Erotic, The Erotic As Power.” She wrote in 1978: “We have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.” While reading her essay in college didn’t keep me from sexual addiction years later, created, in part, by my own experience with pornography as a teen, her words are a balm and offer a way out, possibilities. I am reassured of the potential for the erotic in my own life, no matter how deadened, corrupted or neglected it has been; because of Audre, I see the erotic as integral, a birthright. Audre gave me a language for understanding that my sexuality had political implications, not only as an identity, but in how I defined pleasure, to see the "personal as...political", and to examine whether that pleasure required my harming another woman or man in order to get off. I am thankful to Audre for her letter to Mary Daly, where she challenges a white sister in struggle to explore her own racist insensitivity; a volatile topic which required great courage on Audre’s part, considering the potential backlash against her by white feminists.

In her speech “I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities” given at Medgar Evers College, Audre spoke to black women about homophobia and sisterhood. In her discussion she defined heterosexism as “a belief in the inherent superiority of one form of loving over all others and thereby the right to dominance” and homophobia as “a terror surrounding feeling of love for members of the same sex and thereby a hatred of those feelings in others.” Audre makes it clear: her love for women does not mean she hates men. She confronts the stereotype that black lesbians are a threat to the black family, and the fear some women have of lesbians. She says, “If someone says you’re Russian and you know you’re not, you don’t collapse into stunned silence. Even if someone calls you a bigamist, or a childbeater and you know you’re not, you don’t crumble into bits. You say it’s not true and keep on printing the posters. But let anyone, particularly a Black man, accuse a straight Black woman of being a Black Lesbian, and right away that sister becomes immobilized, as if that is the most horrible thing she could be…Homophobia and heterosexism mean you allow yourselves to be robbed of the sisterhood and strength of Black Lesbian women because you are afraid of being called a Lesbian yourself.” It was Audre who helped me to see the inseparability of racism, sexism and homophobia, and to understand the phrase that became a survival tool amongst friends, a catchphrase that helped us to understand the futility of our efforts to challenge patriarchy by using patriarchal standards: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

As a society, we study each other all the time. We know exactly how we harm the black, the woman, the homosexual, the artist, the sick and physically challenged. Even when we stand together as a mob against one of our own, as individuals we are always watching, secretly hoping that the persecuted one will resist. We ask, Will he get back up even though we’ve knocked him down yet again? Will she still believe she is divine even after all the names we’ve heaped on her: bitch, nigger, faggot, dyke, poor white trash?

When a black, lesbian, feminist, poet, mother living with cancer stands up in her glory, it is the ultimate liberation. Each of us is represented in her aspect; every race, every sex and sexual orientation. When she is liberated or liberates herself, we are all liberated, because in the hierarchy of societal power she is technically at the “bottom.” When she rises up from being buried alive under an avalanche of childhood sexual and physical abuse, institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and all the attempts that society has manufactured to kill her, render her silent, drive her crazy, or make her physically sick or addicted; if she still remembers everything we’ve done to her and is able to tell and tell it eloquently, then we are all in danger. The jig is up, there are no more excuses for the addictions we’ve held onto to avoid our own fears of death, the people we’ve murdered and our justifications for those murders. Audre pulls our collective “’ho” card, the times we’ve prostituted ourselves, sold our creativity or kept our mouths shut when we witnessed injustice because we thought it would make us safe. We exclaim in exasperation, “But I couldn’t be free, do you know how much money they offered me? Do you know what they do to people in this world who tell the truth, to blacks, women, lesbians, artists, the poor, immigrants, the sick?” If you are looking in Audre’s eyes and facing that piercing glance, whoever the hell you are, the answer that she can give you, is, “Yes, actually, I do.”

For the black heterosexual activist who still has “problems” with black gay women, for the white gay man who refuses to explore his racism and objectification of black and Latino gay men, for the white feminist who can’t “hear” a black man’s anger, for the heterosexual black man who is overwhelmed by racism but who still sexually objectifies women with his addiction to pornography, for the white heterosexual man who leads a country into war for profit, all roads lead back to Audre.

Audre says in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, having faced her cancer diagnosis: “Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words…I was going to die, if not sooner than later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

Audre Lorde died in 1992; her memorial service held at St. John the Divine in New York City brought close to 5,000 mourners. Barbara Smith, co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, said of Audre in an obituary, “Audre was one of the most gifted writers of our generation, not just in this country, but in the world. Since childhood she’d worked to hone her craft to a point of absolute precision, to create a uniquely beautiful and always identifiable voice…Audrey’s writing, for all the honors it received, never got the full recognition it deserved.” I think one day we as a society will catch up with Audre. Even if we aren’t always looking for her now, the influence of her work, her truth, can be found everywhere, even in pop culture and her contemporary poet daughters, in the confrontational sermonizing of Lauryn Hill’s solo work, the resistance to traditional definitions of beauty and the self-love of India Arie, the playful eroticism and anti-pornographic representations of black women by Jill Scott, the social justice and egalitarianism of Tracy Chapman. Audre remains a constant reminder of what happens when we push past our own private isolation and grief, the possibilities that open when we crave a greater integrity than is expected from us, when we stand up and embrace, claim and love “all of it”, even what they call the ugly parts - the cancers, the failures, the heartbreaks.

A good friend of mine and I know that if we even say the name Audre Lorde, a sort of spiritual realignment of priorities takes place and we begin to remember what’s important, what the ultimate price is for staying silent and for choosing not to be courageous. Perhaps this is all too much pressure to put on anyone’s memory, too many expectations, using Audre’s legacy to shame each other politically, but in the end I am thankful for her authority, the absoluteness of her message. It not an overstatement, although it may be a cliché, to say that Audre’s work is the kind that saves lives. As she wrote in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?” I always hear Audre’s voice in the last lines of her classic poem, "Litany for Survival": “…and when we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed. But when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak, remembering, we were never meant to survive.”

Writing a short piece like this about another writer’s entire life and work and thinking you can capture their essence is about as specious as believing that eleven months of oppression and insensitivity through out a year can be reconciled with a “Black History” or “Women’s” month. So perhaps it is much simpler to end this tribute to Audre with simple words of gratitude. For having the courage to come out of all your closets (we have so many!), for standing up and saying your name without negotiating a price first, for remembering your dignity even when the world had forgotten theirs and their courtesy to you: Audre, thank you.

is the total black, being spoken
from the earth’s inside.
There are many kinds of open
how a diamond comes into a knot of flame
how a sound comes into a word, coloured
by who pays what for speaking.”

From the poem Coal, originally published in The First Cities (1968) from The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, New York, Norton, 1997.

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© 2006 Max Gordon
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