Originally published in CUNY’s Transformative Learning in the Humanities
I learned of Audre Lorde as a bookish kid in Alaska. I cannot overestimate the difference between her world and mine. I had never been to the East Coast and thought Harlem was pronounced with a definite article before it. She would bristle at my militaristic and Christian fundamentalist upbringing, where a pastor each Sunday unfurled a detailed map of hell (at least the colors were stunning — now I wonder where he found that red glitter to outline the flames of hell. Michaels?). White supremacy was so absolute in my world that my mother’s lineage, Chicana and Black, was subsumed to the point that I was unquestionably and categorically white.
Lucky for me (but unfortunate for the pastor) I was also gay, so a sense of difference followed me from my earliest memories. The poem that opened me to Lorde was “School Note” from The Black Unicorn (1978), which I passed in an anthology at 18. There are certain poems that find you — less acts of discovery than of recognition:
For the embattled
there is no place
that cannot be
The form struck me: this elegant balance within imbalance; the crest of the m in home and the trough of nor. Lorde’s poetry reflects her conviction of what humanity can be; her speeches and essays are also indicative of why Lorde is a great artist: she uses her power to fight the strictures of race, class, religion, gender; she connects with people she seemingly has nothing in common with. “I am a warrior,” Lorde wrote, “and poetry is my weapon.”
In the essay “Man Child” from the 1984 collection Sister Outsider, Lorde reflects on raising a 14-year-old son, Jonathan, who was barred from a feminist conference. Lorde ponders over the many shifting situations that she as a feminist, lesbian, mother, and “warrior poet” must navigate, particularly the use of anger and love. She thinks about the future of her children: “If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive.” It’s in this always-changing landscape that Lorde quotes ‘School Note.’ Here is the final stanza:
My children play with skulls
for the embattled
there is no place
that cannot be
Now as I teach writing at Lehman College, far from my origins of white supremacy, this poem still shocks me. Lorde’s vision was for a radical reality of empowerment, not a glib multiculturalism, but a praise – informed by recognition – of difference. Lorde writes toward the end of “Man Child”: “And Frances and I, as grown women and lesbians coming more and more into our power, need to relearn the experience that difference does not have to be threatening.”
There is so much to discuss in Sister Outsider: from Lorde’s dissection of “horizontal hostility” in “Eye to Eye” to her vision of poetry in “Uses of the Erotic.” This February, my classes have read “Learning from the 60s.” Speaking in February of 1982 on the legacy of Malcolm X, Lorde examines the liberation movements of the 1960s, praising their radical vision while critiquing their limited views of who counted as “us.” Her assessment is passionate but undogmatic, fair but firm, steadfast in an assault on false hierarchies. Near the end she writes:
Can any of us here still afford to believe that efforts to reclaim the future can be private or individual? Can any one here still afford to believe that the pursuit of liberation can be the sole and particular province of any one particular race, or sex, or age, or religion, or sexuality, or class?
Revolution is not a one-time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change in established, outgrown responses; for instance, it is learning to address each other’s difference with respect.
Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn: Poems (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978).
Audre Lorde, “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984).
“School Note by Audre Lorde,” ineedtoreadmorepoetry, accessed February 24, 2021 https://ineedtoreadmorepoetry.tumblr.com/post/178367118949/school-note-by-audre-lorde
Kiersten Willis, “Black History Month Google Doodle honors activist Audre Lorde,” February 18 2021. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. https://www.ajc.com/life/black-history-month-google-doodle-honors-activist-audre-lorde/UVMNG77VORH7JHJEYLPPIWXIU4/