Audre Lorde and I were once mortal enemies.
At least that’s the way it seemed. In late 2004, I wrote an essay called “We Real Cool?: On Hip-Hop, Asian-Americans, Black Folks, and Appropriation.” The essay was a response to an event I attended that I found incredibly offensive—a panel discussion about how Asian American hip-hop artists were “changing the face” of the music and culture. And in a way, that essay, was really my coming out to critique the ways in which “people of color” as a political frame had come to obscure the differences between nonwhite racial groups, which usually included a great deal of hostility toward politics that foregrounded anti-Black racism as a central focus of the racial antagonism in the context of white supremacy. The “people of color” political frame obscured the fact that other non-Black people of color, including those in left political formations, could in fact perpetuate anti-Black racism even in their political projects that centered expressions of white supremacy as their main oppositional target.
I did a lot of writing and speaking for several years on this issue, and it wasn’t easy. All of this pre-dated Black Lives Matter. And while the idea that differing power relations exist in and among nonwhite people and the need for all fights against forms of oppression needed to have an analysis of anti-Black racism has now become a pretty common understanding among activists, scholars and writers on the Left, I was dragged to hell for making such a claim. And that hostility sometimes came from some Black academics and activists, as well as non-Black folks. Now, there are also more Black queer and trans people who are visible as leadership in a number of progressive/radical organizations, but in the mid-2000s, people were often surprised to find out that I was also queer—it was as if I was expected to relegate my work and political concerns to HIV or “LGBT” issue or whatever.
And the irony of it all, was that one of the most common responses to my critiques came in the form of weaponizing the words of Audre Lorde against me. In nearly every debate, informal conversation, blog comment or unsolicited remark for many years after the piece was published, I was met with some form of an Audre Lorde quote, used in an attempt to silence or at least “check” me on my thinking and position.
“Well, as Audre Lorde stated, ‘there’s no hierarchy of oppression.’” Several people offered. Or better yet, I was often chided with, “As sister Audre Lorde once said, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’”
And for a while, I was annoyed as hell with Audre Lorde. Her words, to me, were off-base. While I initially was taken aback by these responses, eventually I started responding with “Well I’m allowed to disagree with Audre Lorde!”
And after enduring several years of that, I was beginning to really resent any mention of Lorde or her work. It took a while for me to be able to separate what Lorde was saying in these quotes from the people and their intentions on using her words as weapons against me. I had to go back and read her work, and even watching the documentary Litany for Survival to actually look at the context in which she delivered these words.
I now know that Lorde wasn’t exactly talking about flattening out of differences. First, when I re-read the entire essay “There’s No Hierarchy of Oppression,” it’s clear that she is not stating that differences don’t matter. In fact she’s arguing that as a Black lesbian woman, she has to consider these identities in what systems are impacting her life, and uses those identity for forge a resistance strategy to fight oppression—not subsume any one of them for the sake of getting along. And it was written for a bulletin on “Homophobia and Education” for the Council on Interracial Books for Children in a bulletin on in 1983. At the end of the piece, she mentions the Family Protection Act (of 1981) which may have been the reason for the piece in the first place. This piece of legislation proposed cutting funding to school districts that didn’t allow for prayer in schools, and that taught homosexuality a normal and not aberrant, among other things. Lorde is using this piece to speak to the ways in which the state regulation of sexuality impacts not only gays and lesbians but all Black women (and therefore the entire community).
Similarly in the “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” Lorde’s words are from a speech given to a conference of New York University Institute for the Humanities, and she was responding to the lack of consideration for the lives of lesbians, particularly Black lesbians in the scope of the conference presentations and speakers. In it, she is rejecting the flattening out of differences among women, or assumptions that everyone experiences the category of “woman” the same way, stating “As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”
And in a way, I still part ways with Lorde somewhat with these two over-quoted statements. I agree that all oppression is wrong, immoral and unethical, and produces unnecessary suffering and violence in the world. However, I think that racial hierarchies were created as a part of the project of white supremacy, using the nascent science and social science disciplines to further entrench the project of racial capitalism. And that project, also transfers racial understandings onto all other categories, including gender, class, sexual orientation, disability, etc. And because of that, I learned quickly to respond to people who would throw these Lorde quotes at me with, “Don’t blame Black people for being subject to the violence of the hierarchy that nearly always puts us at the bottom when we didn’t create that hierarchy!”
Also, it’s important to always think on the larger context through which any of us form political ideas. Much of Lorde’s writing and activism was shaped by the specific time and circumstances in which she was living. She’s working at a time when some prominent Black Power activists were declaring that feminism was against the principles of Black freedom, and lesbians and gays were anathema to Black progress and should be exterminated. Similarly, she was up against a feminist movement that wanted to silence the voices of Black and other women of color who wanted to also talk about racism and colonialism, Black feminists who were homophobic, and a gay liberation movement that was also just as racist and sexist. So it’s easy to see how it was urgent for her to assert her right to be free as a “Black lesbian feminist warrior poet mother” as she often described herself. So knowing not only the quotes, but where and how they were presented in the larger work, and the life experience of Lorde and the time in which she was made theses statements, is critical.
But I began to understand that some people quoting her may or may not have read her work closely. Whether they had or had not, the quote was used to tell me to politely shut the fuck up. I was not supposed to question the coalition politics of “people of color” that had come to be taken for granted as a given. But Lorde herself, it doesn’t seem took that coalition for granted. In the documentary Litany for Survival, when Lorde is discussing the founding of Kitchen Table Press (which she did with Black lesbian writer and activist Barbara Smith), she talks about the work it took to form the kind of press that could meet the needs of women of color, and it doesn’t sound like it was something that happened without conflict, disagreement, before coming to some realizations about why they were creating this coalition of women across differences.
“It’s not an easy thing for example, for a group of women of color who are not all Black, to begin to come together and find out what are the pressures that are keeping us apart,” Lorde says in Litany for Survival. “What is it that is stopping us working with each other? And these issues have had to be dealt with before.”
This suggests that the coming together of nonwhite women that lead to the establishment of Kitchen Table Press was not because they were trying to collapse all differences into a single, unassailable category, but it was done out of a felt need for solidarity, as many leftist movements after the 1960s were working to establish—across communities and across national borders, to overthrow the vestiges of slavery, indigenous genocide, militarism, and colonialism.
In fact, in one of Kitchen Table’s first publications was Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, which in and of itself demonstrates Lorde’s and the other publishers with Kitchen Table’s ability to think about both solidarity across women of color but also the need for work to address the specific needs of Black women. But in that book, civil rights activist and Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, writes in her essay “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” that “Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for a home!…It is very important not to confuse them—home and coalition.”
I think that this idea of coalition as a site of struggle was lost by the early 2000s. It was as though the language for “people of color” had become accepted and established in activist and organizing spaces. Whenever I spoke to specific issues facing Black people in those years, I was met with someone quoting Audre Lorde at me that it was not the time to bring Black people up. But if the discussion was about, for instance, xenophobia as expressed in anti-Latino/immigrant, anti-Arab or anti-Muslim politics of the Right, dealing with specifics of those groups was perfectly acceptable.
So for a few years I was really annoyed with Audre Lorde, because I felt like this Black feminist’s work that I had loved and was a big part of my political awakening, was being used to silence me—which is something she herself was always fighting against! But I had to return to her work for myself to see if in fact we actually disagreed, or if her work was being given short shrift to win rhetorical victories. I tend to think the latter, but it also became an important lesson for me: it is perfectly fine to admire popular political figures, but also disagree with them!
So as we remember Lorde this year, on what would have been her 87th Birthday, it is important to remember her in full. As a person we may admire, but we should also study enough to find out where we might disagree. And certainly we should not, with Lorde or anyone else, use their words as a way to shut down debate, principled struggle, or ethical conflict. Alexis De Veaux’s wonderful biography of Lorde, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, is an incredible example of how to love and admire someone while also critiquing aspects of their life.
Lorde herself left us with a clear and simple three-word directive of what she wanted us to do with her life and work.
“Don’t mythologize me,” she said.