On the Life and Work of Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde standing in front of board reading "Women are powerful and dangerous." Source: The Guardian.
Audre Lorde. Photo: Wikimedia.

The spectacle of a dying U.S. empire reached one of its most grotesque moments with the theatrics of a violent insurrectionist coup enacted by a lynch mob of disillusioned Trump supporters unwilling or perhaps unable to accept defeat in the most recent presidential election. Hannah Arendt, so obviously beleaguered by an inscrutable, periodic racial analysis, as elaborated by Kathryn Sophia Bell’s superb study, nevertheless understood how “the sheer vulgarity of race concepts” could be crystalized and harnessed to incite mob violence on behalf of the state. Arendt, Bell argues, fails to draw a connection between the violent biological race-thinking fomenting a naturalized hierarchical order of the precolonial nation-state and institutionalization of an anti-Black slavery and indigenous extermination schema. The epistemological error leads her to neglect the development of colonial racism for an understanding of racialized imperialism as a “‘preparatory stage for the coming catastrophes’ of totalitarianism.”

But even with this serious oversight and idealization of America’s revolutionary democracy, Arendt acknowledges the blaring paradox of an “American Republic that dared to realize equality on the basis of the most unequal population in the world, physically and historically…the Negroes.” The promise of equality through representative democracy is guaranteed by a constitution enshrining Black racial inferiority as it protects a legal standard based on white personage (a proxy for humanity), requiring the maintenance of white supremacy and Black alienation. Here, in Arendt’s debilitated formulation of racial inequality, whiteness as a negative relation to the most politically alienated (the Blacks), the watermark of citizenship emerges. But this anti-Black racism is actually social and political erasure. A biopsychosocial phenomenon Frantz Fanon diagnoses with sociohistorical causes classified as sociogenic. To peer into the depth of this abyss has been the work of Afropessimism, as delineated by Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson, Jared Sexton and others building on Black feminist works by thinkers such as Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Christian, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde to make sense of a senseless/nonsensical permanent negation.

Without dealing with this fundamental exclusion of Black existence in the U.S., which W.E.B Du Bois makes central to his sociohistorical analysis of the facile, ineffective voting legislation reinforced by Ku Klux Klan violence and the 1876 election of corporate backed President Rutherford B. Hayes leading to the eventual undoing of Black Reconstruction, Black voter disenfranchisement remains vulnerable to fear mongering in brokerings by the state, to quell or incite potential mob violence in whatever shape or form is politically advantageous. In large measure, it is the fear of an officialized state sponsored white supremacy that drives overwhelming numbers of Black people to vote against another term of President Trump and achieve an historic win for a Joe Biden/Kamala Harris ticket, and two key U.S. Senate races in Georgia.

Considering Joe Biden’s history as one of the primary architects of a prison industrial complex founded on racist, neoliberal tenets of government and policing—which targeted generations of Black and Brown communities and destroyed millions of lives— it is unlikely that his presidency will be an antidote to a democracy in peril. As a career politician, most recently serving as Vice President to President Barack Obama, Biden was once a strong opponent to desegregation busing and has consistently benefited from Wall Street and Silicon Valley backing, helping shepherd in what is now a thoroughly militarized surveillance capitalist police state buttressed by a gig economy

In the “Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House,” Audre Lorde asks, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” Lorde’s critique of hierarchies within what is then a predominantly white, middle-class, heteronormative, able-bodied second-wave feminism invites reevaluation of the chalk circles of individual identity that fix structural inequality and prevent viable liberation from taking shape. An existentialism disconnected from dynamic modes of praxis grounded in “the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences” fortifies oppression. Lorde’s credo, calling for power relations in struggle with dialectical difference (tension unfolding between “necessary polarities”), to enable a chaos in thinking that is future oriented and unburdened by masterly technologies, wants to liberate the creative powers Joy James refers to as the “captive maternal.” James’ captive maternal, those cis and trans who are “feminized into caretaking and consumption” in the genocidal “Black matrix” that provides sustenance for the Womb of U.S. empire, are the unacceptable, nonnormative women and racialized working-class queers Lorde implores to find “common cause” in being “reviled,” outsiders of status quo ideology and tolerance. “[T]he [B]lack mother Lorde imagines as grounding psychic alterity demands an altogether different genealogy of the human, of myth, of fantasy, of psychic life, and psychic possibility,” writes Keguro Macharia, remarking on a Black queer potential beyond Freudian psychoanalysis and Fanonian antipsychiatry.

Pointing to how Western/Womb theorists such as Arendt and Foucault “present blackness without [B]lacks,” James argues that predation of Black life and vitality is also theft and subsumption of time and trauma reordered in the “disarray” of racial capitalism. So, that the Hillary Clinton campaign is able “to incorporate the grief of [B]lack women who lost children or siblings through police violence into her presidential campaign;” or Trump’s campaign (I would add) is able to exploit the electoral college—a racist constitutional mechanism designed to maintain white supremacy, domination, and rape of the captive Black maternal as a reproductive machine of the Western Womb—reinforcing future Black self-destruction through disenfranchisement, dispossession, and carcerality perpetuated by the genocidal Black matrix. As a tool of representative democracy, the vote has been perfected by Black adaptability to white accommodationism. 

Despite several reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, neoconservative Republican opponents claim racial gerrymandering and have been actively working to weaken and undo the protective anti-discrimination legislation. In the grips of a deadly coronavirus pandemic and a nearly twenty yearlong proxy war, voting gets swept up in the symbolic reservoir of authoritarian populism. The ultraright Republican, Christian fascist wing directing a white capitalist aristocracy class is determined to hold onto power by any means necessary. With the world’s highest reported death toll, massive unemployment and homelessness, entire deindustrialized communities already having been dispossessed and decimated by drug-addiction and school to prison pipelines, and with virtually no assistance from government—many of the predominantly white vigilantes attacking the capital buildings during the joint session of Congress to tally electoral college votes were despondent and desperate actors reacting to what they felt was a political war maneuver

All of these developments underscore the significance and continued relevance of Audre Lorde’s work. In the documentary film A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde (1995), we see Lorde giving an acceptance speech at a ceremony where she is honored as poet laureate of the state of New York (1991-93), appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo. Lorde reflects on the corporatization of the first Gulf War which Jean Baudrillard convincingly argued “did not take place.” She asks: “What does it mean to be a poet in a country where more money per minute is spent on armaments, when we are supposed to be at peace, than is spent to feed the starving children…When the price of one stealth bomber, already outmoded, is more than the entire federal appropriation for all the arts in this country? What does it mean that a Black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, poet, mother is named the state poet of New York?”

She answers: “It means that we live in a world full of the most intense contradictions. And we must find ways to use the best we have—ourselves, our work—to bridge those contradictions; to learn the lessons that those contradictions teach. And that is the work of the poet within each one of us: to envision what has not yet been and to work with every fiber of who we are to make the reality pursuit of those visions irresistible.”

Rather than political disillusionment, Lorde’s reconciliation of the polis with the poet offers an affective praxis: a power in feeling that exceeds the neoliberal crises of recognition, speech, and representative democracy and disrupts the song and algorithm of empire.

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Keelyn Bradley

Keelyn Bradley is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy, Art and Critical Thought Division at The European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland. He is currently writing his dissertation, “Suffering Neoliberalism: Searching for the Meaning of ‘the right to equal protection’ in an Era of HIV/AIDS and Terrorism.” This study intends to research Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt’s theories of violence and embodiment, and their dual relation to Karl Jaspers’ existentialism while addressing the social and historical developments between the aesthetic dimensions of disease, disability, race, and heteronormativity. His first collection of poetry, 'hunger,' is forthcoming. Follow him on Twitter @koal2k.

Comments on “On the Life and Work of Audre Lorde

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    how do these sorts of experimental practices (shades of Glaude’s Blues pragmatism?) scale up to the kinds of collective efforts that can make a difference to how we live beyond ornamentation/entertainment or are they largely momentary beautiful experiments in personal experience, the pleasures akin to enjoying a novel or losing oneself in dance?

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      The short of it is that if you are asking about the relation between Lorde’s affective praxis and Glaude’s recuperation of Dewey’s democratic formula for an ethical ideal of citizenship–critical intelligence guided by social problems—I would say there is a lot that can be engaged here. But there is nothing ornamental about what Lorde is discussing as the affective or erotic praxis. And I don’t think she would consider the “beautiful experiments” that you refer to as ornamental either.

      Within the context of the humanist tradition—whether we are talking about Dewey and Du Bois’ scientific inquiry toward ethical social ends (sympathy); King’s love ethic (agape) that overcomes human suffering; or de Beauvoir’s decentering of phallogocentrism through sexual difference (embodied desire)–-there is an engagement with those fundamental provocations animating western philosophical thought. As a poet, Lorde’s work, especially in her middle to latter period (in keeping with a lineage of Black feminist thought throughout the African Diaspora, exemplified by figures like Anna Julia Cooper, and having some affiliation to those poststructural feminists like Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva), attempts to undo the superficial splitting of difference that while not originating with capitalism (according to Nietzsche we can look to Christianity’s exploitation of the Platonic/Aristotelian split for that) is a symptom of the reproductive effect/affect of commercialism and capital accumulation: mind/body; thought/speech; science/art; philosophy/rhetoric. Lorde’s affective praxis, guided by the power of eros, looks to reclaim a Black matrilineal tradition outside of western patriarchal thought.

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