Whenever my mind is heavy with questions and my heart thirsts for nourishment, I turn to the writing of Audre Lorde. She is my Black lesbian feminist foremother and, more than that, one of the most brilliant political thinkers of the last century. With each reading of her words comes new perspective – it becomes possible to approach a problem or snag in feminist theory from a new angle.
Every time I revisit the words of Audre Lorde, I marvel over how relevant they continue to be. Lorde died the year I was born, in 1992, yet her ideas inform both my own feminism and way of being. And I am not alone in finding resonance in her words, far from it – as testament to the quality of Lorde’s essays, the quality of the theory underpinning them, new collections of her work have just been published on both sides of the Atlantic. In London, Silver Moon Press have compiled a new anthology, Your Silence Will Not Protect You. Across the pond, Ixia Press have reprinted A Burst of Light. My own copy arrived on my birthday, an auspicious beginning to a new year of life. Charmed by the portrait of Lorde adorning the cover, I settled into the book immediately.
So many of the issues Lorde grappled with continue, or have crept back into being, making her critiques of dominance and exploitation as necessary as they were thirty years ago, when A Burst of Light was first published. Liberal and radical feminists continue to dispute how sexual practice should be conceptualised in our analysis of patriarchy – whether it is purely a private matter or connected with wider questions of power. For Lorde, the answer was clear: “I do not believe that sexuality is separate from living. As a minority woman, I know dominance and subordination are not bedroom issues. In the same way that rape is not about sex, s/m [sadomasochism] is not about sex but about how we use power.”
It’s a curious thing – Audre Lorde’s work is often elevated by queer and liberal activists as a mythic gold standard of feminism, yet she was consistently lesbian and radical in her perspective. I cannot help but wonder: would Lorde still be such a feminist fave if she had lived? Feeling the truth of her words in my bones, I really hope so. Her writing and activism both deserve renown, having benefitted so many women.
But part of me suspects that if Lorde were alive, 84 years old and voicing her beliefs, appreciation of her feminism wouldn’t be so straightforward. My suspicion is that many of the queer and liberal feminists who currently enthuse about Lorde would write her off as another sexless, sex-negative elderly lesbian for vocally condemning sexual politics that fetishize dominance.
I also wonder what Audre Lorde would have made of queer politics. These days, no listicle of inspiring queer feminists is complete without her name. To the best of my knowledge, Lorde never identified herself as queer. In fact, her pride in articulating the word lesbian, the passion with which she explored what it means to be lesbian, kindled my own. There is something disconcerting about seeing any celebration of Lorde’s sexuality that neglects to name that sexuality: lesbian.
While Lorde’s writing is from a different context, before queer went mainstream, there’s a lot of insight in what she has to say about connections and distances that exist between gay men and lesbian women, connections and distances that exist between lesbian women of colour and our white counterparts.
In her essay I Am Your Sister, Lorde shares a fundamental truth about solidarity in feminist organising: “We have many different faces, and we do not have to become each other in order to work together.” I find a lot of hope in the way Lorde theorises about solidarity within social movements. While she explores themes of racism, homophobia, classism, and misogyny – in particular how these hierarchies are used to undermine organised resistance to white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy – Lorde provides a blueprint for feminist organising in which true solidarity is possible.
It wasn’t until reading Audre Lorde that I called myself a lesbian feminist – beforehand, I thought of myself simply as a feminist who happened to be lesbian. The vision of lesbian separatism presented by white women does not appeal, as the necessity of white women unpicking their racism is rarely mentioned as more than a passing detail. Both personally and politically, I value the connections I share with men of colour – especially gay men of colour. Just as I value my connections with white lesbians and straight women of colour.
All of those relationships are complicated, yet is not only possible but fulfilling to pursue them. In her reflections upon lesbian parenting, Lorde writes that “… if there is any lesson we must teach our children, it is that difference is a creative force for change, that survival and struggle for the future is not a theoretical issue. It is in the very texture of our lives.” That connectivity is vital to solidarity, and solidarity is vital to liberation politics. As Angela Davis said, “walls turned sideways are bridges.”
Despite the time that has passed since Lorde first published A Burst of Light, a number of the issues she writes about are familiar. Though American feminists tend to develop Americentric perspectives, Lorde travelled widely and spent a good amount of time in Europe, so perhaps this is why. As Lorde recounted the racism of white women behind organising the First International Feminist Bookfair that took place in London, surprise was not among the emotions I felt. Only a sense of sadness that so little had changed since 1984 – that Black women are still routinely treated like a box-ticking exercise, that our representation within feminist organising is often a peripheral goal for white women.
Lorde also addresses the issue of political blackness, which is currently topical within Black British activist circles. Whilst acknowledging the uses of political blackness in fostering solidarity between people of colour, Lorde is critical of how cultural identities are erased by this approach:
“I see certain pitfalls in defining Black as a political position. It takes the cultural identity of a widespread but definite group and makes it a generic identity for many culturally diverse peoples, all on the basis of a shared oppression. This runs the risk of providing a convenient blanket of apparent similarity under which our actual and unaccepted differences can be distorted or misused. This blanket would diminish our chances of forming genuine working coalitions built upon the recognition and creative use of acknowledged differences…”
The linguistic solution Lorde offers to political blackness is for ethnically Black people to give up the term Black and instead use “some other designation of the African diaspora” – a challenging suggestion. Ultimately I don’t think retiring the term Black is a workable scenario, both because of its significance and because destabilizing self-definition undermines Black liberation.
There is an admirably dynamic quality to Lorde’s thinking. There is also a startling vulnerability to Lorde’s writing. Her musings on mortality, her vitality even when reflecting upon a terminal cancer diagnosis, are deeply moving. Lorde’s words about life and death are painfully human – the faith Lorde invested in homeopathy, her scepticism towards conventional medicine are at times very frustrating. In her journals we glimpse denial and desperation before a kind of acceptance sinks in. This is radical honesty. Lorde breaks the silences that grow around fear and illness, shatters the taboos society places around Black women’s experiences.
She concludes by writing that “if one Black woman I do not know gains hope and strength from my story, then it has been worth the difficulty of telling.” I have gained both, and imagine that countless other Black women will too. In A Burst of Light, Audre Lorde has achieved the closest thing to immortality: sustaining the life force of others, even after her own has faded.
A Burst of Light: and Other Essays was released in September by Ixia Press with a new foreword by Sonia Sanchez. The hardcover book is available on Amazon and other retailers.