Revisiting Audre Lorde: Picking Up and Putting Down the Master’s Tools

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“I am Black and Lesbian, and what you hear in my voice is fury, not suffering.”

A little book of Audre Lorde’s writing was recently published by Penguin. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House is a tiny, mint-green covered sampler of Lorde’s essays, the majority of which were delivered as speeches in North America during the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The collection was released as part of the Penguin Modern series, curated to “introduce readers to a diverse range of twentieth-century writers who broke the rules, created new means of expression, and made their voices heard against the odds.”

The series contains work from an eclectic range of thinkers, including iconic writers such as Kathy Acker and Martin Luther King, and Lorde is at home among them. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see Lorde’s work distributed alongside that of her peers – acknowledged as relevant by a mainstream publishing house.

During her lifetime Lorde’s work went largely unrecognized, though her words have changed countless women’s lives. She was too Black, too female, too lesbian, and – most importantly – too bold in her thinking to be considered as part of any canon. Lorde has long been celebrated for her contributions to feminist thought, her books passed from woman to woman, taught in women’s studies courses, and held as an essential part of most feminist reading lists worth their salt – and yet, beyond the movement, Lorde’s cultural and political significance has rarely been credited until recent years. And so it is encouraging to see a bite-sized selection of her essays making their way into people’s hands, hearts, and heads.

For those familiar with Lorde’s work, this book is an opportunity to engage with it from a fresh angle. For those yet to read Lorde’s work, it contains revelations. Splashed across the first page, in striking upper-case, is the declaration: “I am Black and Lesbian, and what you hear in my voice is fury, not suffering.” Black lesbian righteous anger writ bold is rather stunning to behold, and an accurate indication of what is to come. This curation of essays doesn’t shy away from Lorde’s perspective as a fearlessly radical feminist thinker.

In Poetry is Not a Luxury, the connection between personal and political – and Lorde’s dynamic way of exploring that relationship – is brought to the foreground. She writes about the transformative power of radical honesty, the extent of what can be achieved when we open ourselves to ideas that we find fundamentally challenging. Uses of the Erotic further connects the personal and political, criticising the dominant values that encourage people to compartmentalize and keep separate the politics of our lives:

“For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.”

The Master’s Tools, perhaps the most widely-quoted of Lorde’s essays, highlights the importance of community and coalition in collective struggle. Lorde warns against replicating the standards set by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, arguing that they are inherently unsuited to bringing anybody freedom. She delivers a poignant reflection on what it means to live as an outsider:

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand along, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.”

In Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, Lorde writes of the racism that debilitates feminism by oppressing women of color in a movement that is meant to bring about our freedom. Though powerful to read, it’s a pity this remains such an evergreen piece of writing. Lorde’s observations about race and the feminist movement are as relevant today as they were some four decades ago. The onslaught of anti-Blackness from white women who feel discomfort when discussing race, who take that discomfort out on Black women in particular, is an ongoing problem.

Learning from the 1960s is one of Lorde’s lesser-known essays, and it deserves a new readership. She considers the significance of Malcolm X and the lessons within his legacy, such as how Black people can actively resist our own dehumanization. Lorde writes from experience about how Black lesbian women and Black gay men are not always accepted as part of the Black community, even when we work to free our brothers and sisters from the crushing weight of white supremacy, and points out the futility of fighting where we should be finding common cause.

Poet Audre Lorde, 1983. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

Though it deals with weighty themes, the book ends on a hopeful note – on what is possible, and how we can get there. The recent resurgence of Lorde’s writing, which carries a new layer of resonance in this political climate, is cause to be optimistic. For a mere £1 (roughly $1.40), readers around the world can access the revolutionary potential of Lorde’s words. And that’s an exciting thought.

During my days as a student, when I was curious about the world of ideas but too broke to do much exploring, small Penguin volumes like this enabled me to work out what I found pleasure in reading. More importantly, those books taught me that there could be joy in learning in directions beyond or contrary to the confines of pale, male, and often stale required reading lists. In such a way I discovered the writing of pioneering women like Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter. I am glad to think this little book will feed hungry minds, bringing them unexpected nourishment through Black feminism, liberation politics, and lesbian ways of being.

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