Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (1984)

Audre Lorde was a poet, academic, speaker, feminist activist, sister and mother of two, who grew up in 1930’s Harlem. She wrote 12 books and tragically passed away at the age of 58 from cancer in 1992.

I’ve had her collection of essays Sister Outsider on my list of books I wanted to read for a few years, I came across it after reading an article or blog post that put it at or near the top of books one should read if interested in feminism, gender, equality. They are the kind of books that those who studied the humanities and perhaps took women and/or gender studies will have had an awareness of and the rest have to dig a little to find out about. All that is made easier today as we are able to follow readers, writers who share articles, lists, books of interest via twitter or online reading groups etc.

And while some of Lorde’s experience will be unique to her and those who relate to her experience as a black lesbian poet and academic in America, it is both the differences and the universality of her message that interests me, her lucid prose carries the telltale markings of a poet set free from that form, of a woman with an elevated consciousness whose reflections teach us something, break through common misconceptions. She invites us to listen and learn.

The collection both begins and ends with essays that focus on her travelling outside the US, a literal perception of her as an outsider, however the main body of work centers around issues within her country of birth, where that feeling of ‘outsider’, arrives because of the way we relate to others, or how they relate to our race, identity, gender, sexual orientation, class.

TRIP TO RUSSIA

I loved this opening essay, what an amazing opportunity to travel to Moscow for a conference, an experience that affected her so deeply, she dreamed about it every night for weeks after her return. We read this and sense how little we really know about life in a country where most of what we see, read and hear is a form of propaganda our respective country’s wish us to believe, not the lives of ordinary people going to work, or the little things that might impress us, different from our own normal.

Her first observation begins with the woman in the seat in front of her on the plane, travelling alone. She assists her, noticing she wears three medals.

“Hero of the Republic medals, I learned later. Earned for hard work.

This is something I noticed all over: the very old people in Russia have a stamp upon them that I hope I can learn and never lose, a matter-of-fact resilience and sense of their place upon the earth that is very sturdy and reassuring.”

She doesn’t say much about the conference, it is the everyday differences ad similarities she is interested in and notices. One evening before dinner she walks outside and enters a Metro station just to watch the faces of people coming in and out. The strangest thing she notices was that there were no Black people and the ticket collector and station manger were women.

The station was very large and very beautiful and very clean – shockingly, strikingly, enjoyably clean. The whole station looked like a theatre lobby – bright brass and mosaics and shiny chandeliers.

And then on to Tashkent, a place of contrasts, a people, Uzbeki who are Asian and they are Russian, people she senses are warm-blooded, familiar, engaging. The old part looks to her like a town in Ghana or Dahomey, African in so many ways. She meets a woman who enlightens her on the history of the women of Uzbekistan, women who fought to who their faces and go to school, and they died for it. Different struggles, hard-earned progress, both inspirational and cautionary.

POETRY IS NOT A LUXURY

A mini four page essay full of light that I read and reread, because it ignites one’s inner creativity, I search for a passage to share and find it almost too restricting to condense her flow of thoughts into one phrase. It is this essay that demonstrates Lorde’s evolved consciousness and connection to a women’s sense of power that comes from some ancient, deep place, something that cries out to be illuminated.

It is poignant to reread this again now, in the days that follow the passing of another great woman poet, Mary Oliver, whose collection A Thousand Mornings, I recently read and I am reminded of when I read Lorde’s thoughts on the power and benefit of poetry, whether we are writing it or reading it.

For women, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival  and change, first made into language, then into idea,  then into more tangible action. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

Poetry provides new ways of making ideas felt, it allows symbolism to replace that which can’t often be articulated, and it is that ancient connection to divine feminine energy that puts us back in touch with our ability to see through signs and symbols.

THE TRANSFORMATION of SILENCE into LANGUAGE and ACTION

Lorde begins to address the complicit silence of women in this essay and will return to it in subsequent essays, leading up to The Uses of Anger where she challenges them into action, even if that means active listening, reading and learning, to become more aware.

In this essay she speaks of the fear of coming out of silence, because that transformation is an act of self-revelation, that seems fraught with danger.

In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgement, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.

In MASTER’S TOOLS she confronts our differences and speaks of the arrogance of discussing feminist theory without examining these and input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians, that as women we have been taught either to ignore our differences or see them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than forces for change.

It is learning how to stand alone, 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. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.

In THE USES OF ANGER: WOMEN RESPONDING TO RACISM, though she speaks within the context of racism towards Black women, giving examples of how implicit this can be in the language of white women who don’t consider themselves racist (unconscious bias and privilege have been embedded in our societies for centuries), her dissection and exploration of the transformative power of anger goes beyond racism and has been applied to feminism and the voice of women trying to progress in other areas.

She likens anger and fear as spotlights that can be used for growth, rejecting guilt and defensiveness, pushing women to strive for better than that.

Every women has a well stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. If we accept our powerlessness, then of course any anger can destroy us.

Dr Brittany Cooper, in her book Eloquent Rage takes her work further on behalf of Black women suggesting that ultimately feminism, friendship, and faith in one’s own superpowers are what we need to turn things around, while Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad tracks the history of women’s anger from the past to the present. She deconstructs society’s and the media’s condemnation of female emotion (notably, rage) and the impact of their resulting repercussions. These two authors, recently came together in conversation to discuss the common ground between their books, you can read more about that or listen to them by visiting this post How Sister Outsider Lead to a Chat Between Eloquent Rage and Good and Mad.

The collection ends with another visit, this time to a place that was always referred to as home, the birthplace of her mother, GRENADA REVISITED. She remembers the first time she visited in 1979, children in their uniforms carrying their shoes as they walked along the busy seafront, the main thoroughfare to school; the woman cooking fish in the market, the full moon. It was just eleven months before the political coup that ousted a 30 year regime, ‘wasteful, corrupt and United States sanctioned’.

Dawn After the Tempests, created by © Gaby D’Alessandro

The second time (1983) she came in mourning following the invasion by the United States, ‘the rationalisations which collapse under weight of the facts’ details of which are shared in this piece, subtitled  ‘An Interim Report’.

Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, (see reviews Breath, Eyes, Memory and Brother I’m Dying) visited Grenada in 2017 and though familiar with Lorde’s essay, read it afresh before landing. Her essay Dawn After the Tempests published in the New York Times pays tribute to Lorde’s visit and is a fitting follow-up.

Overall, it’s a diverse and thought-provoking collection, that continues to inspire readers and writers alike.

“[Lorde’s] works will be important to those truly interested in growing up sensitive, intelligent, and aware.” New York Times

Further Reading

Edwidge Danticat, Dawn After the Tempests, New York Times

Audre Lorde – short bio, menagerie of authors – by Juliana Brina, The [ Blank] Garden

11 thoughts on “Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (1984)

  1. I had read a few of the essays before, but I finally read the whole book for the first time just recently, and was similarly moved. Her theory writing ages as well as her poetry does! Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

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