Audre Lorde: The Warrior Poet
Visual by Akruthi Akula
Audre Lorde was an American writer, poet and civil rights activist. As a poet, she masterfully used emotion and provocation to portray the civil and social injustices she observed throughout her life. In evocative yet straightforward writing, she elucidated the deep wounds caused by racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism in American society. Even though her work is from an African-American lesbian perspective, at the root of her work is the recognition of our universal humanity. Her work puts forth enlightening and evocative concepts, shrouded in language of love and rage, that become useful frameworks for understanding diverse facets of oppression.
USES OF THE EROTIC:
"Uses of the Erotic" addresses the consequences of subverting and detaching from the erotic as a source of power and the impact it has on women's lives. Societal structures intentionally distort our relationship with erotica and disillusion us to maintain a status quo that obliterates women's relationship with their sensuality. Oppressive systems, through pornography, have cheapened and commodified the erotic, making women distrust" and "fear" their power. Lorde draws a clear distinction between pornography, which "emphasises sensation without feeling," and erotic, which includes sensation as well as satisfaction, purpose, connection and satiety. Her ability to recognise the subtle nuances of truth is revealed when she stresses that separating ourselves from our sensuality is "not self-discipline, but self-abnegation" and that it should be vehemently avoided rather than being culturally venerated. Our fear of erotic power makes us "docile", and "recognising the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world".
THE CANCER JOURNALS:
The Cancer Journals delves into Lorde's experience with breast cancer. Lorde puts her feelings and lived experience of cancer into words not only to cope with her new body but also "to share it for use, so that the pain will not be wasted". Lorde defends her unwillingness to follow the "road of prosthesis, silence and invisibility" amid the anguish for her "lost breast." While she recognises that every woman has the freedom to make her own decisions regarding her body, she believes that prosthesis should not be considered "the norm for post-mastectomy women." For Lorde, the demand for a "normal" body, which informs prosthesis selection, is "an index of this society's attitudes towards women in general as decoration and externally defined sex object." Lorde views health, though something so intimate, as a fundamentally political issue. She draws onto activism as an essential part of understanding illness and disability in the larger societal context. In the book's concluding chapter, Lorde offers a forceful critique of happiness, cautioning against the perilous idea that "the achievement and maintenance of perfect happiness is the only secret of a physically healthy life in America." This mentality not only blames the victim, but it also depoliticises the disease by separating it from more significant socioeconomic battles, of which cancer is merely one facet.
USES OF ANGER:
In "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism," to effectively confront racial injustice, Lorde suggested that we must first understand the rage that racism causes—the wrath that a person can feel when they experience or witness injustice—and then harness that anger as a tool. It is an inclusive, not self-centered, emotion. It illuminates how our freedom is intimately entwined with the freedom of others. We are not free until women, across social, national, and economic lines also attain their liberty. Lorde's anger is a collective, righteous rage hinged on empathy and a recognition of our humanity. This anger can challenge the status quo to transform- it can and will destroy the patriarchy and racist structures. However, its nature is not limited to destruction; it also motivates us to fight the good fight in good faith.
"THE MASTER'S TOOLS WILL NEVER DISMANTLE THE MASTER'S HOUSE"
Lorde uses the above metaphor to effectively relay the impossibility of deconstructing the robust systems of oppression by remaining within its bounds and benefitting from its exclusionary hierarchies. The language is reminiscent of the history of American slavery. It emphasises the particular exclusion of Black women. By referring to the privileges women (white and heterosexual) earn through association with patriarchy as "the master's tools", she emphasises the total exclusivity of "the master's house" that black women experience. A person cannot be treated as entirely unaccountable for the "master's house" 's oppression while still reaping its benefits. To live inside it is to support the exploitation of others inadvertently. Women in positions of power need to actively acknowledge and undermine the privileges that they are afforded at the cost of others. Only by openly addressing the disparities in levels of privilege among women of various races and sexualities can women form a community filled with unity and compassion, sharing the wisdom and understanding that comes from a variety of experiences.
Audre Lorde's work leaps out of the rigid bounds of academic writing. It is poetic, genuine, vulnerable, inward-looking and intuitive. For her, 'feminism', 'queer theory', 'critical philosophy' are not just words to be thrown in stiff academic circles; they are a way of life. Even though she has an unambiguous rage in all her work- an exasperation at civil injustices weathered by so many, her philosophy is not one of aggression. It is more on the lines of 'forgiving without forgetting.' A seminal figure in women's rights and GLBTQ rights movements, she tries to give us a 'tool kit' of sorts to understand the various intersections of identity and the ways in which people from different walks of life could grow stronger together. Her work constantly encourages us to fully feel every emotion, never to deny our true being and recognise the strength in all of us.