Reading Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider” After Charlottesville
By Antoinette NwanduOctober 30, 2017
A self-described “black lesbian feminist warrior poet,” Lorde had an exceptional ability to transform her “hopes and dreams toward survival and change” into beautifully actionable language. Arguing for intersectionality early on, she writes that our demographic differences must be seen as “a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” As white supremacy becomes increasingly visible in the United States — on the streets of Charlottesville, in threats against undocumented children and attacks on NFL players (to scratch the surface) — Lorde’s seminal collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, proves as necessary and powerful a tool in the canon of contemporary progressive theory as it was when first published in 1984.
Ironically, the poetic morsels of Lorde’s wisdom that have found their way into progressive consciousness come stripped of the very demographic specificity she so thoroughly embraced. Written in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the essays and speeches in Sister Outsider critique a mostly white, academic community of second-wave feminists for overlooking blacks and gays and women, the elderly and the disabled in their theories. Lorde’s work, which centers the black lesbian experience, attempts to reimagine the dismantling of patriarchal thinking. Her more thorny prose, essays like “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” and “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger,” remain harder to digest because in them Lorde addresses a subject that majority culture continues to find problematic: black women's anger.
As a cishet black woman writer whose work focuses on themes of self-loathing and self-definition in the black community, I am frequently tasked with examining the substance of my rage. In “Uses of Anger,” Lorde assures me that my anger has the capacity to “transform difference through insight into power,” despite the shame or panic I’m conditioned to feel at its arrival. Lorde’s ownership of her anger — and her ability to help me own mine — is subversive. By arguing that my anger is “loaded with information and energy” she makes it valuable, and neutralizes the dehumanizing effects of the omnipresent assertion that I am merely an angry black woman. For instance, Lorde argues that anger truthfully expressed separates the allies from the chaff, allowing the former to undergo the corrective surgery needed for better allyship. Instead of apologizing for my anger or denying its existence, Lorde encourages me to attune myself to the alchemy by which its bright red embers generate better work and collaborators.
That said, the anger Lorde finds so energizing is not without its shadow, its potential to destroy from within all outsiders in a nation clinging to the lie that to be an ordinary American is to be a straight, white man. In “Eye to Eye,” a revelatory and painful discussion about the ways in which black women — and by extension all minorities — have been conditioned to train our anger on each other and ourselves, Lorde lays bare “the judgment and the sizing up, that cruel refusal to connect” that plague our communities.
Perhaps this is why prominent voices in the black community take such pains to present themselves as anything but angry. In her 1987 CBS radio interview with Don Swaim, Toni Morrison concludes that she had “no use for it whatsoever,” for anger, seeing it not as a “passionate igniting feeling” but the “absence of control.” In a profile in The Undefeated, senior writer Lonnae O’Neal presents Dr. Ibram Kendi, founder of American University’s new Antiracist Research and Policy Center and the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, as an orator whose “voice never rises,” making him “temperamentally an antidote to the […] hyperbole of the times.” O’Neal’s favorable descriptions of Dr. Kendi evoke for me Key & Peele’s “Anger Translator,” a popular sketch that pokes fun at President Obama’s pointed unflappability.
Even as I steeped myself in the affirming notion of black girl magic, the warning bells of my own rage never rang louder than during the eight years I spent as an adjunct professor at a community college in Manhattan, teaching public speaking to mostly black and brown New Yorkers, immigrants and natives alike. I was underpaid and overworked in an increasingly corporatized environment that framed students as “customers” and valued the bottom line above all else. Writing on evenings and weekends, I clung to a “sub-line” appointment which meant I taught more classes than my tenured colleagues with none of their job security. How often my rage at this systemic dysfunction found its way into my tone of voice — a little more acerbic, a little more severe — while addressing students whose desperation and seeming powerlessness mirrored my own. How often I had to check my frustration when the “tangle of unexplored needs and furies” presented itself in the silences and stares of students — oftentimes black women — unaccustomed to the expectation that their voices would be not only heard but critiqued and crafted over the course of our semester’s long journey.
As with any nurturing work, teaching forces us to confront our best and worst selves, especially when those we aim to instruct look, talk, and act a lot like we do. Lorde, who was also a teacher and activist and who died of liver cancer in 1992, argues that black women “have learned to neutralize [our nation’s antiblackness] through ourselves [in a] catabolic process [that] throws off waste products of fury even when we love.” As I recall my teaching years, the implication of Lorde’s essay is clear: black women must continually reappropriate the energy of our fury into a creative life-force whose power instructs us to mother ourselves and one another. Black girl magic, indeed.
Aided and abetted today by our tweet-crazy Dotard in Chief, we are a nation embroiled in a proxy civil war, with battle lines that are politically defined and culturally contested. The mayhem in Charlottesville last August, when white nationalists protested the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate darling Robert E. Lee, has been perhaps the bloodiest battle to date. Compared to the parade the Klan staged in August 1925, when over 25,000 of its members marched in full regalia down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, the Unite the Right rally looks to some like a fringe event. However, the Anti-Defamation League characterizes today’s white supremacists as “by far the most violent” of domestic extremist movements, responsible for 83 percent of extremist-related murders in the United States over the last 10 years. Several news outlets, including the Washington Post, quote onlookers who affirm that James Alex Fields, the man who slammed his car into a crowd of antiracist protesters and killed Heather Heyer, acted with absolute intention.
If white supremacy in the United States is a “dragon” in whose mouth black bodies “were never meant to survive,” then Heyer’s death demonstrates the lengths to which that dragon will go to privilege itself. Antithetical to the rage Lorde champions, the hatred fueling this supremacy is a “diseased liquid” which “corrodes into blind, dehumanizing power bent upon the annihilation of us all.” It is characterized by a failure to know itself, a refusal to study the layers of its own particular “information and energy,” including the fraudulently narrow definition of American identity that is its base. Lest we continue to accept white supremacy as a characteristic intrinsic to the American experiment, the resurgence of this hatred, the violence it begets, and the people who normalize it, must summon in us the full measure of our collective rage.
And it has. After Charlottesville, protesters in Durham, North Carolina, destroyed a Confederate statue erected in front of the County Courthouse in 1924. In the wake of demonstrations, city or university officials removed statues in New Orleans, Baltimore, at the University of Texas, Austin, and at Duke University. And in New York City, Trump met with vigorous protests over his refusal to publicly denounce the Virginia rallies. Yes, hundreds of thousands of people have filled the streets to decry everything from Trump’s Muslim travel ban, to his ban on transgender military recruits, and his move to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. In an NPR story from March about the rise of political activism since Trump’s election, Dana Fisher, a sociologist who studies large-scale protests, reported that a full one-third of the 500 women she interviewed during the Women’s March on Washington had never protested before.
Buttressed by signs of resistance such as these, we outsiders must take full possession of our demographic specificity and our collective rage to define ourselves, and therefore our country. “Focused with precision,” Lorde writes, it’s our anger that “can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.”
Antoinette Nwandu is a New York–based playwright via Los Angeles. Last June, the Steppenwolf production of her play Pass Over, which addresses the state-sanctioned murders of black men by the police, sparked a national conversation about bias in the theater community.
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