Audre Lorde, the daughter of immigrants from the West Indies, was an American poet and writer. Lorde’s work can be located within (though not limited to) the strand of thought known as Black Feminist Theory. Eschewing societal designations, she self-defined as: ‘black- lesbian –mother- poet’ (Hall and Lorde 2004:85). Her work was in many ways a critique of Second Wave feminism (typically seen as occurring in the 1960s and the 1970s). Second Wave Feminism, inspired by Liberal Feminist Theory (which was more concerned with policy formation), was denounced by African-American women and by women in the South. Their criticisms stemmed from Liberal Feminism’s disregard for how gender, ‘race’ and social class can be implicated as categories contributing to the inequalities faced by women of colour. However, while the Black feminist writer Patricia Hill-Collins is perceived as comprehensively presenting an explanation on the intersecting categories of oppression facing women, it was Audre Lorde, in many of her writings, who very early on voiced a ‘theory of difference,’ arguing for the validation of self-assignations.
Lorde was especially critical of the ways in which people in American society were/are taught to ignore their differences (based on ‘race’ for example). She noted in The Cancer Journals (1980: 9) that: ‘imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness’. She thus argued for an acceptance of all the facets of our ‘selves,’ whether they are those of ‘race’ or of sexuality:
Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behaviour and expectation (Lorde 1984: 115)
Claiming our differences, Lorde contended, could reduce the marginalisation that came with the deployment of labels such as ‘black’ or ‘lesbian.’ Reflecting on her experiences within academic spaces, she contended that academia, and feminism in particular, were based on a heterosexual white bias. This hegemonic stance obviated the overturning of patriarchy. She asked what does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? In other words making the point that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
In Zami: a New Spelling of My Name published in 1982, Lorde outlined a unique style of writing she referred to as a biomythography (as opposed to the conventional autobiography). She contended that biomythography allowed for self-reflection and engendered the relating of her life history in ways not hindered by conventional forms of storytelling. This genre facilitated an acknowledgement of the ways in which her race and sexuality impinged on all her interactions and experiences. In an interview in 1981 she reflected:
There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself–whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc.–because that’s the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you’ve lost because then you become acquired or bought by that particular essence of yourself, and you’ve denied yourself all of the energy that it takes to keep all those others in jail. Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat (Hammond 1981: 15)
Lorde clearly articulated an approach which demanded that the categories of ‘difference’ (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, social class) confronting black women be acknowledged in order to celebrate their experiences, and to effect progressive social and political change. She addressed conventional social representations (for example, ‘white’, ‘thin’ ‘Christian’) through the use of the concept ‘the mythical norm’. Lorde argued that relationships of power are cast within the social representations surrounding these norms, and overlooking the differences which are fundamental to our being or glorifying sameness (for example by promoting a global sisterhood), only reinforce power structures rather than dismantle them. She stated in this regard that ‘there is a pretence to homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist’ (Lorde 1984: 116).
For Lorde, then, activism is strengthened, and social change can be accelerated when ‘differences’ are celebrated and validated. We can inevitably be granted, she posited: a ‘fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic’ (Lorde 1984:111). Moreover, Lorde argued that the trope of homogeneity is spawned by: ‘an inability to recognise difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening to the defined self, when there are shared goals’ (Lorde 1984:45).
(Audre Lorde: February 18, 1934 – November 17, 1992)
Hall, Joan Wylie, and Audre Lorde. (2004). Conversations with Audre Lorde. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Lorde, Audre. (1984) Sister Outsider. Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. CA: The Crossing Press.
Daniell, Rosemary. (1982) The poet who found her Own Way. In New York Times Book Review. December 19, p. 12.
Hammond, Carla M. (1981) Audre Lorde: Interview. Denver Quarterly 16.1: 10-27.
Hill-Collins, Patricia. (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Lorde, Audre. (1982) Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. New York: Crossing Press.
Lorde, Audre. (1988) A Burst of Light. Essays. New York: Firebrand.
Pilar Sánchez Calle, María. Audre Lorde’s Zami and Black Women’s Autobiography: Tradition and Innovation.
Questions to Consider
- What are some of the ways in which Audre Lorde’s work dismisses the claim of a homogeneity of women’s experiences?
- Consider the concept: the ‘mythical norm.’ What do you understand this to be?Identify two examples of a ‘mythical norm’ and say how these are representative of the power structure in a society.
- Why did Audre Lorde suggest that: “the masters tools cannot be used to dismantle the master’s house?
Submitted by Haajima Degia