Life Lessons

Thank you, Audre Lorde

 

"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."

 

This is the second post in my series 'Thank you'. Another pause in the craziness of life to show appreciation for a woman who made a great and lasting impact on the world.

Writer, poet, feminist, womanist, librarian, civil rights activist, and an overall badass, Audre Lorde was a force to be reckoned with. 

 

 

Who She was

Audre Lorde was an American Poet and Writer. Born of West Indian parents in New York City in 1934, she found her voice in poetry at a young age. Committed to expressing her truth, she frequently wrote on subjects of love, particularly as a lesbian, that would later be coupled with topics of social justice as the civil unrest of the 1960's grew. She castigated labels because of how they created harmful divides between people and strove to fight against the prejudice and misunderstanding. She held the same passion for feminist issues, confidently communicating the concerns of inequality both in American society as well as in the Black community.

I first discovered Lorde in my Women's Literature class at university. Next to great writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Anne Jacobs, Lorde struck a cord with me in how I perceive my life and my identity. Tapping my mind for a reason, I think it's because I want to practice, as she did, vulnerability. I have not fully embraced the terrifying noun nor confidently lived out the adjective, but reading Lorde's poetry and prose makes me want to do just that.

“I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.”

When you read her work, you'll find it difficult not to marvel at her brutal honesty, the anger seething beneath her words. Written with intense purpose, she split open the confines of prejudice and laid them bare, so discussions had to be made, resistance had to be felt, in order to not only push her voice into the open but to speak for the voices of those marginalized, who could not or feared to speak.  

She used her creative talents to confront the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia that made her a target, but she never relinquished her voice to the pressure. She held her ground relentlessly, undaunted by the hate.

 

poetry

 

The Brown Menace

 

Call me
your deepest urge
toward survival


call me
and my brothers and sisters
in the sharp smell of your refusal

call me
roach and presumptuous
nightmare in your white pillow
your itch to destroy
the indestructible
part of yourself.

Call me your own determination
in the most detestable shape
you can become
friend of your image
within me

 

I am you
in your most deeply cherished nightmare
scuttling through the painted cracks
you create to admit me
into your kitchens
into your fearful midnights
into your values at noon
in your most secret places
 

with hate
you learn to honor me
by imitation
as I alter--

although your greedy preoccupations
through your kitchen wars
and your poisonous refusal--
to survive.

To survive.

Survive.

The above poem, The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches, confronts very poignantly the existence of white supremacy. The cockroach, one of the most reviled yet resilient creatures on this earth, is an apt analogy in the face of the white supremacist mission...eradicating people of color. And yet such people remain and thrive.

 

prose

In the later years of her life, she faced the terribly hard battle against Breast Cancer, through which she demonstrated incredible vulnerability by writing of her experiences in The Cancer Journals. It resonates with me deeply, having lived alongside the breast cancer battle with my Mom. The way in which Lorde validates every emotion is incredible. She does not shy from the darker emotions as they are so much part of what makes us human.

One topic I found particularly profound was her decision to not wear a prosthetic bra. I remember my Mom going into Nordstrom to get fitted after she had her mastectomy. Her goal, as so many women understandably and rightfully choose to do, was to make herself as physically whole as she could. I saw it as the steps to normalcy, neither right nor wrong, just a personal decision that I commend her for. She didn't avoid the conversation of cancer, she wore her colorful head wraps and sometimes just her bare beautiful head with a state of acceptance. An acceptance that said "I am not just my cancer...now how are you?". 

Lorde's approach was different, a different kind of strength.

“Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women.

If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.”

What I take from Lorde's words is that the prosthesis is there to fill a void, but the void is best left empty so as to acknowledge the existence of the struggle. In so doing, the story of a woman battling cancer can be known without mystery, shame, or fear. It's ultimately a very personal decision that should not be judged, but I appreciate her perspective. Many of her entries speak of exhaustion, insecurity, and fear, but she continued on. I saw a form of resistance in her entries, a claim of ownership over her life in face of so much physical beating from the cancer. I truly admire it.

 

what i'm thankful for

I first think of activism. If my actions reflect my words, then my passion for social activism is far less than I claim. If I were more passionate, I would take more action...I would call my state representatives, participate in events that spread awareness, and volunteer. Yet, I don't. Reading Lorde's work and reflecting on the current state of our country, the answer is painfully simple. I'm afraid.

Afraid to speak up, afraid I might look a fool because my understanding of an issue is minimal, afraid to risk things because comfort is just so damn comforting. Plant your thoughts on the internet and you are vulnerable, privy not just to opposition, but to malicious judgment. Am I willing to risk comfort and familiarity to stretch my voice?

Lorde's work inspires me to. A firm but encouraging grip of my chin to remind me that I am a part of this world. And that I have two options; I can either disconnect myself to my own small corner, shallowly determined to do something about the injustice I witness (yet so easily return to my habits) OR I can be an active member, risk the comfort, and cultivate my own empowerment as a Interior Designer-Writer-German-African American Woman. 

"When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak."

So, I'm thankful to Audre Lorde for being willing to bare her soul, for using her immense creativity and intellect to affect the damaging constructs of American society during her life. And not only that, but bare her soul to the struggles she faced. Struggles we all face, often different, yet often alike in their pain. She passed away in 1992, but her message lives on just as relentlessly. 

I can only imagine Lorde would have walked the streets with us on Saturday in the Women's March, would continue to go to battle through her poetry, prose, and powerful spirit. May all of us, men and women alike, strive to live our lives as warrior poets. May we use our voices, our talents, and gifts, which we all possess, to bolster connection and dismantle injustice. One cry and step at a time.

 

To your fulfilled life,

Kels

 

{My brief introduction is slightly intentional, to inspire a further look into her life. Some great further reading here, here, and here :) Thumbnail photo courtesy of Global Society Theory}