The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”
To commemorate the life and legacy of our sister Audre Lorde, who would have been 79 years of age today, I am reposting this piece I wrote in 2009 on the new collection of Lorde’s work, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Rudolph Byrd, and Johnnetta B. Cole.
Musings on I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde
Travel back in time with me to 1986, (I realize that some of you might have been very small children then, but work with me), to my senior high school English class, taught by Chi-Chi Peak, and yes, she looked just liked her name sounds, like a little bird, flitting around the classroom correcting our English and encouraging us to embrace Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I loved. When it came time to select a text for our book reports, I wanted to write about one of the few black authors I knew of at the time, James Baldwin.( Morrison and Walker had both been writing for decades, but their work had not received the status that it has today.) I had read If Beale Street Could Talk and fallen in love. From that point forward, I read everything by Baldwin I could get my hands on, including his famous collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, and Giovanni’s Room. Somehow I figured out that Baldwin was gay, and even though at that time I didn’t know that that was something we had in common, I felt as if Baldwin was my big brother, uncle, something. He became my hero, and I wanted to write the kinds of essays that he wrote, essays that would spark a nation divided by racism into action, to write essays that would stir the types of emotions that Baldwin’s work had stirred in me. Mrs. Peak didn’t want me to write about Baldwin, and she wanted to know why I chose this author rather than one of the authors on our reading list. Well, to me it was quite obvious, he was Black and wrote about all of the things I cared about, racism, oppression, love, family, literature, all of the issues that shaped the world I lived in. He was my brother, and I wanted everyone I knew to appreciate his work too. Mrs. Peak did not share my enthusiasm for Baldwin, and indeed, from this point forward I was “militant.” I guess you could say that I still am.
Fast forward to the year 2007. By this time I had been married, had a daughter, divorced, and had been “out” as a lesbian for about 13 years, even though I had been only out to my family for about four. I came across Alexis DeVeaux’s biography of Audre Lorde, Warrior Poet at a used book store. I didn’t read it then, but knew that I should. Still, I put it on my shelf and promptly forgot about it.
However, in 2008, I was reintroduced to Lorde’s work, and in the past two years, Audre Lorde has become central to my research and central to the ways in which I have come to view my identity. Yes, my identity. For those of you who think that identity politics is an exercise in futility, that the death of the author, theories of structuralism, and post-structuralism, postmodernism, and psychoanalysis, queer theory and performance theory, have done away with the subject, be advised that in doing so they erased our very humanness as well. It is very easy for us to sit in the safety of our tower, our classrooms and offices and theorize about what it means to be Black, lesbian, woman, man, the list could go on. But for the past several months, a lot us of have shed tears of the senseless suicides of several gay youth who suffered at the hands of bullies because of their real or perceived identities as gay men. But how many of us have cried over Sakia Gunn? The young Black lesbian woman murdered on the streets of Newark, New Jersey because she rejected the advances of white men and proclaimed her lesbian identity? This is the kind of oppression that Lorde speaks about in her essays. And this is why I Am Your Sister:Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde is such an important book.
This collection of essays is in part inspired by the recent opening of the Audre Lorde Papers housed at the Spelman Archives at Spelman College, where both Guy-Sheftall and Cole have been faculty and administrators. The Arcus grant that funded the processing of the archives seeks also established the ZAMI project to: “increase the public awareness and understanding about African American gay and lesbian experiences; explore the marginalization of racial issues in the GLBT movement;… and other activities to combat homophobia in the Atlanta University Center community and other historically black colleges and universities; and contribute to the production of scholarship on Lorde” (Guy-Sheftall 2009, 255).
So this volume has several goals as articulated in Byrd’s introduction:
- To honor the life and legacy of Audre Lorde.
- To elevate the importance of Lorde’s published essays and other work, which have served as a catalyst for theorizing by scholars and activists in relation to questions of identity, difference, power, social movements, and social justice.
- To publish selections from the unpublished writings by Lorde.
- To recover some of Lorde’s prose writing that has been out of print. (2009, 4-5)
What Guy-Sheftall, Cole, and Byrd suggest in their reflections on Lorde and her work is that “each of us has multiple identities” and Lorde reminded us of that each time she introduced herself as “black, woman, feminist, lesbian, mother, teacher, warrior, poet” (2009, 236). Indeed throughout the text Lorde is referred to as a Black lesbian feminist, and as the sister outsider. Why are the authors privileging these identities? For two reasons: The terms bring to mind Lorde’s collection of essays, Sister Outsider; and also because the term “illustrates the ways in which Lorde reclaimed and transformed overlapping , discredited, and marginalized identities—black, lesbian, feminist—into a powerful, radical, and progressive standpoint” (Byrd 2009, 5).
Likewise, the introduction traces a brief history of Black feminist thought, and gives us snippets of Lorde’s Back lesbian perspective on the civil rights movement, second wave U.S. feminism, the Black Nationalist movement, and the gay and lesbian movement. Lorde had something to say about it all. We also learn about her battles with cancer, her trips to the Caribbean, and the homophobia she experienced at the hands of Black intellectuals. I Am Your Sister is important because we need to rethink how we hear and don’t listen; see, but look through, past, or around; identify and dismiss.
In the years since I’ve become re-acquainted with Lorde and her work, I’ve come to understand that my fierce commitment to self-definition, to speaking boldly, to embracing difference, and to uncovering racism, sexism, and homophobia wherever I find it, are also hallmarks of Lorde’s work and life.
I am a Black mother, sister, daughter, lesbian, scholar, writer, activist, southerner, friend.
And I too, am your sister.
Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.
And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.
And on this historic Inauguration Day, my sentiments are thus from my favorite poet, scholar, activist, Audre Lorde:
“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference; those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those other identified as outside the structures, in order to define and seek a world in which we can call all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” –Audre Lorde