I Am Your Sister: Notes from a Native Daughter

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Musings on I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde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.

Have you Ever Tried to Hide?-Pat Parker

Have you ever tried to hide?

In a group

of women

hide

yourself

slide between the floorboards

slide yourself away child

away from this room

& your sister

before she notices

your Black self &

her white mind

slide your eyes

down

away from the other Blacks

afraid-a meeting of eyes

& pain would travel between you-

change like milk to buttermilk

a silent rage.

SISTER! your foot’s smaller,

but it’s still on my neck.