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Of courage and strength: a return to Audre Lorde

November 1, 2011

Today I stumbled on a piece about the legacy of Audre Lorde who I admire greatly and whose work has given me strength over the years.  I was reading her piece on The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House and saw it in a different light today.

Towards the end of her talk at a conference on feminism she asks the audience of presumably White feminists”

How do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your
children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part,
poor women and women of Color?

Whaaat!! Boom! just like that the elephant is there, right in the middle of the room and nobody could ignore it now that it had been named.

I wonder if she was nervous or scared to ask that powerful and personal question. I wonder if she had planned to name the elephant or if the truth just fell out of her mouth before she could stop it.  Just as her daughter had reminded her that,

you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside

I wonder if that questioning of self identified feminist, who really could and should have been allies in the feminist movement, was pre-planned and strategically thought out or merely the truth punching her in the mouth from the inside and tumbling out.

And she didn’t stop there.  She’s concerned about being elevated and isolated as the gatekeeper for Black feminist thought so she, from the podium, demands of conference organizers and participants:

Why weren’t other women of Color found to participate in this conference? Why were two phone calls to me considered a consultation? Am I the only possible source of names of Black feminists?

How many other people, once elevated to the position of ‘thought leader’ or whatever we choose to label the pedestal, ever have the courage to question the very basis of their elevation?

For me, that is the moment of courage. To question and challenge the very system that has you on top and to demand, from your position at the top, that others be allowed into the room.  And I don’t think its that simple because then there is the question of selling out.  If you retain your space of privilege, that spot at the top, and chose to speak from it aren’t you selling out into the system that created the hierarchy in the first place?  When you choose to occupy a space, doesn’t your very decision to be there mark the space as having your stamp of approval?

Back to Lorde, was showing up at that conference and accepting the speaking position while other women of color were cleaning her fellow conference attendees’ homes an act of selling out?  It all goes back to my ongoing concern about what we do with our power and privilege.

At this point I’m thinking she is not selling out.  Because she was able to use that platform to speak into an audience that would never have stopped to listen to the same critique from their house cleaners and nannies.  Lorde had an opportunity to speak and she used it to give voice to an uncomfortable truth to an audience that would listen to her voice of authority in a way that they wouldn’t listen to the other Black women in their daily lives.

But was there a cost to her?  What price did she pay for being the kind of woman who could speak these painful truths to audiences?  We get a glimpse when she writes of the isolation of standing alone as different:

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

What courage it must take to be so isolated!

I recently read an article explaining women’s absence in leadership with the argument that when women become leaders they get isolated and that is exactly what girls have been socialized to fear.  So, when standing alone is scary how does one gain the courage to speak the lonely truth?  Where and how can we both learn and teach the courage to speak truth while standing alone?

I’d love to sit with sister Audre and ask her how she did it. I wonder, if she could have forged a different path, would she have? If she could go back, would she choose an easier path?  I wonder about the personal toll it took on her to need to be so brave.

I wonder the same about our sister Wangari Maathai who braved bullets and clubs and hair ripped from her scalp to stand toe to toe with the Moi dictatorship.  What made her do it?  What was she thinking at those many moments when she stood defiant?  Were her hands shaking?  Or did she go into a different place in her mind and shut it all out, focusing only on the truth that needed to be said.  Or did that truth just come knocking her out from inside and tumble out despite her best efforts to conform and be liked?

There are so many women who we let live in isolation and emerge to celebrate after they’ve left us and the sting of their truth has numbed a bit.  I’d love for our Akili Dada scholars to learn the courage to be those truth tellers.  But I also worry for them if they become that brave.  Because there will be a price to be paid.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2011 3:51 PM

    What a great piece! Some people are more concerned about “fitting in” than using their positions of power to make a difference. I’ve seen black women in power remain silent because they are trying to distance themselves from the stereotype of the “strong defiant black woman” as it is often mislabelled as “angry black woman.” They would rather smile and show their white colleagues “I’m not like that you can like me”

    Courage is a rare virtue. It’s true that there’s a price to pay for being courageous and outspoken. But there’s an even bigger price to pay for remaining silent about important issues. My daughter is able to vote because someone had the courage to speak for her years ago, even shed blood for that right.

  2. Annick permalink
    November 1, 2011 5:41 PM

    “And where the words of women are crying to be hear, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and so often we accept as our own” Audre Lorde

    “Those who are pushed out the tribe for being different are likely to become more sensitized (when not brutalized into insensitivity). Those who do not feel psychologically or physically safe in the world are more apt to develop this sense [la facultad]. Those who are pounced on the most have it the strongest – the females, the homosexuals of all races, the darkskinned, the outcast the persecuted, the marginalized, the foreign… We lose something in this mode of initiation, something is taken from us: our innocence, our knowing ways, our safe and easy ignorance.” Gloria Anzaldua

    I have nothing to add to their words…

  3. November 2, 2011 12:22 PM

    Wow. Hits home. In a lot of ways.


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