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What can we learn from feminist writer Audre Lorde?

Lorde teaches us that there is always time for revolution

By Elsa Gore

Audre Lorde was a well acclaimed feminist writer and poet from the late 60s, writing about her life as a black lesbian woman until she died of cancer in 1992. She chose poetry as it was an essential source of communication from her youth, when Lorde would recite poems to express her emotions, and began writing her own when she could not find enough that reflected her experiences.

Lorde has remained a prominent voice in black and lesbian communities but the reverence for her voice is far greater in the modern day fight for equality. Lorde not only spoke of her own oppressions but called for a solution beyond the confines of the patriarchy; especially through accepting the anger that comes from discrimination, revolting against fear by acting to support one another. Here, I explore what we can learn from the renown feminist writer.

You don’t need to explain your existence

In one of her most famous works, The Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house, Lorde emphasises that remaining within the parameters of society that ‘the white fathers’ built will only allow for limited change due to inherent tactics of oppression within its system. For decades, having women explain to men what their existence is like keeps those oppressed busy with ‘the masters concerns’, which was about convincing men of the legitimacy of their needs. In the same way today, people of colour are being tasked with explaining their existence and their need for representation in the workplace and media. The energy spent seeking this validation distracts from the mission Lorde sets out, to fight for liberation and live fearlessly.

“My fear of anger taught me nothing, your fear of anger will teach you nothing too.” – Audre Lorde

Your silence will not protect you

Lorde’s writing has often been described as angry, reacting to her experience of racism, sexism, and homophobia. She embraced this anger and encouraged others to do so too. In The uses of anger: Women responding to racism Lorde warned that fear of anger prevents us from hearing the cries of other women and understanding one another. This reminds us that, after acknowledging our emotion, we must then transform them into language by vocalising our struggles so we may be heard, and those without a voice can be heard too.

In The Uses of Anger Lorde detailed a few prejudiced interactions in which she encountered her own anger. In one instance, raising her concerns about the lack of black and queer speakers at a feminist conference, Lorde was told that her approach was too harsh. Even though being brave enough to speak about oppression is challenging, Lorde shows us that it is important: “My fear of anger taught me nothing, your fear of anger will teach you nothing too.” In Your silence will not Protect you, in the midst of her cancer battle Lorde also recognised that remaining silent by choosing not to voice her emotions had not protected her from pain: “We all hurt in so many ways all the time, and pain either changes or ends.”

Feminism must be intersectional

Lorde once wrote: “I am not free whilst any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different to my own.” She often spoke about how she found herself as ‘other’ in every community she was a part of – black in a lesbian community, lesbian in a black community – and she constantly critiqued groups valuing their own suffering over others.

Openly critiqing the uniform representation of the female experience at feminist conferences, Lorde said: “black feminism is not white feminism in black face.” While other activists would sometimes focus on fighting one oppressive issue, Lorde said she did not have that luxury: “my people cannot profit from the oppression of any other group which seeks the right to peaceful existence.” This is why it is so important to acknowledge the intersecting factors of feminism, including racism, sexism, and homophobia, which affect different people in different ways and that we must all fight against together.

“I am not free whilst any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different to my own.” – Audre Lorde

Looking back on Lorde’s struggles, the women who supported her had all been fighting their own silences. By speaking for herself, she also spoke to all those who face oppression, speaking words which continue to spark radical change today.

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