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 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 AUDRE LORDE’S ‘YOUR SILENCE WILL NOT PROTECT YOU’  
[https://portside.org/2018-02-14/audre-lordes-your-silence-will-not-protect-you]


 

 Bridget Minamore 
 January 1, 2018
The White Review
[http://www.thewhitereview.org/reviews/audre-lorde-silence-will-not-protect/]


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 _ Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was one of the most significant U.S.
writers of the last quarter of the 20th Century. She described herself
as "Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet." This new collection of her
poetry and prose allows readers to remind themselves of her thought
and its significance. _ 

 , 

 

_Your Silence Will Not Protect You _

Audre Lorde

With a Preface by Reni Eddo-Lodge and an Introduction by Sara Ahmed

Silver Press

ISBN: 978-0-99571-622-3

There’s a clarity to Audre Lorde’s writing that becomes most
apparent when you are presented with a collection of her work. Plainly
written and devoid of the distractions of punctuation, her poetry is a
series of questions and answers, of memories and musings. Lorde’s
prose, meanwhile, is easy to understand without feeling easy –
there’s a sense that despite the lack of smoke and mirrors, we still
need to work to understand exactly what she is saying. Lorde’s work
is not a series of straightforward proposals for a feminist utopia, or
simple ideas about queer people assimilating into the mainstream.
Instead, her essays swing between lyrical musings about race, class,
gender and sexuality, and bold statements of fact, backed up by
evidence from her own academic research, and that of her peers.

Lorde’s writing is unapologetic about being forthright; essays begin
with phrases such as ‘There are many kinds of power, used and
unused, acknowledged or otherwise’, and ‘Black feminism is not
white feminism in blackface’. However, mid-essay, a  sentence like
‘I am thankful that one of my children is male, since that helps
keep me honest’ will appear, challenging even the most feminist of
her readers. This is not socialism or feminism for the classroom, but
an acknowledgement that speaking the truth, even if it jars, must be
at the heart of our politics. In her introduction to _Your Silence
Will Not Protect You_, the academic Sara Ahmed reminds us of Lorde’s
famous statement that ‘revolution is a process, not a one-time
event’; truly understanding Audre Lorde’s writing is also a
process, and the more of it we are given, the easier it becomes.

Perhaps this is an obvious observation to make, but it’s an
important one. It hasn’t always been easy to access Lorde’s ideas:
a full collection of Lorde’s poetry and prose has not been available
in Britain until now. Her writing has largely been absorbed not as a
full body of work, but through a series of social justice memes and
one-line quotes found in the keynotes of feminist conferences. This
fact is quoted on the jacket of _Your Silence Will Not Protect You_, a
new edition of Lorde’s writing published by the young feminist
publisher Silver Press, and has been repeated often in the rush of
media that has accompanied the book’s publication.

Yet we must not forget to mention those who came before and paved the
way for this collection. In the 1980s, four of Lorde’s books were
published by Sheba Feminist Press, a London-based lesbian collective
that included Scots Makar, Jackie Kay. Lorde herself visited the
collective in 1984. The way lesbian, feminist history is easily
forgotten is representative of the very thing Lorde’s writing rails
against. Knowing one’s history is important; speaking up about it is
essential.

Lorde, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, was born almost legally
blind and tongue tied in New York in 1934. She died 58 years later
from cancer in the Virgin Islands, leaving behind two children (with
her ex-husband) and over a dozen works of published poetry and prose.
Writing her first poem in the eighth grade, Lorde attended the famed
Hunter College High School for gifted students, before eventually
earning a master’s at Columbia University. Her first collection of
poems, _THE FIRST CITIES_, was published when she was 34. In the years
that followed, Lorde’s profile as a black, lesbian, poet, academic
and visiting lecturer rose higher and higher.

This collection’s seminal first essay, ‘The Transformation of
Silence into Language and Action’, lays out themes that recur
throughout the book. Lorde writes of silence versus speaking up, fear
versus bravery, feminist division versus sisterhood, and the way these
opposites often go hand in hand. Each of these supposed negatives –
silence, fear, division – can and must, she argues, be transformed
into its corresponding ‘positive’. It is is clear, however, that
this will not be an easy task. In her adulthood, Lorde spoke (and
wrote) of her difficult relationship with her parents, and the work
ethic they instilled into her. Lorde applies this same ethic to her
activism with reminders throughout her writing that true, lasting
change is only born once we have worked for it.

We must not just act for ourselves, but also stand up for others who
suffer. ‘In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her
own fear’ Lorde writes, before adding, ‘where the words of women
are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognise our
responsibility to seek those words out’. Speaking up is powerful,
Lorde’s writing tells us, but speaking up to spark action should be
at the heart of our politics.

Lorde insisted on the importance of recognising differences between
women, such as class, race, age, or health – what she called,
‘speaking as’ – in order to use personal experience to challenge
the normative view of the world. What is most important ‘must be
spoken’, she writes, over and over, if we are to have any positive
change. ‘The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action’
ends with:

The fact we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to
break that silence and bridge some of the differences between us, for
it is not difference which immobilises us, but silence.

To Lorde, this ‘speaking as’ is necessary to achieving true
understanding, empathy and, most importantly, inspiring action. In her
introduction Ahmed also emphasises what she calls ‘speaking from’:
‘In speaking out, Lorde is also speaking from, speaking from anger
or… other places in the core of one’s being’.

Lorde self-defined as ‘writer, activist, poet, mother, warrior,
lesbian, black, woman, feminist, socialist, teacher, librarian’. Her
writing always speaks from the core of her being, and is part history,
part protest. The prose that emerges from this place snaps and
crackles, and every other sentence feels quotable: ‘every black
woman in America lives her life somewhere along a wide curve of
ancient and unexpressed angers’; ‘there are no new ideas. There
are only new ways of making them felt’.

In her essays specifics are important, and Lorde constantly refers to
the canon of black feminist history as a means of contextualising the
world around her. Frequently, her prose bounces from historical
example to present-day conundrum. In ‘Scratching the Surface’,
Lorde’s lens zooms in on West African lesbian marriage before
focusing on the heterosexual black women who claim that ‘to endorse
lesbianism [is] to endorse the death of our race’. Here, Lorde
highlights the ahistorical nature of homophobia and emphasises how
black lesbians can be othered by their peers in any one of the ways
the world at large others them too.

Through her writing, Lorde positions herself as a mouthpiece for
history. Despite the miseries of remembering the past, Lorde shows
that this knowledge is vital when it comes to outlining the work that
still needs to be done. Historical fact is constantly shifting or,
more specifically, the knowledge we have of the past evolves with
time. So revolutionary acts, too, need to always be reacting to new
knowledge, new interpretations. We must acknowledge the past while
simultaneously recognising the continuity of the present. While so
much feminist thought is preoccupied with the solutions of the future,
Lorde’s writing is arguably at its most radical when it looks to the
past to solve our problems.

Lorde’s essays may be necessary, but it is the poetry of _Your
Silence Will Not Protect You_ that feels most welcome. As Lorde
herself writes in the book’s early essay ‘Poetry Is Not a
Luxury’:

Women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have
felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place
where we have hidden our power […] They are made realisable through
our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to
speak, and to dare.

For Lorde, poetry is more crucial than prose when it comes to
‘speaking as’. Throughout her essays Lorde reiterates the
importance of language and, above all, the importance of shifting
language into action. Her poetry is a powerful example of that shift
in action. By providing both more and less – deeper, more direct
meaning in fewer words – her poetry is able to articulate the
complexities of women’s pain and enact in her reader the empathy and
movement to action she calls for in her prose.

By publishing Audre Lorde’s poems alongside her essays, Silver Press
are allowing the pain (but also the joy) of Lorde’s black, lesbian,
womanhood to be realised. The poems are validated by virtue of the
space they take up alongside the essays, and give the audience both
sides of Lorde’s literary output. Lorde’s poetry swirls around the
themes we have seen in her prose, but there’s a real beauty in the
way they use so few words to express the same ideas we have just seen
in the essays. Many of Lorde’s poems are split into numbered
sections, and the lines – often enjambed and with sparse punctuation
– feel as though they’re tumbling into one another, delicately
falling down a flight of stairs.

‘A Litany for Survival’ is one of the shorter poems found in
Silver Press’s collection, but comes the closest to the essays. The
poem is made of a series of one-sentence stanzas that feel almost
religious in the way the plainly adorned lines of prose describe the
troubles the oppressed must survive. These trials are liminal spaces
between one place and the next; the poem is ‘for those of us who
live at the shoreline/ standing upon the constant edges of decision’
and ‘who love in doorways coming and going/ in the hours between
dawns’. While Lorde’s essays pin survival to action, here she goes
a step further, showing that inaction is a state of violence in and of
itself.

Later in the poem, fear is described as both forced upon us and
inevitable: ‘when our stomachs are full we are afraid/ of
indigestion/ when our stomachs are empty we are afraid/ we may never
eat again’. Using ‘we’ and ‘ours’, Lorde speaks with us
rather than to us. Love is a recurring motif for both what we desire
but also what we are afraid of. In her writing, Lorde emphasises the
importance of loving one another: yes, radicalism is forged by hard
work, but love makes this work so much easier to do. ‘A Litany for
Survival’s’ closing words – ‘it is better to speak/
remembering/ we were never meant to survive’ – could be used to
summarise the entirety of Lorde’s writing. Once again, silence is
the enemy, and again, speech has the potential to bring forth new
life.

Throughout _Your Silence Will Not Protect You_, Lorde’s poetry and
prose is more concerned with doing than saying, with taking action as
a fundamental tenet of any true radical politics. So, too, was Lorde
herself. Her international focus and socialist principles were central
to her feminism – she was a strong proponent of feminist solidarity
movements, from South Africa to Germany to her home in New York. The
sheer range of activist movements she found the time to support
remains impressive: she may be known today for her work in feminism
and civil rights, but she was also a strong advocate for anti-war,
pro-migrant and HIV/AIDS campaigns.

Years before the term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by law
scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989,  Lorde’s work embodied it. The
concept of social identities intersecting to produce a whole separate
from the two halves is addressed on every page, in every poetic
stanza. Lorde is more than one thing, as are we all, and it is crucial
to view these facets of ourselves as more than identity, but as a
reflection of the societal oppressions we face under capitalism.

In ‘Scratching the Surface’ Lorde is clear that Patricia Cowan, an
actress from Detroit killed by a black male playwright when she went
to audition for a play, ‘was not killed because she was Black. She
was killed because she was a Black woman, and her cause belongs to us
all’. Cowan is mentioned in Lorde’s writing multiple times,
including in the dedication for her poem ‘Need: A Choral of Black
Women’s Voices’ that reads ‘for Patricia Cowan and Bobbie Jean
Graham and the Hundreds of Other Mangled Black Women whose Nightmares
Inform Them My Words’.

Cowan’s name, written into Lorde’s work and subsequently living on
years after her death, is representative of Lorde’s insistence that
we use history to inform the feminist future she looks towards.  In
‘An Open Letter to Mary Daly’ Audre Lorde writes:

The history of white women who are unable to hear Black women’s
words […] is long and discouraging. But for me to assume that you
will not hear me represents not only history, perhaps, but an old
pattern of relating […] which we, as women shaping out future, are
in the process of shattering and passing beyond, I hope.

Throughout her writing, Audre Lorde’s analysis continually looks
ahead, at the positive consequences of taking action, of speaking and
recognising your truths. This is not a placid hope, but a hope as
active as the words she writes, and the silence she encourages her
sisters to speak over. The closing lines of the collection’s final
poem offer welcome consolation:

the war is the same

if we lose

someday women’s blood will congeal

upon a dead planet

if we win

there is no telling.

 

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