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.