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Thanking Audre Lorde

In the midst of celebrating Black History Month this October, Naomi Sampson pays tribute to Audre Lorde

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Image: Elsa Dorfman


October is a month of many things, from the ending of summer and start of autumn, to the participation of this month in celebrating Black history. For many, Black History Month is a time to reflect on the work and advances Black people have contributed to society and to celebrate those contributions. For me, as a Black British just-about-adulting woman, this is important in terms of pride and representation. The spheres I have moved in, the schools I went to, and my hometown, have all been largely white populated, the education I received was also mainly white centered. Therefore, the information I sourced on Black writers, inventors, scientists and historians was limited to what my parents had time to teach me at home and their ability to take me to extra curricular Black history classes. I remember sitting in history lessons in school learning only about Black history from the colonial gaze or civil rights movement, again from the colonialist perspective. One Black "British" woman we were taught about was Mary Seacole. And yet, her contributions were only significant whilst in light of Florence Nightingale. The lack of positive representation and taught history surrounding blackness and Black people has always been something that has struck me.

However, the issues surrounding the British education system are part of a deeper conversation to be had another time. What is most significant here is the fact that Black History Month is about celebration, and how the discussion of representation can be implemented into this framework, without taking away from the positivity and celebratory nature of the month. So from this stance, I have chosen to celebrate Audre Lorde. Lorde was, and still is, a world-renowned Black activist, poet and writer. Her words and actions have inspired and uplifted many people due to her insistence on racial pride, celebrating the strength and beauty in womanhood, and her fight for queer rights.

As a self-described 'Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet', the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality (not totally encompassing her identity) played a huge part in Lorde's writing and life. In a discourse Lorde had with another incredible Black trailblazer in the literary world, James Baldwin, she highlighted the need to recognise differences and not simply play coy to them. One example of such coyness would be the 'I don't see colour/race' rhetoric. One can recognise the good natured intentions of this statement, in terms of saying 'we are all equal' and asserting that someone's race doesn't matter, but it in fact erases the realities of that person's existence and indeed glamorises their existence, while ignoring their struggles. As Lorde highlights, the best way to go about being an ally or advocate for equality is to play homage to individuals' identity and recognize that yes, we are different, but that difference should not matter in terms of the quality of our treatment of one another.

Lorde and Baldwin discussed the fight for racial equality in America and whether that would be possible in such a country, and they also discussed their ability to capture the American Dream. Within this discourse, Baldwin speaks a lot about blackness and the struggles of Black people. Lorde highlights that although his rhetoric is correct, he is forgetting the differences in experience that Black men and Black women face. The differences in these experiences are significant, notes Lorde, because although there is a huge shared experience in Blackness there are significant differences in the lived experience of gender. For example, my experience of race as a woman is different to my (Black) father's experience of race as a man. Even further, my experience as a Black woman is different to my friend Cally's experience of gender, as a white woman.

In her writing, Lorde discusses the concept of intersectionality more. In 'There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions', she details that as a black, lesbian woman she has to face not only racism, homophobia and sexism but also, erasure of her oppressions in her differing identities: ''Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I, and thousands of other Black women, are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression. I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination.''

One of the most significant rhetorics I infer from Lorde's politics is the idea that in the many facets of one's given and self-proclaimed identity, oppression is faced in all. She demonstrates that there are many facets to one's identity but the intersections of these cannot be undone into separate threads. Yet, as stated in Lorde's discourse with Baldwin and as she details through 'A Woman Speaks' the oppressions and inequalities in these different facets and the intersections of identity can be relieved if those in these differing groups would listen and hear one another. If we acknowledged one another's different experiences and listened to those experiences, we could work towards a better conversation on being allies for different communities and creating better changes in systems, for example education, in making them more representative of all.

Lorde's poem: 'A Woman Speaks', is in my humble opinion, one of the greatest poems to have ever been written. In this, Lorde details the misconceptions that people have of her as a woman, and a Black woman at that. Dixon notes that in this poem 'Lorde focuses on both the inconsistencies in how Black women are viewed and her own battle to define her identity outside of society's norms.' Even from the opening lines, Lorde boldly bounds into this notion without hesitation: 'Moon marked and touched by sun my magic is unwritten.' What I infer from these lines is Lorde's personal commentary and societal commentary. Her personal commentary is something that could be summed up in a term coined by many Black women today - "Black Girl Magic". In 2013 CaShawn Thompson 'started' the 'movement' of "Black Girl Magic". This concept was created as a way to 'celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women', as described by Julee Wilson from HuffPost, and 'to congratulate Black women on their accomplishments.'

However, some have critiqued it, fitting in with Lorde's societal commentary from her opening lines, as a term that affirms the othering of Black women. Again, Dixon describes it as the perception of Black women 'as both unearthly, goddess-like beings.' Although, being described as a goddess seems positive, it magnifies Black women as above humans and constructs this idea that they can't be soft or cry nor experience pain and emotions as everyone else does. This has led to terms such as 'strong Black woman' which negate space for Black women to be those things detailed above; soft, sensitive or delicate, as well as strong, without acknowledging that we can't always be strong. Hence, 'my magic is unwritten,' which I infer as the lack of space Black women have been given to define and express themselves in society. Lorde ends the poem with 'I am woman and not white' leaving the reader with a powerful outro showing her fight for acknowledgement in womanhood and recognition of her differences as a Black woman, despite society's othering of Black women.

Lorde has liberated me, and so many others. She has taught me that through the act of revolutionary self-love, alongside allyship; the ideal of living as a whole being can be achieved, finding existence outside our oppressions, yet still embracing our facets of identity. The table is essentially open to everyone; it is okay for us to be different, and our differences should be celebrated and acknowledged, not swept under the rug in the usual British manner.

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