Arts BLM Book Club Muse

BLM Book Club: Sister Outsider

Kacie Green looks at the damaging portrayal of the angry Black woman in Lorde's eye-opening work.

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Image Credit: Ten Speed Press, 2007

‘Black Lives Matter Book Club’ is a weekly series, designed  to complement the amazing work of the  UoY Black Lives Matter Book Club. The project was created and is run by UoY Amnesty International Society, Literature Society and Feminist Society. The focus of the project is on education and re-education. Each week, a member of the Book Club will be writing a review of that week’s content, allowing further analysis for anyone to engage with and to hopefully further promote the material and the book club too. Those wanting to join the book club can do so by following along on social media: @uoyblmbookclub on Instagram and Facebook.

Week five of the BLM Book Club signalled the beginning of Feminist Society’s  two week run, focusing on the theme of Black Feminism. This week’s texts serve as an introduction to both Black Feminism and Black Feminists, with the key essays studied being written by feminist icon Audre Lorde. Within her book Lorde argues that “guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures,” a sentiment that we wanted to promote within the book club.

Originally a keynote speech at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in 1981, Lorde’s Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism was published alongside more of her work in Sister Outsider, written in 1984. She discusses the damage caused by stereotypes of angry Black women, and the racially-charged criticism that anger is damaging to feminism.

At the beginning of the week, we highlighted the following passage from the essay, an eye-opening remark on the state of second/third wave feminism: “To those women here who fear the anger of women of Colour more than their own unscrutinized racist attitudes, I ask: Is the anger of women of Colour more threatening than the woman-hatred that tinges all aspects of our lives?” Lorde criticised traditional feminism for its lack of space for women of colour and lesbians, dismissing excuses of anger being counter-productive in activism, and the need for passionate demonstrations of emotion.

She goes on to suggest that if women are responding to racism, they are in fact also responding to anger. But, there is a nuanced difference between her anger at racism and racist anger - the rage women feel about being reduced to less than human status because of their skin colour and gender is justified, whilst racist anger never is. She describes her anger as “anger of exclusion, of  unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.”

Lorde further exemplifies issues of racism within feminist activism by criticising the body she is speaking too, and her tokenism amongst the crowd: “The National Women’s Studies Association here in 1981 holds a conference in which it commits itself to responding to racism, yet refuses to waive the registration fee for poor women and women of Colour who wished to present and conduct workshops.”

She also points out in her later essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Masters House, again from another speech at a feminist conference, that she is one of only two Black female speakers: “And what does it mean in personal and political terms when even the two Black women who did present here were literally found at the last hour? What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.” Lorde expresses a sentiment that needs to be carried into feminism in the present day. Our activism needs to move past the performative, and we desperately need to centre (or at least equally diversify) the voices of the women in our society that need the most support instead of allowing white feminists to speak over them in the name of charity.

In Sister Outsider, Lorde also notes a need for support of lesbians and other sapphic women in society. They are part of a patriarchal society, yet reject norms by investing in relationships that have nothing to do with men at all. In a society that values women for their maternity, she suggests a deconstruction of how we view female relationships (whether sexual, familial or friendly): “For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered. It is this real connection which is so feared by a patriarchal world. Only within a patriarchal structure is maternity the only social power open to women.”

Our secondary text for the week was the Netflix docu-series Self Made, a biopic about the life of Madam CJ Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. Led by the amazing Octavia Spencer, and featuring an all-Black cast, Self Made is a celebration of Black female excellence in the face of adversity. Although it draws criticism for stretching artistic license too far in its portrayal of some characters as homosexual, the show helps to normalise the power of sexuality and self-image, and the need to improve communities by first allowing Black women to thrive.

With a mixture of traditional score and modern soundtracks, from artists such as Queen Latifah and Little Simz, Self Made perfectly assigns Madam CJ Walker’s inspiring story to a twenty-first century context, and invigorates a story of Black female success, whilst avoiding dangerous stereotypes of the “strong Black woman.”

Whilst our initial six-week programme for the book club has now come to an end, (though stay tuned next week for our final article on week six’s texts!) we are eager to keep the book club going, and hope to restart in October. We are  looking to expand our planning team, and gain  new perspectives on books that we can use within the book club, so if you’ve enjoyed the texts we have read so far and have some ideas of your own, please get in touch through our social media pages.

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