Sarah Bird is a writer and part of the Classic Feminist Lit Book Club. She agreed to share her thoughts on the profound experience reading ‘Sister Outsider’ by Audre Lorde had on her thinking.
Our book group recently read ‘Sister Outsider’, a classic collection of essays by Audre Lorde. Lorde (1934-1992) was a writer and a feminist, who describes herself as ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’.
Lorde’s words and ideas feel like a much-needed compass in the confusions of the early 2020s.
Division and inequality
We are in a proper mess. Division and inequality are everywhere; the images from the US and Myanmar over the last months remain etched in my mind. And I’m not feeling terribly hopeful about how we will emerge from Covid, worldwide. The inequality of vaccine distribution feels both tragic and dangerous – but not surprising.
I believe that we need a complete shift of mindset, of worldview, to stand any chance. And this is where Lorde comes in – as someone who writes from outside of the system, but from a place that is deeply connected to humanity, and with enough passion to make us sit up and listen. As I read the collection, I understood two things: that I’m part of the problem, but can also do something about it.
I’m part of the problem, but can also do something about it
Her most famous essay is titled ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, in which Lorde, writing from the position of Sister, Outsider, advocates a shift from patriarchal business-as-usual to the speaking of many voices and the interdependence of mutual differences. The essay ends with a frightening invitation: ‘I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears.’
Be a good girl
She points out to me the obvious fact that my consciousness is white and European. Part of me loved the white, western patriarchy I grew up in. I wanted to fit into the system: be a good girl, get married, get good grades, go to Cambridge, then get a good job. I did all these things (apart from getting married). Growing up, I thought, no I assumed, that the system we came from and represented was benevolent and right. And I grew up frightened of anything that threatened that.
But of course, it was not benevolent. European American whiteness stood in dominance over women and non-whites and the poor for centuries. The suffering was immense, and all but a very few voices went unheard. I did not see it, even though I watched Ben Kingsley play Gandhi and read Heart of Darkness. Written as they were from an underlying colonial perspective, I still, as white, sided with white.
The future of the earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference
From my native worldview, I have inherited the habit of judgement: I often judge those who are different to me. I create a world view that departs far from reality and humanity, is partial and skewed and unquestioning. And I judge myself too – as Lorde suggests, I have ‘swallowed tyrannies which will make me ill’. I am full of feelings of ‘not quite good enough’ because I was born a girl and not a boy.
Lorde helps me see all this, see my bubble, see my judgements. She also offers a possible way forward. In another essay, ‘Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference’, she suggests that “The future of the earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference.”
As I write, there are signs of a shift away from the dominating white patriarchal perspective. Kamala Harris is in the White House. She and Biden are assembling a diverse cabinet. Black Lives Matter and #metoo have had a huge impact. Perhaps we are beginning to learn better to relate across difference.
What about power? When I hear that word I think ‘politics’, ‘male’, ‘western’. Lorde reminds us of an alternative definition: “The woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface: it is dark, it is ancient and it is deep.”
When we begin to live from within outward…then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the truest sense
What is this power and can I learn to speak from it? I know I’m scared of relating to myself from within, rather than as friend, partner, daughter. For Audre Lorde, these fears are simply feelings to be battled with, “the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while we taste new possibilities and strengths.”
If I make the space, I can know it. Twelve years ago, in a particularly spacious time of my life, I wrote this poem:
The dark red, tender flower
Of a life not explored,
It shrinks from light
But grows secretly, quietly
Stirring in the dark.
Soft petals, no harsh edges
Set about with sharp thorns.
I weep for this unlived, feminine life:
Vulnerable, beautiful, shady of meaning
I wish to embrace it, but it is not
At the beck and call of my desire.
It is desire itself.
Now once more I have space in my life. I want to go deeper, to allow the poetry to emerge, and to connect to the power Lorde describes and I occasionally know.
Rising to the challenge
Audre Lorde challenges us: “When we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the truest sense.”
Living from within, whilst looking clearly at ourselves and embracing difference. Can we rise to her challenges? It may be our only chance.