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Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde

January 3, 2012

BOOK COMMENTS: Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press Feminist Series) by Geraldine Audre Lorde. Crossing Press (1984), Edition: 1, Paperback, 190 pages.

Audre Lorde was incredibly important in forcing 1980s white feminists to expand their vision beyond ourselves. Some of the issues she raised have been addressed while others have simply taken another form. White women academics no longer exclude black women, but anger, hurt, and conflicting needs still make it problematic for us find common ground. The controversy around the book and movie Help is an example. That’s why the Black Women Historians list of background readings, and REAL HELP, are so important.

Audre Lorde is primarily a poet. Many of the pieces in Sister Outsider were originally speeches, not formal essays. (See the first page of each essay for its origin.) For Lorde, sounds, images, and words are more important then rational argumentation. She is not against reason, only against being limited by it. For those of us who seek clear logical answers, that is a difficulty.

In some of the essay/speeches, Lorde is also resisting a twentieth-century pattern of educated, middle-class black women who responded to the stereotype that they were over-sexed by being overly respectable and restrained, hiding their sexuality and passions behind masks meant to protect them. Lorde would have none of that. She sought to live life fully and passionately; like a lover, loving and expereincing life even when it hurt. (Although the dynamics differed, she resonated here with some of us were white and had been raised to be “ladies”.)

Anger was one of those passions that Lorde said we’d kept too bottled up and thus disempowered ourselves. I believe that is true for most women, black or white. The hard part, I think, is that there is a time and place for acknowledging and expressing anger and a time for maintaining silence. We have to start with the assumption we have a right to anger and need its positive energy, but we also have a irresponsibilty to use it wisely. Feminists have sometimes missed the balance. I get tired of anger sometimes, others’ anger or my own, but I respect it.

The best way I know to recognize the Masters’ Tools is to consider Lorde’s discussion of them. When I was teaching, I felt a constant pressure between institutional goals of “The Master” and personal committments to myself and my students. It was a balancing act never fully resolved, but I sold out less having read Lorde. I would have taught for free; I hated grading passionately and they paid me to do it.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2012 1:21 am

    I’ve actually never read Lorde: would you recommend Sister Outsider as a good place to start with her? Or perhaps one of her other books? (Poetry intimidates me, but I need to get over that.)

  2. January 4, 2012 4:00 pm

    Sister Outsider is a good place to start although the essays are uneven and my favorite “Transforming Silience into Langauge and Action,” isn’t included. (It’s in her I Am Your Sister.) I find it hard to think of her essays as books having read them separately, found here and there and zeroxed. Lorde was one of the “feminist classics” that transformed me and sent me back to grad school.

    I too am intimidated by poetry, and I too am trying to get over it. I heard Lorde once and the chills still run up and down my spine. Somne of her words were embedded. “”I am a black, lesbian, warrior poet.”” “”Your silence will not protect you.”” I am not a fan of audiobooks, but if she reads has poems on one, it would be awesome. She really is a poet more than a essayist.

    Thanks for your helpful technical suggestions. I will reply by email later.

    • January 5, 2012 4:19 am

      I’ll have to see if I can track down some of her essays on the internet first then! 🙂

      That is a good idea, trying to find poets reading their own work as audiobooks (even better for me since I”m already partial to the format).

      • January 5, 2012 2:49 pm

        Wonderful approach. That’s how we encountered them in the ’80s. The ones I never forgot are “Transformation of Silence,” “Uses of Anger,” “Eye to Eye,” “Eros,” “Master’s Tools,” and “Poetry is no Luxury.” Others will say that essays on lesbianism or debating with white feminists are more important. Tell us if you find some of her essays or audios. (My mistake: Sister Outsider does contain “Silences.” I just happened to reread it recently elsewhere.)

  3. January 4, 2012 8:17 pm

    Reading this makes me think of the ecriture feminine movement in France in the 70s and 80s. There was a big emphasis then on evading authority and reason, tapping into sounds and rhythms and non-symbolic ways of making sense, and creating narratives that weren’t orthodox as this was considered a patriarchal way of keeping power. Some of the writing was extremely interesting. I like Helene Cixous, but you’ve got to be in the mood for her if you see what I mean. One black Frenchwoman whose novels I really like is Marie NDiaye. If you fancy something very different, try ‘Rosie Carpe’. It’s strange and wonderful.

    • January 5, 2012 1:29 am

      Yes, her approach is not unique and it is one that interests me. Recent Books by Anita Hill and Melissa Harris seem to be a reincarnations of this approach. Yes I know what you mean about Helene Cixous and I have seldom made the effort with her. Thanks for the suggestions. In the past I have too closely focused on writiers and conditions in the U.S.A., something that I intend to use my discovery of blogging to change.

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