4 min

‘Your silence will not protect you’

'Your silence will not protect you'

EYES ON THE FUTURE. With war looming, activist and writer Audre Lorde's critical insights - "thinking for life" - are required now more than ever. Credit: Xtra files

I still remember the celebration of Audre Lorde’s life held in Toronto in 1992. The 519 Community Centre was packed with mostly but not exclusively women of colour, many of them lesbians and many of them pioneers in their own right in Toronto.

It has been eleven years since Lorde succumbed to the cancer she had bravely fought and documented in The Cancer Journals; much of what she stood for has yet come to pass. Her vision for a transformed society remains still a dream. Her understanding of meaningful coalition across differences remains nascent. But as North Americans prepare for yet another war, a war to enable our continued voracious consumerist ethic, we might well remember Lorde’s words: “Your silence will not protect you.”

I have invoked the coming war, and what should be our unequivocal opposition to it, because as images of warrior boys and girls in army fatigues begin to fill our television screens we should be reminded of other warriors: warriors for justice, peace and freedom. Lorde, who is often referred to as a black lesbian, feminist, poet, mother and warrior, lives on because she continues to remind us that we should be warriors for social justice, for peace and for a world and future different from the one we presently live in.

When Lorde titled her influential collection of essays and speeches Sister Outsider she was not revelling in her marginal status nor making a special claim for marginality. Instead Lorde was adamant in pointing out that those who were made marginal had an insight on power and its workings from which they could offer a sharp criticism of the current arrangements of our society.

Lorde did not fetishize outsider status. She made use of outsider status as a source of critical insight. For Lorde outsider status could only be celebrated when it was a principled and ethical political stance. Lorde was an academic whose speeches positioned her outside the academic community; many of Lorde’s essays were given as papers at the Modern Language Association (MLA). In this way Lorde never claimed to be pushed outside the academic community. Rather her outsider status allowed her to speak to and back to that community in a way that might matter to it – and beyond. The power of Lorde’s words remain, they are packed with numerous and cross-cutting insights into our personal and political lives.

Lorde’s words were never trivial.

I have the opportunity to teach Lorde’s Sister Outsider to numerous undergraduates. The power of the essays and speeches speak very clearly to students and young people struggling to come to terms with the complexities of post-civil rights, second wave feminist and gay and lesbian liberation society. Students who in other contexts would reject the claims made by Lorde find the power and elegance of her words too immediate and urgent to ignore or dismiss.

Lorde’s criticisms of both the limits of liberation politics and of the ongoing capitalist patriarchal system are not as easily digested. So when 19- and 20-year-olds tune into her words they are responding to the ways in which Lorde reveals a passionate truth about our lives. As she writes in her essay Poetry Is Not A Luxury, “We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared.”

Language was important to Lorde. Obviously, as an important poet, Lorde shared a particular intimate relationship to the written word. Her poems launch words like petals and bombs depending upon topic and tone. But for me it is Lorde’s inventive personality that shines through in her words; she continually probes the problems and pleasures of difference and its meaningful impact in and on our lives. Lorde subtitled Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name a “biomythography.” In this way Lorde demonstrated how if we grappled seriously with language we could remake ourselves and in the process begin some of the work of remaking society.

At the Toronto celebration in 1992, I read from Lorde’s essay Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist Response. Man Child is an extremely important essay for what it both observes and predicts about men, in particular black men.

The essay concerns itself with both observing the ways in which men, especially younger men, struggle to redefine masculinity outside of its usual oppressive practices and it also speaks to the then emergent black gay male identities and politics, but not exclusively so. Lorde wrote: “Some of these men I met at the first annual Conference Of Third World Lesbians And Gays held in Washington DC in October, 1979. I have met others in different places and do not know how they identify themselves sexually. Some of these men are raising families alone. Some have adopted sons. They are Black men who dream and who act and who own their feelings, questioning. It is heartening to know that our sons do not step out alone.” This is an example of the always hopeful and promising observations of Lorde. Black gay icons like Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam credit Lorde with their confidence to bring art and politics together.

Thus transformation was an important word and idea for Lorde. In transformation all of the promise and potential of human life is housed. And as Lorde so elegantly and passionately put it: “When I envision the future, I think of the world I crave for my daughters and my sons. It is thinking for survival of the species – thinking for life.”

It is Lorde’s concern with thinking for the species that requires us to remember and act on her words now more than ever. As we head into a war that is intent on maintaining, reproducing and furthering the inequities of contemporary life Lorde’s passion for a world transformed, for a world altered should drive out collective desire to act and produce “new paths for our survival.”

* The Toronto Women’s Bookstore Presents Audre Lorde: A Commemorative Evening with readings of Lorde’s work by Laura Blaise, Robin Buyers, Hanadi Loubani, Helen McKnight, Vickie McPhee, Crystal Perryman-Marks and Carla Ribeiro, followed by a video screening of Jennifer Abod’s documentary The Edge Of Each Other’s Battles. The event starts at 7pm on Tue, Feb 25 at Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex Ave). Tickets are $3 to $10; call (416)922-8744.

* Rinaldo Walcott is a professor at OISE/University Of Toronto, where he is Canada Research Chair Of Social Justice And Cultural Studies.