“Your silence will not protect you.”
I don't think I have read a more crucial line this year. It is discomforting and empowering all at once.
What makes this sentence even more curious is that it was written in 1977 by someone confronting their mortality in public for the first time. The author? A self-proclaimed “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”.
My introduction to Audre Lorde was courtesy of Rachel Long, another poet, who shared her favourite pieces on stage earlier in the year. BC/AD: Before Collection, After Disappearance was an hour-long series of readings that challenged the audience to think about identities, gender and ethnicity in terms of ownership.
The event was part of the Wellcome Collection and Poet in the City collaboration You Don't Own Me, a programme for 14-25 year olds “to question what museums are and to reimagine what they might be”.
There I sat in an intimate gathering, absorbed in performances from a host of contemporary writers. But it was author and activist Lorde’s words that really stayed with me. Her fierce intellect and expression. Her unflinching honesty.
Based on Long’s very personal recommendation, I picked up this anthology of Lorde’s writing. Its title happens to be the title of this post. Inside I found a collection of seminal essays, poems, conversations and provocations at the edges of human experience. Each one was urgent, life-affirming, soaked in wisdom.
Now I may not be her primary audience but Lorde’s work will provide oceans of inspiration – for any writer that wrestles with their craft or human being in metamorphosis. There is no better remedy for indecision and uncertainty that this advice: “Move with the voice within.” Guess who wrote that…
Scroll back up and consider Lorde’s description of herself in the second paragraph. Imagine the struggles a complex figure like that would have endured between 1934 – when she was born in Harlem to parents from the Caribbean – and 1992 when she succumbed to cancer. (Read her “bio-mythography” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name if you want to get an insight into the first few decades.)
Much of Lorde’s early life was about battling her own invisibility. “Reading her work, you’re reminded of all the ways she is fighting for space,” writes Reni Eddo-Lodge in the preface to Your Silence Will Not Protect You, “and all the ways she faced resistance for doing so.”
In 1984 Lorde came to London to attend the first International Feminist Book Fair. She stayed in Stoke Newington with Scottish Makar (poet laureate) Jackie Kay. Lorde was a great believer in self-determination and intersectionality. This made a big impression on Kay, who was 23 at the time. “You know, Jackie, you can be Black and Scottish. You don’t have to choose,” she told her.
Kay reviewed Your Silence Will Not Protect You for the New Statesman and this lovely passage perhaps conveys Lorde’s spirit better than any other. “Though weak and unwell, she still had plenty of energy. I was struck by how she had refused to wear a prosthesis – covering things up was not in Audre’s nature. Instead, she made a dynamic virtue of being her true self: she would wear one long earring and one stud to mirror being one-breasted. She wore her one breast like a Dahomey warrior queen.”
Almost 35 years later, society is more accepting of those who live outside the “mythical norm” – to borrow Lorde’s term. But discrimination, intolerance of difference and othering are still barriers to true harmony. Look at the unbridgeable pay gap, more attacks against LGBTQ people and the disproportionate use of stop and search powers based on skin colour.
Let’s also not forget that mental health issues are on the rise in the UK and abroad. One in four people is affected by a mental illness, according to the NHS. Young people are most at risk, with cases increasing sixfold since the arrival of social media. For three quarters of them, their condition has worsened due to lengthy waiting times.
In BME communities mental health is a particularly taboo subject and those in charge are not providing the requisite specialist care, leaving people to fend for themselves. Lorde advocated self-care long before it became a last resort or lifestyle trend. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she said, “it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
This is why her voice still resonates in 2018, perhaps now more than ever. As a new generation struggles to navigate the spaces in between and live peacefully in their own bodies, their fragile sense of self is under threat from all sides. It’s a thumbs up or down, accept or reject, feel loved then shamed, worth to worthless – with limited opportunities for reflection or steady incubation.
Technology often gives us the illusion of connection and control. For all the wonders of the internet – how it has helped to form communities, build nations and start people’s revolutions – there is a much darker side, as the rise of online hate speech demonstrates. We witness confrontation in war zones and on the streets on a daily basis. But inner conflict and the one being played out in comments sections and on profile pages shouldn't be ignored.
This is the age of abundance and infinite possibilities, we are told. You can have anything, be anything, if you work at it. But life is not a level playing field. It never has been. Lorde’s words are a reminder to define and not be defined, to embrace possibility and live unapologetically to the fullest of our being. To find that little piece of her that exists in us all.
Rather than impressing any more of my thoughts on hers, it’s better if I just pass you over to Lorde. She has probably said it better than you or I will ever do. So here are some of my favourite quotes from Your Silence Will Not Protect You.
On the early years
“Growing up, metabolising hatred like a daily bread. Because I am Black, because I am a woman, because I am not Black enough, because I am not some peculiar fantasy of a woman, because I am.” (Her essay Eye to Eye is an unflinching yet essential read, that helps us see the world as Lorde did.)
“…a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening to the defined self.”
“There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.”
On the erotic
“…for not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal and anti-erotic society.” (How can you not share a poem from a poet? So here is one of my favourites on the same theme. Her imagery is exhilarating.)
“No point is served by a Black male professional who merely whines at the absence of his viewpoint in Black women’s work. Oppressors always expect the oppressed to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves.”
On the power of poetry
“I remember feeling I could not focus on a thought long enough to have it from start to finish, but I could ponder a poem for days, camp out in its world.”
On prejudice (in conversation with Adrienne Rich about being outed as a lesbian while teaching at John Jay College of Criminal Justice)
“I knew, as I had always known, that the only way you can head people off from using who you are against you is to be honest and open first, to talk about yourself before they talk about you.”
“I’m not going to be more vulnerable by putting weapons of silence in my enemies’ hands.”
“I personally believe that the Black Mother exists more in women; yet she is the name for a humanity that men are not without. But they have taken a position against that piece of themselves, and it is a world position, a position throughout time.”
On patriarchy and race
“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is the old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of colour to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”
On unity in feminism
“But our future survival is predicated upon our ability to relate within equality. As women, we must root out internalised patterns of oppression within ourselves if we are to move beyond the most superficial aspects of social change. Now we must recognise differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior or superior, and devise ways to use each others’ difference to enrich our visions and our joint struggles.”
On legacy (not in the book but you can read in full here)
“I took who I was and thought about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, and did my best to bring those three things together. And that is perhaps the strongest thing I wanted to say to people. It’s not when you open and read something that I wrote. The power that you feel from it doesn’t come from me. That’s a power that you own. The function of the words is to tick you in, ‘oh hey, I can feel like that’ and then to go out and do the things that make you feel like that more.”
Poet in the City will be hosting an evening of live poetry performances and discussion about Audre Lorde’s work on 19 April 2019.