I love this photograph of Audre Lorde. Of all the photos I can find — including the classic photo of her on the cover of Sister Outsider — I am drawn to this image of Lorde the most. Here, we see the self-identified Black lesbian feminist socialist poet with her gaze fixed directly ahead of her and her mouth wide open. Here we see her head held high, looking determined, and speaking up.
Today is Audre Lorde’s birthday. She was born on February 18, 1934 and died, after a 14-year battle with breast cancer, on November 17, 1992. My students have read her poems and are analysing one of her essays. Today they insisted on having a party while they go over their essay drafts in class.
Lorde’s work redefines the way we look at differences. She says we distort differences in ways that continue old modes of oppression. She calls on the feminist movement (and all of us) to examine the various ways we are different, not in order to judge one another but in order to recognize one another. This can be a strange concept in a society that prefers the binary of either celebrating diversity or insisting we are all the same.
I was first introduced to Lorde’s work in my Literary Theory class in graduate school. I didn’t understand a lot in that class, but I felt strongly that I understood Lorde. I read her biography and her poems, and her voice gave me voice.
As I do at the beginning of many semesters, this semester, I read for my students “A Litany for Survival.” In the poem, Lorde reminds us that we have been “imprinted with fear” and that fear results in silence. She writes: “when we are loved we are afraid / love will vanish / when we are alone we are afraid / love will never return / and when we speak we are afraid / our words will not be heard / nor welcomed / but when we are silent / we are still afraid / So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.”
The poem certainly encourages us away from fear, but it is also about survival and about speaking up, two issues college students often deal with in the classroom: they have to survive a course and they are often afraid to contribute to the course’s conversation. I share this poem with them to remind them that their silence is not resistance but fear, fear given to them long ago by a society that never meant to value what they have to say. In my classroom, my job is to strip away and break down that fear in order to show that all voices have value.
Audre Lorde saw herself as an outsider even within the feminist movement, but this never stopped her from speaking up. She has been my example for many years, and I hope she can be yours.