Feature by Contributing Editor Alma Garcia
Audre Lorde always introduced herself as, “Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian feminist mother warrior poet.” No commas in between the words, and hardly a pause. Her confidence and courage shone through this self introduction, she never hesitated to let anyone, and everyone, know exactly who she was. She proved to be a woman ahead of her time by choosing to live for herself without seeking social approval. Her persona and lifestyle served to inspire those of us who’ve chosen to swim against the current and follow our dreams towards individual independence. Audre Lorde was the black, homosexual woman that no one invited to the feminist table, she was also the woman who didn’t wait for an invitation and took a seat anyway. Her work boldly challenged closeminded feminists by arguing that diversity was real and valid, that she was real and valid. Her voice opened up a space in the feminist movement for all women regardless of color, class or sexual identity.
Audre was born in 1930s Harlem to Caribbean immigrants who tried their best to raise her to be a submissive Catholic young woman. Despite these efforts, Lorde proved to be terribly outspoken, and proudly broke all the rules. Her liberal personality made her an outsider within her conservative household. She would hold the identity of “outsider” her entire life in both personal and public affairs. By the 1960s, Lorde was an established intellectual and strong Black feminist voice, however she quickly found herself an outcast even within the black feminist movement. The key factor that set Lorde apart from other Black feminists of the era was her identity as a very proud out-of-the-closet lesbian. The larger women’s movement, a generally hetero-normative movement, rejected lesbians because they did not fit the traditional ideal of the female identity. In the 1960s and 1970s, members of the gay community were coming out only to personal friends but kept their identity from society to avoid the scrutiny that often resulted in the loss of jobs and homes.
Having dealt with opposition since childhood, Lorde moved beyond her fear of social judgment and raised her two children with her longtime partner Frances Clayton, a white woman. Of raising two children in the 1970s within an interracial relationship Lorde wrote, “We were not just like other families. This did not keep us from being a family any more than our being lesbians kept Frances and me from being parents. But we did not have to be just like all the rest in order to be valid.” While society considered the LGBT community an ‘abnormal group,’ Lorde pushed toward the redefinition of family to include homosexual parents. Lorde believed that parenting played a major role in diversity education which she argued was crucial for social progress, “if there is any lesson we must teach our children it is that difference is a creative force for change, and survival and struggle for the future is not a theoretical issue.” Conservative American society demanded heteronormativity by portraying the nuclear family as the only family. Lorde countered this social norm by falling in love and living happily with her family.
By the 1970s, in the heat and ardor of the feminist movement, enthusiastic women of all ages were proudly voicing the message of “progress” and “equality” in speeches and literature all across the nation. There were protests, newspapers, political groups, university clubs, and all types of bra burning events in the name of woman and her rights. Many credit the hype of feminism to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and subsequent literature and activism by feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer. It was an era full of enchanting words, exciting events and enticing literature. Most liberal minds embraced the movement as effective towards women’s liberation, Lorde was not one of them. She argued that second wave feminism was hardly about progress or equality, and that it was barely about women. The movement brought up valid points about the inequalities that existed, and to some extent continue to exist, between men and women in American society. But as Lorde would point out, it failed to acknowledge the experience and oppression of all women.
Lorde often summed up second-wave feminism as a movement that defined “woman” as white, straight and middle class. This so called progressive movement failed to recognize women of color, women at and below the poverty line, as well as bi and homosexual women. Lorde purposefully presented a broader view that countered popular opinions on female identity. She shook traditional definitions of motherhood and family, and further challenged feminism by pointing out the hypocrisies that prevented the movement from accomplishing any type of equality. Once again, Lorde was treated as an outsider, her feminist view was unwelcome and ignored. Still Lorde challenged the popular feminist ideology of her time by stressing that it accomplished nothing other than the further marginalization of the experience of all women of color and the experience of the lesbian. Lorde argued against the normative status that was granted to the experience of the straight, white and middle class American woman. Through this opposition she provided feminist legitimacy to the experiences of the Black woman, the Asian woman, the Latino woman, and the homosexual woman.
While others ignored the importance of recognizing racism within the feminist movement Lorde was bold and went as far as comparing white feminists to white male slave owners. By stating that feminists that refused to acknowledge race within the movement were simply “agents of the same oppression.” Lorde confronted white lesbian feminists who denied race in their work all the same. In her infamous letter to lesbian feminist Mary Daly she wrote, “Within the community of women, racism is a reality force in my life as it is not in yours. The white women with hoods on in Ohio handing out KKK literature on the street may not like what you have to say, but they will shoot me on sight…The oppression of women knows no ethnic nor racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean it is identical within those differences. To deal with one without even alluding to the other is to distort our commonality as well as our difference. For then beyond sisterhood is still racism.” Lorde’s courage in pointing out the underlying racism that existed in the movement for women’s “equality” caused her to be often set aside as a troublemaker for bringing race into a gender issue.
The work of Audre Lorde and other Black feminists pressed the importance to validate all women, of all classes, ethnicities, and sexual backgrounds. Because of Black feminism, including Lorde’s work, today’s feminists don’t accept simple answers or traditionalist definitions of who woman is or who woman can be. The third-wave feminism that Lorde helped bring into the world works very much like her self-introduction, “Audre Lorde a black lesbian feminist mother warrior poet,” none of Lorde’s selves ever silenced the others; the counterpoint among them defined the strength in her identity. In this way, all of the intersecting views, experiences and identities that are given space within the feminist spectrum today are what make the movement much stronger than it was back in the 1960s. Audre Lorde’s radical voice broke boundaries that prevented true sisterhood, her work transformed divide and conquer into define and empower; she was deliberate and afraid of nothing.
© Alma Garcia FF2 Media (9/25/15)
Photo Credits: Robert Alexander/Getty Images/Dagmar Schultz