A Review of Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde

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What are the words you do not yet have?

What do you need to say?

What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own,

until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? (p. 41)


You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other.

I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same.

What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other

and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities.

And in order to do this, we must allow each other our differences

at the same time as we recognize our sameness (p. 142).
Sister Outsider.jpg

"I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood" (p. 40). These opening words of the essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" are both an invitation and a warning about this attempt to review Sister Outsider, a collection of fifteen speeches and essays by Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde. I can read myself into many of her critiques, especially those of white women. And I shy away from appropriating or undervaluing the work of someone whose social location differs so greatly from mine: I have seen instances in which her words have become iconic (e.g., "Your silence will not protect you. [p. 41] and "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house [p. 112]) and decontextualized. Yet her book also powerfully offers invitations to cross what divides us.


Highly personal, this collection reflects Lorde's struggles with and attacks against racism, heterosexism/homophobia, poverty/classism/capitalism, ageism, and other oppressions ("the deaths we are expected to live" p. 38). Although primarily focused on the United States, the book begins with an essay entitled "Notes from a Trip to Russia" and ends with "Grenada Revisited," a reflection on the U.S. invasion in 1983. These essays frame Lorde's conceptualization of the interlocking systems of oppression in the United States, a country that "pretends to be honest and therefore has so little room to move toward hope" (p. 28). In this collection, through essays that include an open letter to a white feminist about her dismissal of (the work of) women of color and an essay on teaching her Black son to be himself through being fully herself, she offers ways to move toward hope in a system that dehumanizes people.


Lorde does this by working through her own daily attempts to face these issues, as well as how she has used writing--breaking silences--as a mechanism for opposing oppression, healing herself, and passing on lessons that too often are not spoken. At the same time, Lorde never denies how complex these struggles are. In addition to laying out structures and mechanisms of how oppression works (straight against gay, men against women, white women against women of color, black women against black women), Lorde describes how creativity, love, and expression are intimately connected with survival. This book is perhaps a concrete example of what Lorde means when she writes, "Eventually, if we speak the truth to each other, it will become unavoidable to ourselves" (p. 174).


Lorde lets no one, including herself, off the hook. She is very clear about the ways the lives of those she encounters as well as those who read or listen to her words differ based on life experiences and social locations. And while she can be at times harsh and castigating toward those who would attempt to disavow, deny, cover, or hide from these differences or pretend that they are insurmountable, she is simultaneously gentle and inviting, clear that there is room--there must be room--for all in these struggles. She posits that difference is not what actually divides us, but silence (especially about those differences), whether internal (e.g., suppressing one's emotions and knowings even to oneself) or external.


Lorde writes that we must not shy away from these differences, emphasizing the importance of self-definition and self-actualization. She is clear that we cannot cross what divides us--gender, sexuality, race--unless and until we can both define ourselves and allow others to do the same for themselves. Too often, however, we draw lines around various parts of identity, forcing people to choose between parts of themselves through "threats of labelling, vilification and/or emotional isolation" (p. 47). In this process, Lorde writes, energy is spent fighting over crumbs of the system, rather than dismantling a divisive, oppressive system that offers very few people real chances for flourishing. Lorde is clear that "one oppression does not justify another" (p. 63) and that "in order to come together we must recognize each other" (p. 70).


In these essays, Lorde's powerful critiques also challenge many conceptions the white, Western academy tends to have toward what is "worthy" reading, writing, or scholarship, in other words, what is worth knowing and learning, reading and studying. For instance, her essay "Poetry is Not a Luxury" states that poetry "give[s] name to those ideas which are--until the poem--nameless and formless, about to be be birthed but already felt" and that in this process "those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us" (p. 36). Repeatedly, Lorde emphasizes the importance of affect, especially as a "hidden source of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes" (p. 37). In the academy, poetry and emotion may be subjects of study, but they are generally not sources of knowledge, or as Lorde writes, "sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas" (p. 37). In another essay, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," Lorde writes about the dangerous false conception that women must repress the erotic ("that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge" [p. 53]). In "Uses of Anger," she outlines transforming anger into action, liberation, information, and empowerment, not suppressing it or allowing it to be labeled as useless, disruptive, or guilt-inducing. Much of her writing, because it is about herself, about affect, about oppression and difference, done without footnoting or citations, troubles what the academy values by succinctly laying out knowledge that has the possibility of creating transformation.


In the 1983 "Introduction" to the book, Nancy K. Bereano wrote that "Audre Lorde's writing is an impulse toward wholeness" (p. 9). Indeed, Lorde's speeches and essays in this book outline an example of what it means to struggle to live more humanly. At the same time, she continually reminds her readers that "the war against dehumanization is ceaseless" (p. 119) and that "any future vision which can encompass all of us, by definition, must be complex and expanding, not easy to achieve" (p. 136). Lorde's writing is powerful; it dares me--and I doubt I am alone here--to be brave.


Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007 edition. (originally published 1984)

1 Comment

This was really fun to read, Shannon. I like how you seamlessly connect the chapters. Towards the end of your review you write:

Much of her writing, because it is about herself, about affect, about oppression and difference, done without footnoting or citations, troubles what the academy values by succinctly laying out knowledge that has the possibility of creating transformation.
I think this is an important point, and a troublemaking practice that is worthy of some more critical reflection. bell hooks also doesn't use many footnotes or citations. Could you say more about the troublemaking possibilities/benefits here? Also, do you see any limitations to this practice (does it ever lead to appropriation)? [As an aside: A few weeks ago, my undergrad class read Lorde's "Uses of the Erotic" as part of our sex wars section. Check out the youtube clip from Lorde that I posted at the end of this entry.]

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