Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.

Reaction to Audre Lorde's

Sister Outsider

Shannon,
 
You asked me what I think about Audre Lorde.  Well, here it is.
 
Let me begin by making a couple of foundational points: first, every person who has experienced any form of persecution or cultural/societal discomfort has every right/obligation to inform the rest of us, many of whom have not faced the same treatment or know that such behavior exists, or how it makes people feel.  This is important, in every case.  Second, she writes most of this in the 1970's.  This country was different then, and not in a good way.  While today it is no longer socially acceptable to express or behave in a racist manner (people get fired today for the racist remark) back then many parts of our society were openly racist.  Yes, racism, still exist (closer than you might think) but we no longer accept any public display of that archaic attitude.  Not only that, I would assert that the number of out-and-out racists in your generation much smaller than in mine.
 
As for me, I despise the racial history of this country.  Every part of it.  I consider it horrific, and equaled only by gratuitous war (which pretty much includes all of them).  I can't even imagine how the descendents of those who suffered actual slavery feel, or even how they could bear the structural racism that existed until recently.  To be hated for any reason is bad enough; for no reason at all, borderline evil.
 
I also despise the historical domination of men over women.  Less pronounced in our society, the practice truly abdominable in Islamic, and to a lesser extent, Japanese culture.  I rage against it in my fiction, and consider it a fundamental weakness in human society.  
 
Having said that, to me, there are only two standing distinctions for humans: one, as a species (the difference between a man and a dog, say), and two, between men and women.
 
Men and women are physiologically different.  Women bare children, men don't.  Humans are slightly dimorphic, males being generally larger and stronger (although not necessarily in any given case: some women are larger than some men, stronger).  I happen to believe differences exist beyond this, but won't insist on them, as the ones I have called out I consider irrefutable, and the only ones relevant to how society (should) operate.  
 
Given the obvious difference between men and women, there are times when it serves to treat them differently.  But the different treatment should be solely based on the clear differences (child-bearing ability in women, physiology) and nothing else.  For example, any profession that requires physical ability (combat soldier, fire fighter) the standards should not be changed for women (and they often are).  The standards are there for a reason (and if not, they shouldn't be used anyway).  If a person can't meet the physical standard - man or woman - they shouldn't be accepted.  If they can meet them, they shouldn't be eliminated out of hand because they are women (that also happens often).  As another example, golf courses should eliminate the 'woman's tee'.  Call it something else.  The 'beginner's tee' for example.  Golf doesn't require physical strength, it requires skill, and having the easier tees is an insult to all women, IMO.
 
Anyway, that's it.  Any other differences in race, ethnicity, geographic origin, sexual persuasion, physical appearence, should be non-issues when it comes to legal or cultural acceptance/treatment.  The only differences between individuals beyond being human, and (in the proper context) a man or woman, should be generally considered moot.
 
Now for Lorde.  First of all, she self-identifies as "a forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two..." (p. 114).  By doing so, she puts herself into a very small minority group (those would self-identify in precisely this way).  Instead of considering herself an 'individual' (that is, a person that differs from every other person in the particulars of their origin, gender, sexual persuasion, political affiliation, religious beliefs, family situation, age, favorite color, state of health, weight, height, hair color, eye color, shoe size, number of siblings, birthday, dress size, etc. etc.) she puts herself into a particular cultural box, and then expects others to relate to her in a precisely particular way, and when they don't, she criticizes their comments/behavior.  
 
At various times, she has taken all white people to task; at others black men, white women and straight black women.  For example, on page 64: "But the Black male consciousness must be raised to the realization that sexism and woman-hating are critically dysfunctional to his liberation as a Black man because they arise out of the same constellation that engenders racism and homophobia.  Until that consciousness is developed, Black men will view sexism and the destruction of Black women as tangential to Black liberation rather than as central to that struggle.  So long as this occurs, we will never be able to embark upon that dialogue between Black women and Black men that is so essential to our survival as a people."   
 
She seeks allies, and identifies Black Americans as 'her people'.  And by doing so, she opens the door to every racist/sexist/genderist who sees fundamental difference in 'black' people, or queer people, and behaves/comments based on those perceived differences/deficiencies.  In other words, if you allow such fundamental differences (which as an individualist, I don't) then you allow the discussion to proceed along those critical paths that potential lead to ostracism, discrimination, or violence.  The ONLY consistent position is to support the rights/respect/dignity of every person, regardless of these meaningless distinctions.  Instead, her obsession with race/sexuality/gender simply perpetuates these cultural divisions, a continuation of the us-versus-them mind-set.
 
Another point.  Her anti-capitalist rhetoric is lame and ignorant, so I won't even address it.  In a word, she doesn't know what she is talking about.
 
Audre Lorde advocates violence, something I cannot accept from anyone, outside of directly protecting themselves or family.  She intimates more than once the idea that white culture wishes to kill/eliminate black Americans.  For example, she writes "I wish to raise Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine." (p. 74).  On the next page: "For survival, Black children in america must be raised to be warriors." (p. 75)  Finally, in her last essay, she writes: "...the invasion of Grenada also serves as a naked warning to thirty million African-americans.  Watch your step.  We did it to them down there and we will not hesitate to do it to you."  Seriously?  
 
The last thing I want to point out is her lack of connection with literary traditon.  Any literary tradition.  She never mentions Alice Walker, Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston.  She seems unaware of Ellison, Baldwin, Wright, let alone the countless writers of other races, times and traditions.  Reading a comparable collection of essays by Alice Walker, a woman who lived through the exact time as Lorde, and suffered from the same racist culture (in fact, she was also in a bi-racial relationship, the first such marriage in Mississippi, in fact) and yet what you get from Walker is a clear expression of the issues she faced, along with historical and political context, set within a knowledgable (read, educated) understanding of the world in which she lives.  She was no less angry than Lorde; simply far more capable of contributing to the destruction of the thoughts and practices that made her so.  
 
In summary, I learned nothing from Audre Lorde.  I did not encounter an intellect I could respect.  While I understand her pain, and to some extent sympathize, she salts our mutual wounds in ways that increase the emotional suffering.  She gives us nothing with which to work, to build bridges, to eliminate needless hatred and violence.  She whines and taunts and pleads and hates; she mis-reads her society; she writes of things of which she knows nothing, or nearly nothing, making outrageous unsupported statements.  She fails to connect herself, or her thought, with anything with which we can mutually relate.  The distance between us is vast, but like an island somewhere deep in the sky, where she resides is a place I have no need to find, or visit again.

 
Anthony