By Marla Chirdon, Guest Blogger
The self-proclaimed poet warrior, Audre Lorde, once remarked, “Poetry is not a luxury, but should [name] the nameless.” Indeed, it was precisely her uncanny gift to stand naked in her own austere invisibility at the margins of society that caused her own name to become so prominent. A prominence rendered in image, voice, and idea to represent the unseen, powerless women of all persuasions, vying for a rightful place in the feminist struggle. In her svelte pronouncement, “All art makes us more powerfully who we wish to become,” Audre Lorde epitomized feminine power through her canon of literary work—a luminous legacy still reverberating throughout feminist circles today. It was she who organized and convened the 1990 Boston conference and LGBT Black Arts Movement, I am Your Sister, and like all magicians, she made appear before our very eyes the multi-layers of systemic domination that pitted oppressed groups against each other. She bridged that illusory space (which we had no clear name for) and gave shape and substance to the concept of “intersectionality”—multiple layers, operating as interdependent, symbiotic systems of power to reinforce and maintain oppression. Intersectionality came to be defined as the interplay of race, class, and gender, resulting in multiple forms of disadvantage.
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
I was a young adult at the time, coming into my own as awkward feminist, reluctantly embracing Audre’s works with a strange mix of curiosity and repulsion. In her rousing essays, I was challenged to examine and break apart the intelligence code of my discomfort and excavate the ruins of my own heart and mind where my prejudices lay fallow. Frankly, I was quite uncomfortable at 20-years-old with the idea of fully embracing black lesbianism and radical feminism as it directly contradicted the idyllic, bourgeois middle-class upbringing that I had enjoyed growing up. Audre Lorde gave voice and texture to my hypocrisy and refuted this kind of “privileged complicity” with her poetic line, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” She added that those of us with any stripe of social privilege (whiteness, class, gender) are seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. She felt it the responsibility of all feminists to understand the connections between unrelated experiences women have of oppression. It was many years later, girded with ample maturity and groomed from a great deal of feminist and black nationalist literature, that I came to fully understand the idea that none of us are truly free, even if we delude ourselves into a scheme of freedom. One’s privilege, or sense of it, is contingent upon someone else’s lack of privilege, ensuring that someone will always be a slave in the service of that freedom, and if you need a slave, you are not free.
Many believe that today’s black feminism was informed by Audre Lorde’s stretching thought boundaries and by her courage to live on the fringes in order to expose the inner sanctum of imperialist, sexist, and racist machinery affecting the lives of those burdened by it. Kimberle’ Williams Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins could not have chiseled the concept of intersectionality to a shiny luster without the marble groundwork that Ms. Lorde laid for them. She was a self-defined, black lesbian, feminist mother, and poet warrior who refused to live a one-dimensional lie through the prism of others’ limited perspectives of what her life ought to be constrained by. She exhorted a holistic feminist movement and felt that diversity, with all its strains of divergent identities, should be celebrated to achieve a more perfect society. It was by moving outside the parameters of oppression, carried by the wings of art, that she could clearly see inside the broken machine and prescribe a diagnostic remedy to repair it. She brought compassionate feminist theory into the limelight and made it front and center, away from the margins. For this, I am grateful for the late Audre Lorde—Sister Outsider—whose work lives on posthumously.
Marla Chirdon hails from South Louisiana and writes essays and poetry. She has also lived abroad in Ottawa, Canada where she did volunteer work for an environmental non-profit and has spent time in North and East Africa. Marla will be a feature poet at the American Can Company in Mid-City on Wednesday, April 2nd at 6:30PM.
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