Despite taking several women’s studies modules during my degree, Audre Lorde was never assigned to me on any reading list. After reading Sister Outsider, this now seems absurd. As a Black, lesbian woman writing in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Lorde offers a unique yet vital perspective on what it was (and indeed, still is) to exist outside the categories of white and heterosexual.
Publication Date: 1984
‘A collection of fifteen essays written between 1976 and 1984 gives clear voice to Audre Lorde’s literary and philosophical personae. These essays explore and illuminate the roots of Lorde’s intellectual development and her deep-seated and longstanding concerns about ways of increasing empowerment among minority women writers and the absolute necessity to explicate the concept of difference—difference according to sex, race, and economic status. The title Sister Outsider finds its source in her poetry collection The Black Unicorn (1978). These poems and the essays in Sister Outsider stress Lorde’s oft-stated theme of continuity, particularly of the geographical and intellectual link between Dahomey, Africa, and her emerging self.’ – Goodreads
You’re never really a whole person if you remain silentAudre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, (1977)
Although Sister Outsider presents itself as theory, Lorde is insistent upon this: she is a poet. Her passion, boldness and determination flow through this book, calling the reader to her ear. She has a way of writing that will stop you in your tracks, making you re-read sentences as verses. She creates iconic quotes that will stay with you, with ease. I’ve highlighted a few of these passages below.
I feel, therefore I can be free.
The first emphasizes that for black women, poetry is not a luxurious past time for educated white people, but an absolute necessity to life itself: ‘The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.’ It is through poetry, she argues, that freedom can be found. Poetry can give ways to revolutionary ideas, helping them to become ‘tangible action.’ For the black woman, she implies, poetry is akin to life.
We must not hide behind the mockeries of separations.
On the differences between white heterosexual women and women of colour and/or LGBTQ+ women she writes: ‘We [must not] hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own.’ In short, all women must stand together, and not allow male imposed boundaries to separate them. When approached with ‘Black Women’s Writing’ or the writing of LGBTQ+ women, the white woman must not say she can neither read nor teach these works because they are outside her experience. After all, Lorde says, ‘how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust?’
We fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street.
Finally, on the fundamental difference between black and white mothers in the USA: ‘[White women] fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.’ This striking imagery truly highlights the different struggles between black and white feminism, and although written in the 1980’s, Lorde’s words are unfortunately still relevant today.
An honourable mention must also go to a quote from Lorde’s daughter: ‘You’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.’
I would highly recommend reading Sister Outsider. Lorde’s words have a way of gripping you throughout her work. They do not lecture or preach, yet they educate all the same. Lorde truly is a crucial voice in contemporary feminist thought.