THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“The Theory of Difference”
Published on youtube by Hailey Kemp. Some photos used in the video are from Dagmar Schultz’s film “Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992”.
Audre Lorde was born in New York on February 18th, 1934 to Caribbean immigrants. She was the youngest of three girls growing up in the racially intensified area of Harlem where she experienced racism before she could conceptualize what it was. In her bio-mythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, she explained how her light skinned mother shielded the much darker Audre from most of it. She grew to idolize the strength her mother possessed and took much inspiration from her tenacity to prevail. It was so often her approach to the world to change reality.
“If you can’t change reality, change your perceptions of it.”
This process of redefinition would prove to be Audre’s steady focus for the rest of her life. Using her own experiences with racism, sexism and homophobia to fuel vital dialogue on the process of acknowledging and battling those oppressions as well as stressing their interlinked qualities. As she matured Audre became enamored with poetry. First as a way to communicate and eventually as an outlet for her feelings.
For those of us who cannot indulge the passing dreams of choice. Who lull in doorways coming and going and the hours between dawn looking inward and outward at once before and after seeking now that can breed future.
“I remembered all of those particular things. I started writing because I had a need inside of me to create something that was not there.”
Audre continued to develop and expand her intellectual inquiry over the course of attending the National University of Mexico, Hunter College and Columbia University, where she earned her master’s degree. During this time, she married an attorney with whom she had two children. They later divorced and Audre reaffirmed her lesbian identity as she continued writing and constructing her prose as an activist.
Throughout her college career and long after she was heavily involved in gay, feminist and civil rights activism. In a piece titled Poetry is Not a Luxury, Audre highlighted the complexity of churning feelings into language. Taking ideas and turning them into action, which she deemed was Giving Name to the Nameless. Poetry to Audre was not a luxury nor a thing of leisure, but an instrument. She used it as a means to activate the imaginations and hopes of marginalized peoples.
In the forefront of our move towards change, there is only our poetry to hint at possibility made real. Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real or bring action into accordance with our fears our hopes our most cherished terrors, she said. In her essay, The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action, Audre urged that vulnerability and self-revelation was necessary to begin breaking cycles of oppression and abuse.
Your silence will not protect you warned Audre. She insisted that no gaps can be bridged without breaking the silences which create and reinforce them. For it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken. Audre’s life was spent dissecting how each one of her identities was a form of oppression and how each simultaneously diverged and intersected with one another.
As a black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain wrong. From my membership in all of these groups I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities. And that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children there can be no hierarchies of oppression.
I have learned that sexism, a belief in the inherent superiority of one’s sex over all others and thereby its right to dominance and hetero sexism; a belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving over all others and thereby its right to dominance. Both arise from the same source as racism. A belief in the inherent superiority of one race [over] all others and thereby its right to dominance. I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from the oppression of another part of my identity.
I know that my people cannot possibly profit from the oppression of any other group which seeks the right to peaceful existence. Rather we diminish ourselves by denying to others what we have shed blood to obtain for our children. And those children need to learn that they do not have to become like each other in order to work together for a future they will all share. The increasing attacks upon lesbians and gay men are only an introduction to the increasing attacks upon all black people.
For wherever our oppression manifests itself in this country, black people are potential victims. And it is a standard of right-wing cynicism to encourage members of oppressed groups to act against each other. And so long as we are divided because of our particular identities, we cannot join together in effective political action. Within the lesbian community I am black and within the black community I am a lesbian.
Any attack against black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a black issue because thousands of lesbians and gay men are black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.
I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group and I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.
“In other words, we need a movement [that] encourages you and me to define ourselves. We deal with similarities and then we must deal with our differences and the differences that are not being dealt with or provided for. Now once we deal with those differences that aren’t being provided for, we do it in a context that says, ‘Hey then we can use these differences with that – we don’t have to eradicate them, we don’t have to wipe them out.’ We also don’t have to remain with them. There is a total larger picture and that’s how I see it. In other words, I’m talking about the creative use of difference.”
She attended countless feminist panels and college conferences where she countered racism and homophobia with an attempt to discuss academic ignorance and the historical distances and differences between white women and women of color. From her controversial piece, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre assessed that advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. She stressed that the failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson.
In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower. She stressed the need for black women to define themselves outside of white feminism, white culture and even [outside of] men within the black community. For all of which their wants, needs and desires would never be spoken for. Oppressors always expect the oppressed to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves, said Audre, who was very aware of the consequences of being a strong black woman.
Audre’s life was cut short due to her 14-year battle with breast cancer. During these years she continued to explore the depths of diverging individual identities and othering. Her struggle for representation, understanding and equality was turned into action by using her eloquent and powerful words to educate and awaken others as to what they are capable of.
Audre Lorde, a true testament to the idea that the personal is political, died in 1992 at the age of 58. Her literary work includes over 15 books and countless essays. Multiple collectives and advocacy groups exist today as an extension of her activism. One of these such groups is the Audre Lorde Project based out of her home state of New York since 1996. It’s an organization that advocates for the LGBTQ+ community by progressive non-violent activism. Her legacy lives on with the ever-growing consciousness that intersectional perspective provides and by those redefining themselves and breaking silences one voice at a time.
“I’m finishing this piece of my bargain. And what I mean by that is it doesn’t matter how long it takes to finish it. I don’t know. But that is the shape of where I am living and functioning and that I’m going on to something else, the shape of which I have no idea. Only thing I know is it’s going to be quite different. What I leave behind has a life of its own. I’ve said this about poetry. I’ve said it about children. Well in a sense, I’m saying it about the very artifact of who I have been.”