Speaking at a conference on modern language in 1977, in a speech that would later be published as The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, the poet-activist Audre Lorde reckoned with her mortality.
A few weeks prior, she said, she’d undergone a mastectomy to remove a tumour that in the end turned out to be benign, but in the three weeks it had taken for the results to come back, the “final silence” of death had seemed all too imminent. “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken” she remarked, “my silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength and enabled me to scrutinize the essentials of my living.” This confessional call-to-arms - at once bold and vulnerable - was the reiteration of a lifetime’s philosophy for Lorde, whose essays and poetry had established her as a vital and necessary voice at the forefront of the intersectional feminist movement.
Thrillingly, Lorde’s writing demands nothing less than utter revolution: critiquing not only the patriarchal, heteronormative society that oppresses women, but also examining what she regarded to be the false principles within feminism. Rather than rejecting the terms and philosophies that are often weaponized against women, she reclaims them.
“Thrillingly, Lorde’s writing demands nothing less than utter revolution”
In her essay Uses of the Erotic, Lorde untangles eroticism from pornography, which “emphasises sensation without feeling”, and elevates it to the spiritual. “Recognising the power of the erotic…can give us the energy to pursue genuine change” writes Lorde, concluding that such a thing would never be possible “within the context of male models of power”.
Her 1979 essay The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House is a further exploration of the idea that a complete overhaul is necessary. Written to express her disappointment at the lack of inclusion of black and lesbian women in feminist conferences, in the essay she forcefully decries white feminism - accusing it of being too academic, too wilfully ignorant of poor women, of women of colour and their issues, too reliant on the power structures of the patriarchy to defend their exclusions.
She returns to the issue in Age, Race, Class and Sex - “by and large within the women’s movement there is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word ‘sisterhood’ that does not in fact exist”. Throughout her work, Lorde calls on the reader to reject a system that disregards divergent experiences, reject “cosmetic changes” and build one that celebrates differences: “in our world” she implores, “divide and conquer must become define and empower”.
“Lorde’s poetry is angry yet what draws the reader back is an undercurrent of hope”
The immediacy of Lorde’s call for greater inclusion must in part arise from her own life: for her, the political was intensely personal. As a “black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two, including one boy, and a member of an interracial couple” Lorde cannot help but be inclusive, it keeps her “honest” - the complexities of which she brilliantly describes in an essay exploring the challenges of raising a boy as a lesbian mother in Man Child.
In Your Silence Will Not Protect You, Silver Press’ new edition of Lorde’s work, her essays are brought together with some her poems. Somewhere in the middle of the slim pink paperback is a transcript of a conversation with the poet Adrienne Rich. This sweeping interview, rich with detail, we learn that prose never came naturally to Lorde, who expressed herself from an early age through poetry. Indeed her poems, packed with punchy imagery are a potent distillation - reducing down pages of prose into a short few lines.
Good Mirrors Are Not Cheap rehashes The Master’s Tools: “It is a waste of time hating a mirror/or its reflection/instead of stopping the hand that makes glass with distortions”.
Sometimes filled with brutal imagery, Lorde’s poetry is unflinchingly angry and fearless: she is not one to sugarcoat or mince words, yet what draws the reader back is the undercurrent of belief in a better future, a skein of light that is also threaded through her prose. Hurled rocks, barbed wire, and dogshit dumped on the porch may litter Outlines, a poem about Lorde building a life with Frances Clayton, a white woman, but it ends with love and hope: “we have chosen each other/and the edge of each other’s battles/is the same/if we win/there is no telling”.