‘Because it is the work of feminism to make connections, to heal unnecessary divisions, Sister Outsider is a reason for hope’.
‘Foreward’ by Cheryl Clarke
I have had great difficulty writing this review of Audre Lorde’s seminal collection of speeches and essays, Sister Outsider. Partly because there were so many brilliant quotes that resonated deeply with me and the society we live in today that I needed – and still do need – more time to unpack and understand them. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m ashamed that I’ve never sought out any of Lorde’s work before. Of course, I have come across her most well-known and empowering quotes – on websites and in the news regarding the Women’s March earlier this year – and I have always been aware of her significance in representing black and lesbian women in the feminist movement during the seventies and eighties, but I have never actually picked up an anthology of her poems or read any of her speeches/essays before in their entirety.
Writing and speaking out during second-wave feminism, Audre Lorde was very critical of the exclusiveness of the feminist community. Mainly focusing on white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied women, feminism in the seventies and eighties didn’t concern itself much with becoming intersectional and representative of all women and their varied identities. This is something that has also arisen in present-day feminism, highlighting the fact that although many things have changed since the first publication of Sister Outsider, many things have remained the same. In a lot of ways, Lorde’s words are just as prominent and important in the feminist movement today as they have ever been.
This theme of relevance continued to crop up again and again in these brilliantly poetic pieces of prose. From Lorde’s position on victim blaming in ‘Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface’ to the unjustifiable murder of black men by armed police in ‘Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining difference’, Lorde’s words speak directly to issues that are constantly in the news now. You can be forgiven for thinking that Sister Outsider was a contemporary publication from 2017.
‘Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. This is a difference between the passive be and the active being.
Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic’.
‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’
One of the lessons I will take away from Sister Outsider is Lorde’s assertion that the power of difference is a compelling force for creative change. We should all be actively seeking out and listening to voices that are different from our own, recognising and challenging the many forms oppression can take. From Lorde’s unique identity as a black lesbian warrior poet, mother to a son and partner in a racially mixed relationship, she traverses the role of ‘sister’ and ‘outsider’ in multiple ways. By dismantling the barriers women face within their own communities and between communities, Lorde shows us that the only way the feminist movement can progress is if we start to recognise and understand the differences within and between us.
‘It is not our differences which separate women, but our reluctance to recognise those differences and to deal effectively with the distortions which have resulted from the ignoring and misnaming of those differences’.
‘Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference’
There is a lot more to these speeches and essays than I feel able to cover. Lorde’s writing is so poetic and so nuanced at times, while at other times so direct and honest. Sister Outsider is one of those collections, like Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run With the Wolves, that I will read again and again, uncovering something new and understanding a little more each time.