Lorde is dead, and I am angry. I am sad, too, but the anger is
what I want to write about. I am angry at a number of institutions
-- medical, governmental, educational, commercial -- because
Lorde died of cancer, and I wonder if this could have been prevented.
I wonder if there might have been more of a chance for her, and
others, if more medical and legislative attention were paid to
women's health issues, particularly to the health of women of
color. How much did the frustration and rage against the racism,
sexism, and homophobia in her life build upon the stress that
bit by bit wore down her defenses, took her energy for preserving
her life? How many times was her joy in life, her creativity
and passion, diverted to fight attitudes of hate? How debilitating
this constant fight, how wounding.
My anger is selfish, in a way,
because I never met Audre Lorde. So many others in this volume
were happy to know her, and challenged to know her. I never worked
up my nerve to write her, to try to speak with her, to tell her
simply that her work mattered and meant much to me. I cannot
talk with her, only read and reread the writings she has left.
And if my reaction to her death is anger, I also have a guide
and an explanation from her as to what use anger might be put
in this troubling world.
first work I read by Lorde was her essay, "The Uses of Anger:
Women Responding to Racism." Because my profession and labor
of love is teaching, I relish sharing the written word with students
and colleagues. Like a gift or discovery, I want to show others
works that have helped and mattered to me. I have found Lorde's
essay valuable, over and over again, in validating my own emotional
responses, and in hearing the responses of other people within
a variety of experiences. Lorde has shown me how instructive
anger can be, and how destructive fear and guilt. She wrote,
"Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes"
(129). I extend this thought: anger is an appropriate reaction
to sexist, classist, and homophobic attitudes. And anger is an
appropriate medium for exploring these attitudes, and for acting
Lorde's work is both liberating
and challenging, in that she accomplishes what Chicana poet and
scholar Gloria Anzaldúa describes as "making the
invisible visible." What Lorde reveals are the systems and
constructs that attempt to deny anger, that blame conditions
of oppression on the oppressed, diverting attention from people's
pain and confusion, and avoiding responsibility or action.
Lorde specifically addressed
the experiences of women of color within a racist society, and
the experiences of lesbians in a homophobic society, in order
to teach about and empower relationships between all women. She
described personal experiences that made her angry -- belittling,
painful, hurtful episodes -- among both mean-spirited and well-meaning
women, people of color, gays and lesbians attempt to address
the oppression of sexism, racism, and homphobia in academic settings,
either through overt demonstration or within our work, we are
identified as trouble-makers; told we are not "intellectually
rigorous" (whatever that means); or described as aggressive,
hostile, violent. Being viewed in this way by the academy is
not safe: only certain individuals are permitted aggression in
We have all been trained to think
of anger as destructive, useless; we fear anger. But so many
of us in the academy are angry, hurt, tired, exhausted. Lorde
wrote, "anger is the grief of distortions between peers"
(129), and the distortions many of us live with are wounding.
Especially when trying to expose and correct a problem, our lives,
our thoughts, our emotions, are distorted by others into monsters
and pariahs. Rather than put into service toward change, our
energies and efforts are exhausted, in our attempts at self-explanation
It is not my anger that keeps
students out of educational institutions in a supposed democracy;
not my anger that hires people of color, then will not retain
them; it is not my anger that causes students of color to leave
college--crushed, bitter, and angry, with no financial aid nor
mentors; not my anger that creates a student body that sits,
numbed and silent, in over-crowded lecture halls, numbers in
a system of mass education.
Reading Lorde's essay, I am learning not to be afraid to hear anger or express my own, because anger is that emotion which creates movement.
training myself to be a responsible listener and reader, I also
try to help my students learn how to listen and read. In a class
called "Women of Color Writers," my co-instructor and
I ask students to read three poems: Rosario Morales' "I
Am What I Am," Diane Burns' "Sure You Can Ask Me A
Personal Question," and Lorna Dee Cervantes' "Poem
for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-Read
Person, Could Believe in the War Between the Races." Each
of these poems deals with the process and difficulty of negotiating
identity in the face of racism and sexism. Reactions from the
white women and men in this course are often hostile: the authors
are so angry; all they do is complain; I can't read this or understand
it when it's not my experience; I can't read this when I feel
the anger is directed at me.
Students who reject these do
so by making themselves the center of discussion. They privilege
their experiences over the works read, thus diverting attention
to themselves. Their reactions attempt to define a world where
racism is not their responsibility, and to decenter the authority
of the writer. In reading Audre Lorde, however, such behavior
is interrogated. Lorde challenges readers to use our "power
to examine and to redefine the terms upon which we will live
and work" (133). And Lorde discusses guilt:
The university seems a frozen
place sometimes, held together and controlled by those who reject
honest reponses to dishonest situations. Certainly the passion
that Audre Lorde pours into her work is not reflected within
typical academic structures. Instead, I see a system that avoids
emotion, or abuses those people who show feeling. I am not surprised,
considering that the first universities in the United States
were developed to train Anglo-European gentlemen's sons to rule
the masses. Learning to control others would require a limited
emotional capacity. What surprises me is the continued acceptance
of such behavior that belittles and degrades normal human emotion.
It should be normal to be sad or angry when death or oppression
occur. And it should be normal to call for change.
The world seems smaller, now that Audre Lorde is no longer writing. I would hope my anger, our anger, could create a presence that fills that now-empty space, to motivate change, and share words that matter.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. SF: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.
Burns, Diane. "Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question," in New Worlds of Literature, eds. Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. NY: Norton, 1989.
Cervantes, Lorna Dee. "Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between the Races," from Emplumada, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.
Lorde, Audre. "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism," from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. NY: The Crossing Press, 1984.
Morales, Rosario. "I Am What I Am," in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. NY: Kitchen Table Press, 1983.