Monday, April 22, 2013

Not Much of a Difference Between a Bridge and a Wall

I was out of town all weekend, from Friday morning to late Sunday afternoon, and I had no time to write.  I'm still getting caught up, but I'm also reading I Am Your Sister, a posthumous collection of Audre Lorde's essays and speeches.  Lorde was one of the great teachers, and as I read these pieces I'm inspired all over again.  That's especially valuable now, when I've been wading through acres of sloppy sludge on Facebook -- I did have time to scan my news feed over the weekend -- that is equally offensive intellectually whether it comes from liberal, radical, or reactionary sources.  By contrast, Lorde's voice on the page -- poetic, exact, and often angry without being panicky -- is like a satisfying meal after an exhausting day.  I don't always agree with her, just most of the time.

For example, from "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action":
And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.  That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own.  For instance, "I can't possibly teach Black women's writings -- their experience is so different from mine."  Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust?  Or another, "She's a white woman and what could she possibly have to say to me?"  Or, "She's a lesbian, and what would my husband say, or my chairman?"  Or again, "This woman writes of her sons and I have no children."  And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other [42].
I think I've always known this, since as a child I sought out the stories of people different from me as well as those like me.  Rather than hoping to find myself in one person, my twin or clone, I learned to treasure the similarities I found piecemeal in many characters: this interest here, that trait there. I like to think Lorde would have been as put off as I was by the gay male filmmaker who talked as if he believed that we can only respond to characters exactly like ourselves.  That belief is kin to the idea that men can get nothing from women's writing, that straights can't identify with gay characters, that whites can't identify with blacks, and so on.  To me, the stories of people unlike myself have always been invitations to come in and visit and learn.  I'm always baffled when other readers see such stories as forbidding, unwelcoming.  I suspect they're projecting: because they don't want to read these stories, they fantasize that the stories don't want to be read by them.

Not that Lorde accepted all differences.  (Nor does anyone else, really.)  She was sharply critical of those who made excuses for denying the humanity of others, whether they were white feminists who didn't want to have to "deal with the harshness of Black women" (Lorde, Sister Outsider, 126) or black men who didn't want to have to deal with the harshness of black women.  In a scathing response to black sociologist Robert Staples' 1979 attack on black feminists, Lorde wrote:
The lack of a reasonable and articulate Black male viewpoint on these questions is not the responsibility of Black women.  We have too often been expected to be all things to all people and speak everyone else's position but our very own.  Black men are not so passive that they must have Black women speak for them.  Even my fourteen-year-old son knows that.  Black men themselves must examine and articulate their own desires and positions and stand by the conclusions thereof.  No point is served by a Black male professional who merely whines at the absence of his viewpoint in Black women's work.  Oppressors always expect the oppressed to extend to them the understanding so lacking in themselves [46].
The last sentence of that paragraph is familiar to me too.

Among her most thrilling insights were those about difference.  As she told students at Hunter College,
It is within our differences that we are both most powerful and most vulnerable, and some of the most difficult tasks of our lives are the claiming of differences and learning to use those differences for bridges rather than as barriers between us [201].
That's not easy to do, of course.  There's a fascinating scene in the documentary Audre Lorde - The Berlin Years 1984 to 1982 in which Lorde tries to talk to a couple of Afro-German men in her audience.  But one of the things she worked at during her too-short life was learning to how to use differences as a bridge rather than a barrier, and this more than anything else is something I need to learn from her.