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"A woman speaks ... I am woman and not white": politics of voice, tactical essentialism, and cultural intervention in Audre Lorde's activist poetics and practice.

Audre Lorde -- self-defined African-American, feminist, lesbian, poet -- is an uppity woman. She talks back, speaks out, uses language as a crucial means of intervention in a sociocultural field structured by systemic inequities -- sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism. Because her strategic invocations of identity are implicitly problematized by her multiple positioning, Lorde's practice of poetic cultural intervention provides a context for me to engage the question of essentialism under debate in the feminist and broader theoretical communities. As well, Lorde's figuring of "voice" and "silence" as central to her activist poetics and practice in such works as The Black Unicorn (1978) compels me to meditate on the meanings and politics of these terms within (overlapping) aesthetic, feminist, political, and academic contexts.

In her 1969 essay "The Aesthetics of Silence," Susan Sontag defines modernist avant-garde art and literary practice by structural silences that frustrate interpretation and, in this way, act as a form of aggression against the would-be receiver. While poststructuralists now celebrate these same tendencies toward indeterminacy, what is crucial for me is Sontag's inadvertent indication that the aesthetics of silence intersects a discourse of mastery: "an exemplary decision of this sort |for silence~ can be made only after the artist has demonstrated that he possesses genius and has exercised that genius authoritatively" (7, my emphasis). This begs the question of what cultural assumptions and privileges underpin the genius construct. Sontag further discloses that an aesthetics of silence is also implicated in a dream of a transcendant "ahistorical condition": ". . . the advocacy of silence expresses a mythic project of total liberation . . . of the artist from himself, of art from the particular artwork, of art from history, of spirit from matter, of the mind from its perceptual and intellectual limitations" (15-18).

When this conception of an ahistorical aesthetics of silence is counterpointed with the art practice of members from oppressed groups, silence within "project|s~ of total liberation" takes on an entirely different meaning. AIDS Demographics, a book on AIDS activist art, features a poster designed by the AIDS Action Network, ACT UP, in 1986. It reads in bold print capitols "SILENCE = DEATH," while the small print makes the conditions of this silence explicit: "Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Federal Drug Administration, and the Vatican?" (30, 31). Silence here marks the site of oppression. Conversely, speaking out is the sign of, and, often, a literal means of, intervention in oppressive systems. This equation between speaking out and acting up, voice and public visibility, has been central to twentieth-century activism that coheres around group identity formation -- for example, the black power, women's liberation, and gay pride movements. Such agency is contingent on finding a communal voice opposed to what Jo Spence calls "structured and structuring silences"(8).(1) In counterpoint, strategic silence (quite different from voicelessness) as a strategy of resistance is not to be overlooked. As a kind of antivoice, what Trinh T. Minh-ha calls "a mode of uttering, and a response in its own right," such loud silence only "gains a hearing" in concert with "other silences" -- coalition rather than solo silences (83).

Translating such linkage of voice and "hearing" into a literary context raises the suspect equation of voice with identity, presence, authority, and intentionality. While I do not think that recent questions can or should be dismissed, I agree with Jeanne Perreault's sense that these categories must be renegotiated when considering a writer like Lorde, whose cultural authority is always already provisional: "only if 'voice' or 'presence' is assumed to be that of the most profound of authorities, indeed, a voice/presence not limited by social or political conditions, is it necessary to detach it from writing" (4). I would extend Perreault's observations on the gendered voice to the inscription of any marginated subjectivity, so that I see those who write "resistance literatures" of all kinds (gays, lesbians, people of color, working class) as writing to strategically assert "presence" and cultural authority, to assert agency through self-defined socio-symbolic practices.(2) It is instructive in such a retake on "voice/presence" to ask why and how authorial "voice" signifies differently within diverse critical and cultural discourses. For example, how might various cultural privileges contextualize Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author" and Michel Foucault's "What is an Author?"(3) It also seems to me that "intention" in the context of marginated writing is as much a function of the actual author-outside-the-text as it is of the text, the historical moment, or interpretative activation by the reader, although never fully recoverable as a key to unlocking the ideal meaning. Specifically, I see Lorde's invocation of her "voice/presence" as a provisional assertion of strategic authority; she "intends" to intervene in the symbolic order with her alternative signifying practice. Such an authority de-authorizes those with capitol A/Authority and opens up the cultural space for others speaking.(4)

Within the (sometimes) intersecting activist and literary contexts, who is made visible by voicing also involves privilege. The limited universal implied by the "unified" voice of protest in liberation movements has frequently been based on an exclusion of certain of their constituents. For example, white middle class women have tended to speak for all women, black middle class men for all blacks, white middle class gay men for all gays and lesbians. Invoking voice as cultural intervention in the public realm, then, has the attendant danger of exclusion based on certain privileges. It is relevant at this juncture to consider the politics of my own invocation of Lorde's black lesbian female voice in the institutionally empowered frame of an academic journal. Writing across the differences of my white and heterosexual subject positioning, I seek to negotiate the problematics that ensue when the "other voice" is appropriated, spoken for by well-intentioned liberalism, legitimated by a cultural majority. Feminist standpoint theorists like Donna Haraway call for an embodied knowledge formation that opens up possibilities for ethical conversations accountable to asymmetrical power relations. I conceive of my theorized close readings of Lorde's work as a provisional textual exchange, a "partial translation" across the knowledge gaps of our differences, in which I am responsible to the intersecting and contradictory privileges and oppressions that frame my speaking. I see my writing, then, as an answer to her urgent call that we "not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us . . ." and that we "bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence" ("Transformation" 43, 44). In that journey towards bridging, I am willing to risk mistakes. I have faith that there are now enough strong Afra-American voices in the cultural room -- Lorde's, Alice Walker's, bell hooks', Hortense Spillers', Mae Henderson's, and Barbara Christian's, for example -- that they will speak back.(5) I welcome that. A Canadian Metis writer, Maria Campbell, notes that "when you admit you're a thief, then you can be honourable" (Jessica 112). Those of us writing across difference from variously privileged subject positions are always already inside the activity of appropriation. I think we have mistakenly attempted to theorize strategies that locate us outside of appropriation when silence affords the only "pure" means. While I see strategically chosen silences as necessary in specific situations, as Lorde indicates, this is not always productive. I am seeking here to find ways toward what might be termed an honorable appropriation that takes cultural humility and self-reflexion as a starting place for negotiating a horizon of what Mae Henderson envisions as "a multiplicity of 'interested readings' . . . entering into dialogic relationship with other 'interested readings'" ("Response" 162).(6)

Feminists who see "coming to voice" as a sign of female self-determination participate in what thinkers like Linda Alcoff have called "cultural feminism," which aims to facilitate women's liberation through the recovery of women's history, tradition, and culture (Alcoff 411). Feminist self-critique in the 1980's focused on calling those with unquestioned investment in this project to accountability. For example, a focus on (universal) female culture and history tends to obscure pressing questions of which specific women's culture and history is celebrated -- typically, that of white middle-class heterosexual women, like myself, to the exclusion of others. Further, such celebrations have frequently focused on what are perceived as innate female qualities like nurturing, which is seen as being naturally derived from women's biological capacity to be mothers. Belief in a "natural" or given "femininity" does not account for the social equation between "maternal" and "feminine." As well, it erases differences between and among women. For example, other cultures may not privilege the nurturing function in women the way that ours does and some women within our culture may not identify with the maternal model.

Thinkers like Mary Daly and poets like Adrienne Rich, now identified as cultural feminists, often become whipping girls for social-constructionist feminists like Alcoff, who dismiss their emphasis on reconstructing female culture as dangerously essentialist (411).(7) Interestingly, Alcoff recuperates Audre Lorde, whose invocations of the black female voice and emphasis on poetry as the vehicle for social change also seem to imply an essential black female identity. However, for Alcoff, Lorde's location within a "simultaneity of oppressions . . . resists essentialist exclusions" (412). I find the dismissal of Rich as one of feminism's bad girls and the recuperation of Lorde as the new good girl on the block to be a strange move when they were close friends who publicly acknowledged the deep affinities between their cultural projects.(8) To dismiss Rich involves ignoring evidence from her earliest feminist thought that contradicts a totalized essentialism, as well as freezing her in a single historical moment rather than following her theory-in-process to the increasingly sophisticated and anti-essentialist positioning of her writing in the eighties.(9) On the other hand, to recuperate Lorde as a "pure" anti-essentialist is to suppress the unruly signs of her location within cultural feminism, such as when she self-identifies as "a Black woman warrior poet" ("Transformation" 41-42) or invokes "the goddess" (Burst 101). I dwell on the strange case of Alcoff's reading of Rich and Lorde because it may provide a cautionary tale for feminist theory and practice. Essentializing essentialist tendencies or suppressing them is still locked into a binary economy. It seems to me more productive to identify and negotiate the contradictions of strategic or provisional essentialism that I see as operative in both their works and to question whether "cultural feminism" is as monolithic a concept as recent theory has constructed it to be.

The possibility of a strategic essentialism is theorized first by Gayatri Spivak in a 1984 interview with Elizabeth Grosz. Rather than protecting "theoretical purity" by refusing to take a stand against anything, Spivak calls for a "strategic choice" of privileging feminist practice over theory (11-12). In a second interview from a 1989 special issue of Differences on "Another look at Essentialism," she doubles back on her analysis to remind us that "a strategy suits a situation, a strategy is not a theory" (127). In this way, she implements deconstruction's "most serious critique . . . the critique of something that is extremely useful, something without which we cannot do anything" (129). Teresa de Lauretis in "Taking the Risk of Essentialism" and Diana Fuss in Essentially Speaking also argue for similarly contradictory practices of strategic essentialism. These women suggest that the charge of essentialism is not necessarily grounds for dismissing projects identified with cultural feminism. Instead, in the context of identity politics, they re-value tactical deployment of seemingly essentialist notions like female voice or identity as a strategy of intervention in oppressive systems (Fuss 20). What Spivak, de Lauretis, and Fuss are renegotiating is not belief in a biologically determined female essence or core attributes that can be objectively discovered through observation, but rather a paradoxical conceptual essentialism or "classificatory fiction," self-consciously framed as a product of language, which is no less powerful for being fictional (Fuss 4-5). I would suggest that agency is, in fact, impossible without the "enabling fictions" accommodated by such a refigured essentialism. Invocations of identity, then, facilitate agency through the formation of coalitions from which demands for change in the name of women (or other marginated groups) can be made. One way to deploy such a tactical feminist essentialism is to account for the ways in which gender or sexual difference is in a constant state of interanimation with the elements of class, physical ability, race, ethnicity, nationality, and sexual orientation, among other "identity" markers (de Lauretis, "Eccentric Subjects" 133). For

example, when a black lesbian woman like Lorde writes from her complex subject positioning, she cannot separate the strands of gender, race, and sexual orientation, except in a kind of dance, where one element temporarily shifts to the foreground, as the other fades to the rearground of inscription. Gloria T. Hull points to Lorde's multivalent subject construction as her "tricky positionality" or "ceaseless negotiation of a positionality from which she can speak" (159, 155). For feminist thinkers and writers, there are times, however, when it may be strategically necessary to foreground "gender" through addressing overlapping positionalities, those intersecting aspects of women's experience that afford a provisional "standpoint" from which to gain knowledge and to engage in collective liberatory struggle (de Lauretis, "Eccentric Subjects" 139).(10)

At the intersection of multiple oppressions, Audre Lorde risks essentialism to affirm her own speaking and call other black lesbian women's voices from silence. In bell hooks' terms, ". . . for women within oppressed groups . . . coming to voice is an act of resistance" (12). African-American female literary acts of talking back to the powers extend the boundaries of the category identified by Barbara Harlow as "resistance literature" from the "Third World" context of liberation struggles to the North American context of liberation struggles on multiple and intersecting fronts. Following Mae Henderson's provocative model of "discursive diversity," I will engage Lorde's "dialogic of differences" and "dialectic of identity" through theorized close readings of poems from The Black Unicorn intertextually glossed by her essays ("Speaking" 17, 20). Such "speaking in |other~ tongues," according to Henderson, marks Afra-American signifying practices, which dialectically testify to their various communities of affiliation and dialogically challenge the "hegemonic dominant" and "'ambiguously (non)hegemonic' discourses" (20). Speaking both "interculturally" and "intraculturally" (Henderson, "Speaking" 25), Lorde theorizes the relationship between her discursive practice and sociocultural agency in two essays -- "Poetry is not a Luxury" and "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" -- written in 1977, the year she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy.

Facing her own mortality, Lorde was brought to a sense of "urgent clarity" about the need to break the cultural silences around her identity not only as a woman, but also as black and lesbian. She gives this account of her reasons for publicly naming herself at an October 1985 talk she gave in East Lansing, Michigan:

. . . first off I identified myself as a Black Feminist Lesbian poet, although it felt unsafe . . . because if there was one other Black Feminist Lesbian poet in isolation somewhere within the reach of my voice, I wanted her to know she was not alone. I think a lot about Angelina Weld Grimke, a Black Lesbian poet of the Harlem Renaissance, who is never identified as such, when she is mentioned at all . . . I often think of |her~ dying alone in an apartment in New York City in 1958 while I was a young Black Lesbian struggling in isolation at Hunter College, and I think of what it could have meant in terms of sisterhood and survival for each of us to have known of the other's existence. (Burst 73)

Breaking silences, for Lorde, involves self-naming and offering her identity to facilitate building communities through which future action is made possible.

Audre Lorde's primary venue for coming to voice is poetry. While socialist feminists often critique cultural feminists' emphasis on aesthetic productions as being divorced from the material conditions of women's lives, Lorde asserts the opposite in her essay "Poetry is Not a Luxury":

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. ("Poetry" 37)

Here Lorde speaks in the name of women, brings gender to the fore as the basis of the coalition she envisions. For her, coming to voice in poetry provides women with "illumination," a "spawning ground for the most radical and daring of ideas." Challenging the formalist binarism (evidenced in the Sontag essay) between the aesthetic and the historical/political, Lorde also reminds us of how the visionary is integral to liberation struggles. Alternative sociocultural realities are birthed in the realm of the imagination as Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech indicates. While the word "visionary" is often used negatively to mean idealistic and unpractical, it also means to have discernment and wisdom. Visionary thought, as Lorde suggests, is theory at its best, formulating future possibility, opening up the questions that can be asked.

Lorde implements her theory of visionary activism in a literary context in The Black Unicorn. Throughout the volume, she equates the pain of "having to live a difference that has no name" with voicelessness ("Burst" 57): "the pain of voiceless mornings / voiceless kitchens I remember / cornflakes shrieking like banshees in my throat" (25). The volume is redolent with instances of the poet/speaker in the acts of vocalizing, laughing, singing, drumming, screaming -- in short, making sounds that mark her responses to the specific conditions of her life. Frequently, Lorde invokes musical or oratorical forms such as the litany, dirge, eulogy, ballad, and lullaby with such titles as "A Litany for Survival" and "Woman/Dirge for Wasted Children." These signal her affiliation with African expressive culture. For instance, "A Litany For Survival" makes use of the African call-and-response pattern to give poetic shape to Lorde's theorizing of the relationship between fear, silence, and invisibility in contrast to courage, coming to voice, and visibility. This poem occupies an intersection of Western and African traditions, so that the Western liturgical form of the litany or antiphonal prayer is resonant with the African call and response structure. By repeating the lines "for those of us" at the beginning of stanzas one and two with the variant "for all of us" at the end of stanza two, the poet/speaker establishes the litany framework:

For those of us who live at the shoreline standing upon the constant edges of decision crucial and alone for those of us who cannot indulge the passing dreams of choice who love in doorways coming and going in the hours between dawns looking inward and outward

For those of us who were imprinted with fear like a faint line in the middle of our foreheads learning to be afraid with our mother's milk (31)

Through phrasal repetition, the speaker signals her inclusion in a community, marked by the collective pronouns "us" and "we"; but uncharacteristically for Lorde, the communal identity is not distinctively specified. Because of this, the poem seems to gesture toward the universal. There are, however, several indicators that the members of this community affiliate around determinately intersecting oppressions. When the poet/speaker equates a future with bread in the children's mouths in stanza one, she signals that this community is not economically privileged. Further, "heavy-footed" in stanza two, with its military and masculinist associations, suggests gender oppression. Lorde also invokes figures of liminal or in-between spaces in the opening stanza with the phrases "at the shoreline," "upon the constant edges of decision," "in doorways," "looking inward and outward." These signify the community's peripheral status. Such a spatial construction may also signal heterosexist oppression of lesbians "who cannot indulge / the passing dreams of choice / who love in doorways coming and going."(11)

However, such readings of the indicators of this communal subject positioning are somewhat speculative unless "Litany for Survival" is read intertextually with other poems from The Black Unicorn and essays from the same period. A purely formalist reading of such a poem in isolation from its contexts is an abdication of the responsibility that attends reading across different subject positionings, although this is an issue I can only gesture towards here.(12) Because an ethically responsible contextualized reading accounts for the particular communities invoked in the poem, it uncloses the notion of the lyric as a bounded text, a private voice speaking in a closed frame. Phrases and concepts circulate between the poem and a resonant essay (one of many possible socio-discursive contexts). "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" was originally delivered at the 1977 MLA "Lesbian and Literature Panel" and originally published in The Cancer Journals, written during Lorde's experience with breast cancer. Her near death caused her to realize that safety in silence is illusory. In "A Litany of Survival," by cataloging and ultimately playing a reversal on a litany of fears that block speech-acts of resistance, she enjoins other black women to come to voice despite silencing fears:

. . . when we are loved we are afraid love will vanish when we are alone we are afraid love will never return and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive. (32)

A moving intertext from "Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" marks the specific communities signalled by the ambiguously unmarked pronoun "we" in the poem:

In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear -- fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism. Even within the women's movement, we have had to fight and still do, for that very visibility which also renders us most vulnerable, our Blackness. For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson -- that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, Black or not. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not you speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid. (42)

In this excerpt, which explicitly equates coming to voice with cultural visibility, Lorde seems to speak first in the name of generic woman: "each of us draws the face of her own fear." However, it soon becomes clear that she is speaking specifically in the name of black women, to and for them from within their shared experience of racism. In this way, she problematizes the notion of a generic "woman" for the women's movement by reminding us that sexual difference can never be the only explanation for unequal power relations. Similarly, when she ends her poem "A Woman Speaks" with the declaration, "I am woman and not white," Lorde brings the black woman to what bell hooks calls the "speaking center," while shifting a white academic woman like myself to the rearground (15).

Survival is defined in terms of race as well as gender. However, as soon as Lorde invokes the nominal essentialism of her racial identity as it intersects with gender in the essay, she undercuts this as a stable point of location by gesturing back toward the universal to include her audience members at large in the group who were never meant to survive. In this way, Lorde speaks in "diverse known tongues" (Henderson, "Speaking" 22), negotiates multiple axes of community affiliation, in a manner that suggests the possibility of a provisionalized universal around which coalitions of "corresponding differences" may be formed (Marlatt 189). Reading Lorde's poem intertextually with the essay facilitates a dance of readings, a "dialogics of difference," in which multiple communities of response may be ethically accounted for after the primary community of black lesbian women is honored.

Lorde's voicing of African American female identity works to refigure intersecting Eurocentric and sex/gender signifying systems. In fact, provisionalising a universal subject position may be seen as one of the projects of the entire volume, as the title poem "Black Unicorn" indicates. Lorde invokes and reframes the unicorn seduction narrative from Western folklore, for while the unicorn is always white and (implicitly) male, her unicorn is black and female. Such a representational shift asks us to question our assumption that Western culture is universal by foregrounding the connection between cultural formations and positioning in such identity factors as race and gender. Further, Lorde strategically appropriates and refigures the dominant iconography of the phallic horn; inverted, it is the marker of female sexual power: "it is not on her lap where the horn rests / but deep in her moonpit / growing" (3). Such reformulation of the sexual economy is even more prominent in other poems, where the geography of desire is explicitly lesbian. Fundamentally, "The Black Unicorn" meditates on the need for opening up the representational frame as a sphere of activism. Like the unicorn of lore, the black unicorn is "not free," but she is also not the willing captive of desire; she is imprisoned by false versions and reifications of her identity, "mistaken for a shadow or symbol." As a figure of resistance, the black unicorn signals that this volume will negotiate an activist intervention in dominant cultural formations.

Another way Lorde renegotiates exclusionary signifying systems is by drawing on African myths and traditions, specifically those from Dahomey and the Yoruba cultures of Western Nigeria, which Lorde found transplanted to her mother's Grenadian context. In poems such as "Dahomey," she borrows stories and key figures from this alternative tradition, but provides a glossary at the back of The Black Unicorn that positions the reader as a student of West African culture. Such poems engage non-African readers in a process of reformulating received notions of a "universal" literary tradition. In "Dahomey," Lorde speaks from the intersections of gender and race to improvise on the primacy of female figures in the Dahomean myths:

It was in Abomey . . . . . . where I found my mother Seboulisa standing with outstretched palms hip high one breast eaten away by worms of sorrow (10)

Seboulisa here signifies multiply -- as a Goddess in the Dahomean pantheon known as "The Mother of Us All" or "Creator of the Universe," as one of the Amazon warrior women marked by their missing breast (who are indigenous to Dahomean myths), and as a self-representation for the activist poet/speaker who reframes her mastectomy as a sign of empowerment.

In the last stanza, Lorde renegotiates the cult of divination centering around Shango, God of Thunder. While traditionally in this cult women were priestesses and oracles who interpreted the sacred writings or "fas" of Seboulisa, in Lorde's version, Shango is usurped by the priestess who takes on his property of thunder as the sign of her oracular speech: "Thunder is a woman with braided hair / spelling the fas of Shango." There is a crucial conflation of speaking voices and locations in this stanza for it begins with the third person assertion "thunder is a woman," but shifts midway to the first person: "Bearing two drums on my head I speak / whatever language is needed to sharpen the knives of nay tongue." Time frames and cultural frames collapse as a Dahomean priestess is conflated with an Afra-American poet who speaks dialogically with forked tongue the multiple languages necessary to address the shifting contexts of race and gender, among other axes of subjectivity. Further, female linguistic power is figured as "sharpening the knives of my tongue," so that language is conceptualized as the weapon of the activist poet.

In "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action," Lorde states: "Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself -- a Black woman warrior poet doing my work -- come to ask you, are you doing yours?" (41-42). Here and elsewhere, Lorde's insistence on multiple self-naming implicitly problematizes the politically necessary invocation of the seemingly essentialist descriptors "woman," "Black," and "lesbian." In another of her poems, the poet/speaker declares ". . . I am lustful now for my own name . . . I seek my own shapes now. . ." (62). Within her creative/critical activist project, voicing and naming as self-invention are interchangeable. But it is finally Lorde's self-naming as lesbian that I want to engage, for this is an axis of subjectivity that is frequently elided in critical discourses, feminist or otherwise. It is the pain of this absence that Lorde addresses in her poem "Scar" as it intersects with other woundings along race and gender lines. She addresses the poem to the women "who burn / me at midnight / in effigy . . . laughing me out of your skin / because you do not value your own" (48). This ritual expulsion marks another site of cultural wounding for the poet/speaker. It is only later in the poem that the reason for her derision by and excision from the Afra-American community is revealed: her self-identification as lesbian poses a threat to the heterosexual codes imbricated with female gender positioning. Parallel to the way she problematizes the category "woman," Lorde's interrogation of heterosexism and homophobia in the black community problematizes the assumption of a monolithic African-American female identity or tradition. Naming the absence of kinswomen through negation -- "I will have no mother no sister no daughter / when I am through" -- Lorde interrogates intersecting constructions of gender and sexuality. In stanza three, she figures subsumption of black female identity under that of the male (in the heterosexual couple) as a scene of self-mutilation:

see how the bones are showing the shape of us at war clawing our own flesh out to feed the backside of our masklike faces that we have given the names of men. (48)

Figured as violent self-negation or cannibalism, female erasure behind the mask of the male family name results in wars within and between women at the site of (homoerotic) contradictions to heterocentric encoding.

In stanza six, Lorde further probes the wounded experience of female deselfing within the heterosexual economy by ventriloquizing the voice of a prostitute:

Come Sambo dance with me pay the piper dangling dancing his knee-high darling over your wanting under your bloody white faces come Bimbo come Ding dong watch the city falling down down down lie down bitch slow down nigger so you want a cozy womb to hide you to pucker up and suck you back safely

look me up I'm the ticket taker on a queen of roller coasters I can get you off cheap. (49-50)

Here the poem stages a collision between the racialized signs "Sambo" and "nigger" and the gendered sign "bitch" to further interrogate the intersecting zones of race, gender, and sexuality. In this ironized direct address to the multi-racial consumers of the female body/commodity, the subject of address first appears to be Sambo, the figure of the African-American male frozen in a children's book racist stereotype, but the pronoun "your" shifts multiply to refer to the "white faces" who are similarly cartooned as "Bimbo" and "Ding Dong." Desire of possession emanates from both positions, just as the vocal imperative "lie down bitch" may. However, the subject of address shifts from the multiple to the singular with "slow down nigger," a command to the Sambo figure that seems to derive from the speaker/prostitute. The line following is enjambed through non-punctuation, so that the "you" who wants a "cozy womb" to hide in would seem to refer to the figure of the "nigger." Such use of the racist terms and signs for the African-American male within this skin-trade context inserts sex/gender positioning into a scene of racial oppression. Lorde here suggests that male sex consumption is an attempted escape from the pain of racism, so that there is, as the repetition in the lines "watch the city falling down down / down lie down bitch slow down nigger" suggests, a downward spiral of dehumanization.

However, Lorde frames this ironized mimicry of the African-American sex/gender (victim) position between two stanzas that present an alternative construction. In the preceding stanza (five), Lorde repeats, as a refrain, the lines that witness the absence of family women for the poet/speaker, while affirming a new community of affiliation:

I have no sister no mother no children left only a tideless ocean of moonlit women in all shades of loving learning the dance of open and closing learning a dance of electrical tenderness no father no mother would teach them. (49)

This passage provides a figure of lesbian community that transgresses and reformulates the code of the nuclear family and the positioning of women within that social order. Lorde's essay "Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power" helps contextualize a sharp shift in tone and subjectivity between the utopian dance of moonlit women in this stanza and the prostitute's dance in stanza six. Lorde theorizes a distinction between the pornographic, defined as "plasticized sensation" devoid of feeling, and the erotic, which signifies deep feelings of joy shared with another physically, intellectually, and emotionally (56). From engaging capacity for shared joy, Lorde theorizes "erotic knowledge" as an "empowering" tool, a "lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence" and by which we measure quality of life (57).(13) Erotic knowledge thus becomes a tool for critical interrogation of all the forms of "anti-life" or oppression that Lorde speaks out against (Burst 130).

While Lorde reformulates our cultural understanding of the erotic as purely sexual, she does not de-sexualize it in either the essay or poem intertexts. She in fact reinserts it into a specifically lesbian context. The dance of electrical tenderness, then, in stanza five provides a figure for what Lorde theorizes in her essay as "women-identified women brave enough to risk sharing the erotic's electrical charge . . ." (59). The final stanza of "Scar" constructs a sexualized figure of lesbian eroticism who also speaks back to the plasticized figure of the prostitute in the preceding stanza:

This is a simple poem sharing my head with dreams of a big black woman with jewels in her eyes she dances her head in a golden helmet arrogant plumed her name is Colossa her thighs are like stanchions or flayed hickory trees embraced in armour she dances slow earth-shaking motions that suddenly alter and lighten as she whirls laughing the tooled metal over her hips comes to an end and at the shiny edge an astonishment of soft black curly hair. (50)

This fantasized figure is marked by her armor as an Amazon, reclaimed as a lesbian precursor from Dahomean mythology. However, Lorde conflates and conflicts signifying systems by naming her Colossa. Here on the representational horizon she constructs a "big black woman" as a cultural sign that can only be read as talking back to that emblem of the Western patriarch -- the Colossus of Rhodes.(14) Further, in lines like "her thighs are like . . . flayed hickory trees," she appropriates the figural strategies deployed in the Song of Solomon to displace the culturally and divinely sanctioned heterosexual economy with that of the homoerotic. As she challenges systems of signification encoded with race and gender norms in other poems, Lorde transgresses literary and cultural norms for sexuality. The surprise ending that discloses Colossa as naked from the waist down to focus on the "astonishment of soft black curly hair" constructs a Black lesbian eroticism that asserts self-determined agency.

By framing the prostitution stanza in "Scar" with the lesbian erotic "dance of electrical tenderness," Lorde remarks the wounds of gender, race, and sexuality as potential sites of transformative cultural practice. The poem as an explication of a "scar" has particular resonance within the context of enslavement history. As Hortense Spillers notes, for African Americans, the scar is a sign encoded in this history, along with other marks of tortured flesh -- "lacerations, woundings, fissures, tears . . . openings, ruptures, lesions, rendings, punctures. . . ." Bearing witness to the scar, as Lorde does, returns us to the "flesh" as a "primary narrative," "that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse" (Spillers 67). Slippage occurs between the term scar, the mark of wounding in the flesh, which as Spillers notes "contemporary critical discourse" can "neither acknowledge or discourse away" and the scar as a trope for "an interiorized violation of body and mind" (68). By constructing an inside/outside reversibility between the enfleshed wound and the wounded body, Lorde suggests a powerful equivalency between interior violence at the level of the symbolic and violence materialized in the flesh. It is not, however, with the self-cannibalized victim at war with herself that she identifies her own subject position. Rather, through alternative figures of black, female, lesbian subjective agency, she talks back to and on the place of wounding.

Finally, to understand the complexity of Lorde's discursive praxis it is crucial to attend to the ways in which she problematizes liberatory reclamation of African-American, female, and lesbian linguistic agency, as she does in "Power." In this poem, she self-reflexively meditates on the responsibilities that attend the privilege of coming to voice. As an exercise in self-critique, the poet/speaker poses herself a disturbing riddle in the opening stanza:

The difference between poetry and rhetoric is being ready to kill yourself instead of your children. (108)

Meditating on various abuses of power, she negotiates the potentially destructive poetic articulation of her outrage at the acquittal of a white policeman who murdered a ten-year-old black child by constructing, in stanza two, a surrealistic allegory in which the poet/speaker rhetorically objectifies and so vampirizes the murder victim:

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds and a dead child dragging his shattered black face off the edge of my sleep blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders is the only liquid for miles . . . my mouth splits into dry lips without loyalty or reason thirsting for the wetness of his blood as it sinks into the whiteness of the desert where I am lost without imagery or magic trying to make power out of hatred and destruction (108)

From within the allegorized desert space of white culture, Lorde engages the difficult question she articulates elsewhere: "how do you reach down into threatening difference without being killed or killing?" ("An Interview" 107). She answers it through violent self-displacement in the last stanza of "Power": here the poet/speaker construction shifts abruptly across gender and age lines to the subject position of a teenaged African-American male whose unfocused rage is externalized in the act of raping an 85-year-old white woman:

I have not been able to touch the destruction within me. But unless I learn to use the difference between poetry and rhetoric my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire and one day I will take my teenaged plug and connect it to the nearest socket raping an 85-year-old white woman who is somebody's mother and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time "Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are." (109)

A "dialogics of identity" is nowhere more painfully evidenced than in this poem. As a female, the poet/speaker would be outraged at the rape, beating, and murder of the elderly woman, but as an African American she cannot accept the "expert" witness of a twentieth century "greek chorus" that unself-consciously perpetuates the racist cycle of violence endemic to Western culture by typifying her people as "beasts." While the Greek chorus, ironically constructed as singing glibly in time to "The Blue Danube," provides one example of corrupt and irresponsible rhetoric, the poet/speaker engages her own similar capacity. Her answer to the opening riddle about the difference between poetry and rhetoric involves a kind of linguistic death in which she displaces her black, lesbian, female subject position with that of the black male rapist in order to confront and take responsibility for her (potentially) destructive rage. Such a move also implicitly provisionalizes monolithic construction of the lyric voice and its attendant Authority. The difference between poetry and rhetoric, Lorde suggests, is a de-authorized responsible use of voice that is constantly provisionalized by radical openness to self-questioning. In this way, the metapoetic process of the poem negotiates a self-reflexively engaged protest poetry that does not vampirize its own subjects, as the poet/speaker imagines herself doing in the earlier surrealistic allegory, or reverse the paradigm of oppression in "trying to make power out of hatred and destruction."

In antithesis to the Greek chorus that reduces the complexities of race and gender construction framing the violent drama evoked in the last stanza of "Power," Lorde allows herself (and her readers) no unconflicted response. Her strategic location at the site of contradiction between her femaleness and her blackness functions as a sign of her positioning at a crossroads of intersecting and mutually determining subject markers. The "tricky positionality" mobilized here and in the other poems and essays may be seen as a parable of the way in which multiple elements interanimate and destabilize any subject position. Putting pressure on the fracture points within and between subject positions may facilitate Lorde's project of "bridging differences" for collective agency. Subjectivity, even for socially empowered persons, can be read as a contradictory site of privilege and lack. At a 1989 conference on "Women in America: Legacies of Race and Ethnicity," Lorde enjoined her hearers to identify those places of overlapping subjectivity ("read the words of women who have written things that can be crossed with who you are") within the project of accounting for "the powers of our differences": "we have different legacies; we have different powers. We must use our differences in order to reach the goals we share" ("Women, Power" 18). Text-reader transactions across multiple differences operate as what Mae Henderson terms "a multi-metalevel negotiation of hegemonic and nonhegemonic discourses and positionalities" ("Response" 157). Gloria T. Hull suggests that it is those persons constituted as "radically-situated subjectivities" who are best able to hear and be challenged by Audre Lorde's project (168). Such "ideal readers" and hearers are those who, I contend, strategically inhabit the unstable border places of identity: they practice a "dialectic of identity with those aspects of self shared with others," while responsibly hearing the "dialogics of difference" that may constitute them as the culturally hegemonic other (Henderson, "Speaking" 18). In the poems and essays cited above, Lorde slides between the particular and the universal, takes the risk of deploying essentialism, to call the multiple constituents of the women's, black, and lesbian communities to vocal acts of responsible cultural intervention upon which agency is contingent. In this way, she practices what Gayatri Spivak calls "deconstructive homeopathy," or deconstruction of "identity by identities," a strategy that does not refuse identity but problematizes it as a stable home ("In a word" 130). A dance of "difference and identity" not only structures and problematizes the speaking voice activated within the text, but also invokes a similarly de-centered scene of subjects reading, theorizing, and doing. The emphasis in recent feminist theory on the need to deploy a provisional strategic essentialism situates us at the transactive border between literary/cultural texts and social texts, reminds us that what is at stake is justice for social subjects -- real bodies in a lived world. Lorde's invocation of identity within the intersecting communities of women, lesbians, and African Americans risks essentialism "in the name of something that must be done" (Burst 130). Such a strategy will never be theoretically pure, but it can be kept honest by practicing a "persistent critique" of what we cannot live without (Spivak, Winant interview 93). Audre Lorde knew risk-taking in the flesh, refusing traditional medical intervention and living with liver cancer from 1984 until December 1992. Her long walk in the valley of the shadow lent a particular urgency to her need to "speak out . . . against the many forms of anti-life surrounding us" (Burst 130). That potent poetic witness will continue to re-sound, calling other voices into action.(15)


1 Nancy S. Love identifies voice as a metaphor for a feminist "political epistemology" or "power/knowledge regime." Such "allocentric perception" signals a shift from the classical equation between knowledge and the mastering gaze (86, 91).

2 In tracing an African-American genealogy of "voice," Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes that "recording an authentic black voice" was the means for transforming the Anglo-European colonizing view of the enslaved African from "brute animal" to human being ("Writing 'Race'" 11-12). While "voice" was imbricated with racialist/racist constructions, it seems to me that such circumscription has been displaced within contemporary liberatory discourses of empowerment through self-definition and communal affiliation marked by voicing.

3 Cheryl Walker renegotiates such poststructuralist theories by calling for "reanimation of the author" through reading for the traces of her "life-text" as one strand in the textual weave. She situates this within a "politics of author recognition," a strategy that she reads out from the practice of feminist theorists acknowledging the "authorship" of other feminists (553). In Reclaiming the Author, Lucille Kerr reads Spanish-American fiction for the contradictory ways in which even metafictional texts both perform the author's demise and reinscribe this figure. Rather than a "stable solution" to the problem of the author, she proposes "reading around a dialogue of figures in a competition that cannot be settled" (25).

4 Thanks to Adeena Karasick for suggesting the notion of voice as a provisionalized play of strategic authority that de-authorizes within specific literary-cultural contexts.

5 Anthologies edited by Barbara Christian, Cheryl Wall, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for example, provide a powerful testament to the formation of African-American feminist critical discourses.

6 I am grateful to the women of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University for challenging me further to theorize appropriation of (different) voices and to Terry Goldie for his insights on this problematic.

7 My argument, then, is not with the necessity of critiquing essentialist and universalist constructions of "woman," but with the way in which this charge becomes the "bullet" in a kind of feminist murder mystery. See Mohanty for an unmasking of the Anglo-European ethnocentrism behind Western feminist invocations of universal sisterhood and the resultant colonizing analyses of "third world women." For an Anglo-European critique, see Elizabeth V. Spellman's analysis of the way "generic 'woman' functions in feminist thought in much the way the notion of generic 'man' functions in Western philosophy" (ix).

8 See for example the Lorde/Rich interview in Sister Outsider.

9 Although Alcoff does acknowledge that Rich "has recently departed from this position and in fact begun to move in the direction of the concept of woman I will defend . . . in her Blood, Bread, and Poetry," she sidelines this significant observation in a footnote (408).

10 While I do not advocate a return to an ethos of global sisterhood that erases difference by analyzing gender through the normative lens of the Anglo-European non-poor woman, Patricia Hill Collins points to the value of theorizing the intersections of subdominant epistemologies or contextualized standpoints when she notes that "the search for the distinguishing features of an alternative epistemology used by African-American women reveals that values and ideas that Africanist scholars identify as being characteristically 'Black' often bear remarkable resemblance to similar ideas claimed by feminist scholars as being characteristically 'female.' This similarity suggests that the material conditions of oppression can vary dramatically and yet generate some uniformity in the epistemologies of subordinate groups" (756-57).

11 Thanks to Sue Schenk for pointing out that my earlier reading of possible identity markers elided the encoding of closeted lesbian existence.

12 See my work-in-progress: "Texts in Contexts: Toward an Ethics of Reading and Writing Across Difference."

13 While this (1970s radical feminist) opposition of the pornographic to the erotic is problematic in its construction of reified and artificial categories, Lorde's reformulation and expansion of the erotic as a basis for theorizing agency is innovative and should not be dismissed.

14 Interesting comparisons may be made between Sylvia Plath's different interrogation of this sign of Western patriarchy in her poem "The Colossus."

15 I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their generous postdoctoral funding; and wish to thank Carol Farber, Elizabeth Harvey, and Dorothy Nielsen, and members of my 1989-90 Contemporary Poetry class and Sue Schenk's African-American Women Writers class.


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Carr has published on contemporary Canadian poets Phyllis Webb and Daphne Marlatt. She is currently working on a book--"Writing 'Difference' Against the Grain: Contemporary North American Women Writers of the Long Poem"--treating the literary construction of subjectivity and voice, reformulation of genre, and agency. Related works-in-progress explore cross-difference critical/pedagogical practices and the transgressive border-crossings between women's poetry and therapy.
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Title Annotation:Audre Lorde, African-American poet
Author:Carr, Brenda
Publication:College Literature
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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