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Excerpts from Silence ... Broken: Audre Lorde's Indelible Imprint on My Life.

The following are excerpts from the text of a talk that Aishah Shahidah Simmons delivered at the one-day symposium "Audre Lorde: 20 Years Later (A Celebration)." This gathering was organized by Hunter College's Women's and Gender Studies Program and held at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York on October 12, 2012. A video of the full talk can be found at audrelorde.

BEFORE I BEGIN MY OFFICIAL REMARKS, I must extend my gratitude for this opportunity to be in this physical space and place with all of you here and then with all of you virtually. What an honor! What an honor to be here in this twentieth year of Sister Lorde's transition into the Spirit realm. I have to give heartfelt thanks to my beloved Sister Lynn Roberts, PhD, who is faculty here at Hunter College. Several months ago, she invited me to come on board the journey as a member of the media committee for this gathering. Little did I know what a gift this would be. I met Lynn ten years ago when Farah Jasmine Griffin, PhD, invited me to screen a work-in-progress of my film titled NO! The Rape Documentary [at Columbia University]. (1) Lynn was one of the many people in the audience and we formed a bond. I want to share my own connection with Hunter College. It took ten to eleven years to make NO! No one wanted to fund a film about rape and sexual violence of Black women at the hands of Black men. One of the many events that I had was a fundraiser. I didn't have a space or place to have it and Lynn said, "We will do it at Hunter College." We held that fundraiser in the fall of 2003 and that resulted in my being able to raise $20,000 toward NO! Thinking about Hunter and Lynn, I must also extend heartfelt thanks to my brother Darnell Moore, with whom I will have the honor of being a co-discussant tomorrow after the screening of A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, which was directed by two dear friends Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson. That screening and discussion will be followed by The Edge of Each Other's Battles by filmmaker and activist Jennifer Abod. The co-discussants are my Sister Jasmine Burnett and Maame-Mensima Horne and Kwame Ocran, both of whom I look forward to meeting tomorrow. Then, on October 16, 2012, there will be a screening of Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992, and Dagmar Schultz (also in this issue), who is the director, and Ika Huegel-Marshall, who is the co-writer of the film script, will be here to screen and discuss their film. This is day one of a multi-day celebration, and I had to acknowledge that before segueing into my remarks.

In her 1988 interview with the late Dr. Claude Tate, Black feminist writer, activist, and cultural worker extraordinaire Toni Cade Bambara, who was my teacher and big-sister-friend, said,
    I start with the recognition that we are at war, and that war is not
   simply a hot debate between the capitalist camp and the socialist
   over which economic/political/social arrangement will have hegemony
   the world. It's not just the battle over turf and who has the
right to
   utilize resources for whomsoever's benefit. The war is also
being fought
   over the truth: What is the truth about human nature, about the human
   potential? My responsibility to myself, my neighbors, my family, and
   human family is to try to tell the truth. That ain't easy. ...
We have
   rarely been encouraged and equipped to appreciate the fact that the
   works and it releases the Spirit and that it is a joyous thing. We
   in a part of the world, for example, that equates criticism with
   that equates social responsibility with naive idealism, that defines
   unrelenting pursuit of knowledge and wisdom as fanaticism. (2) 

In the spirit of speaking those difficult and painful truths that my beloved Toni Cade Bambara talked about, I begin with libation to all of those unknown and known spirits who surround us. I want to acknowledge the origins of this land upon which we are seated and standing now known as New York City. It was inhabited by the Lenape Indians long before the Europeans arrived and were unfortunately unable to cohabitate without dominating, terrorizing, stealing from, relocating, murdering, and raping the Lenape and millions of other members of Indigenous Nations throughout Turtle Island, now known as North America. Not too far from where we are seated today is the location of the National Monument for the African burial ground, which houses the remains of "more than four hundred Africans buried during the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century in a portion of what was the largest colonial-era cemetery for people of African descent, some free, most enslaved. Historians estimate there may have been 15,000-20,000 burials in what was called the 'Negroes Burial Ground' in the 1700s. The site's excavation and study was called 'the most important historic urban archeological project in the United States.'" (3)

I speak libations to those millions of Indigenous women, men, and children; and those millions of enslaved African women, men, and children whose confiscated land, centuries of free labor, forced migration, kidnapped children, sweat, tears, and blood make up the very fiber of this country known as the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I speak libations to my known and unknown biological ancestors whose blood is running through my veins. I call the names of Michael Simmons and Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, my divorced parents, who, for fifty years and counting, have very literally put their lives on the line for justice and peace for the people who inhabit the margins of this country and across the globe.

What a gift it is to be here twenty years later to celebrate the living legacy of our beloved Black Lesbian Feminist Mother Warrior Poet Audre Lorde. In this sacred space in honor of Daughter, Sister, Mother, Friend, Comrade, Partner, Teacher Audre Lorde, I speak libation to her global living legacy, which spans generations, ethnicities, gender identities, genders, nationalities, sexualities, languages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and religions.

I first encountered Audre Lorde's words at the ripe age of twenty-one in 1990, when I was terrified of and struggling with coming out as a lesbian. Holli Van Ness, a White feminist lesbian sister-friend who witnessed my painful coming-out struggles loaned me her copy of Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde's pioneering book of essays. At that time, I did not really know who Audre Lorde was. It's hard to believe now, but it is so very true.

In one of her many timeless essays, "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action," she wrote,
    We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we
   learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been
   to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition
   while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the
   weight of that silence will choke us. (4) 

Audre Lorde's words both invigorated and challenged me to break the vicious cycle of silence and shame around being a lesbian. I was literally transformed in my bedroom while reading Sister Outsider. I devoured every single word as if my very life depended upon it. It was as if Audre Lorde were speaking directly to me. In that book, she addressed all of my issues and concerns. Her written words taught me that I had a responsibility to not only be out, but to be engaged in the international struggles of the oppressed as an out Black feminist lesbian. I know a metaphysical transformation happened where I went from being an afraid, frightened, and ashamed Black lesbian young woman, to an out Black lesbian activist after reading Sister Outsider. I am keenly aware that the metaphysical transformation that occurred was a gradual process that began with my father's ongoing support of my coming out process as well as many conversations that I had with my teacher big sister-friend Toni Cade Bambara. And yet at the same time, Audre Lorde's words gave me the initial tools that I needed to embark on my journey as an out Black feminist lesbian. Sister Outsider was--and in many ways still is--a road map for my life's journey. I am holding my May 16, 1990, copy of the book, which I carry with me often. Without ever meeting her, Sister Lorde taught me that my silence will not protect me and that silence is not golden. Her words helped me to tap into my inner power, my inner strength to say, "I, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, am a Black feminist lesbian who is a physical, emotional, and spiritual survivor of incest, a rape that could have resulted in my pregnancy, from which I was able and fortunate to have a safe and legal abortion in 1989." In my talking about abortion in 2012, I reflect upon the fact that we could be moving into a time when it's not safe and legal anywhere. Based upon this, as Audre Lorde taught me, I have to be out about having had a safe and legal abortion.

I want to be explicitly clear, I'm not a lesbian because I was repeatedly molested over a period of two years as a child and raped as a young woman. If molestation and rape made cisgender women lesbians, then based upon the global statistics, (5) most of us would be lesbian. ...

Yes, for me, there was life before reading Sister Outsider and my life after reading Sister Outsider. After the horror and trauma I experienced as a result of both societal and internalized homophobia, I came out without any more excuses or apologies. Sister Lorde never wrote it was or would be easy, but she made it explicitly clear that it was very necessary for one's own survival to be their authentic self.

When I received word that Audre Lorde transitioned to the spirit realm on November 17, 1992,1 felt as if the wind was knocked out of me. I was at a literal loss for words and in deep mourning because I never had the privilege to personally thank, much less meet Audre Lorde. And yet, her indelible imprint marked my journey. In 1993, I produced and directed my very first short video, Silence ... Broken, which was conceived in a Toni Cade Bambara scriptwriting class at Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia. (6) Silence ... Broken is an experimental narrative short film based upon Sister Lorde's essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action," which is about an African American lesbian's refusal to be silent about racism, sexism, and homophobia. Featuring the poetry of acclaimed poet and my sister Jourdan Imani Keith, Silence ... Broken is dedicated to the memory of Audre Lorde. I created the video out of my own personal need to see on screen the internal and external struggle Black lesbians go through when we constantly fight against choosing between our race, our gender, and our sexuality in a racist, sexist, and homophobic society. That marked the beginning of my creating my cultural work to tackle the impact of the intersections of oppression on the lives of marginalized people. I credit both Audre Lorde and Toni Cade Bambara for my adult lifelong commitment to interrogate life at the intersections of multiple identities often embodied into one; to examine and address and not ignore the contradictions within myself, and others; and to honor the humanity in those who are different from me. I credit both of their living examples with my profound understanding that creating cultural work, which brings progressive ideas, images, perspectives, and voices from the margins to the center, is an important form of radical social change and community activism. ... I want to bring the energy to and lift up the incredible intersectional work of the Audre Lorde Project, Cara Page, and Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs (also in this issue). For those of you who don't know the Audre Lorde Project, it is
    an incredibly radical and fierce Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit,
   Trans and Gender Non Conforming People of Color center for community
   organizing, focusing on the New York City area, and having an impact
   beyond. Through mobilization, education and capacity-building, [they]
   work for community wellness and progressive social and economic
   Committed to struggling across differences, [they] seek to
   reflect, represent and serve our various communities. (7) 

In March 2012, the Audre Lorde Project had its fifteenth anniversary celebration commemorating when the organization found a home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York. Since that time, they--like the powerful woman for whom they are named--have shifted paradigms and centralized margins for lesbian, gay, bisexual, two spirit, trans and gender-non-conforming people of color and their allies. Although rooted in the New York City area, their reach, influence, and impact has been both national and international. This past August (2012), the Audre Lorde Project named my sister Cara Page the new executive director, who follows Khris Kayashi and Collette Carter's incredible joint leadership of the organization. Cara is a radical, Black, feminist, queer artist and organizer and a healing arts practitioner, who, for over twenty years, has been carrying Sister Lorde's legacy through her own paradigm-shifting work. Among many things, Cara is the founder of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, which is a network of Southern grassroots healers and health practitioners who seek to intervene and transform generational trauma and violence in the South. (8)

My sister Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer Black troublemaker and Black feminist love evangelist based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the creator of School of Our Lorde: Poetics, Pedagogy, Politics and Publishing. The website informs us that "the School of Our Lorde [was] comprised of four units of Thursday evening sessions that allow[ed] participants to deeply engage and build on the work of Audre Lorde" as transmitted through Alexis's
    committed (obsessive) research ... on the poetics, teaching
   political implications and publishing interventions of Audre
Lorde's work
   (and to enjoy delicious local desserts together) on Thursday
   Participants will also get coursepacks with some exclusive and
   unpublished materials on/by Lorde. (9) 

Participants were able to choose to participate in one three-week semester or the entire four-month process. No one who completed an application was turned away, and free childcare was provided. This was radical and transformational work happening in the heart of Durham, North Carolina. In this vein, my sister Alexis is keeping Audre Lorde's work and legacy alive in very tangible ways for a wide of range of diverse people. Were it not for Alexis's commitment to make Audre Lorde's work available and accessible at the grassroots level, it is quite feasible these fortunate Durham North Carolinians would not have an opportunity to encounter and engage with Lorde's genius.

The Audre Lorde Project, Cara Page, Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, School of Our Lorde, along with INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Critical Resistance, SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, Southerners On New Ground, Queers for Economic Justice, Tewa Women United, ubuntu, The Boarding School Healing Project, Red Bone Press, Black Lesbians United, International Federation of Black Gay Prides, FIERCE, AFFINITY, POW-WOW, Zami, Black Women's Blueprint, Trust Black Women, Fire and Ink, and Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind are a very abbreviated few of the many radical organizations and collectives in the United States. And, I haven't even named our international co-conspirators of radical compassionate love, peace, and justice whose intersectional work centralizes the margins. I view some directly and others indirectly as carriers of Audre Lorde's living legacy of breaking ground to do transformational intersectional work.

Finally, in 1989 Audre Lorde wrote, "My political obligations? I am a Black woman in a world that defines human as white and male for starters. Everything I do including survival is political." (10) I'm going to expand upon Audre Lorde's prophetic quote and say, "My political obligations? I am a Black woman. I am a trans woman. I am a trans man. I am an Asian woman. I am an Arab woman. I am a Native American woman. I am an Aboriginal woman. I am a Latina. I am a Pacific Islander woman. I am a Palestinian woman. I am a Roma woman. I am a Central/Southwest Asian woman in a world that defines human as white and male for starters. Everything We Do Including Survival Is Political."

If each one of us believed and did everything in our power to ensure that all beings everywhere, and without exception, had the right to be free from enmity and danger, hatred, ill will, and evil and to live with peace, compassion, and infinite nonattached love, it's quite feasible that this world that we all inhabit would be humane.

We must remember, however, that this work, including just surviving in a world in which "we were never meant to survive," is not easy, and it takes a toll on our very beings--emotionally, mentally, physically, psychically, spiritually, and psychologically. (11) We cannot transform the world, if we ourselves are not transformed. "We must embody the change that we want to see in the world." (12) "We can't live without our lives." (13) And, our work can never be healthier than we are.


I was the curator and lead editor of a two-week global forum commemorating Audre Lorde's eightieth-birthday anniversary for the online publication the Feminist Wire. This living curriculum features over fifty essays, poems, remembrances, and videos from a wide range of established and emerging feminist scholars, activists, artists, and cultural workers based in countries in North America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa and can be accessed online at afterword-standing-lordean-shoreline.

(1.) NO! The Rape Documentary, directed by Aishah Shahidah Simmons (USA: AfroLez Productions, 2006),

(2.) Toni Cade Bambara, cited in Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work (New York: Continuum, 1983), 17. Bambara is the editor of the groundbreaking anthologies The Black Woman (1970) and Tales and Stories for Black Folks (1971). She is the author of two short story collections, Gorilla, My Love (1972) and The Seabirds Are Still Alive (1977), and one novel, The Salt Eaters (1980). A noted documentary filmmaker and screenwriter, Bambara's film work includes the documentaries The Bombing of Osage Avenue (1986) and W E. B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices (1995), both of which were produced and directed by Louis Massiah. After her untimely death on December 9, 1995, Toni Morrison published two of Bambara's works posthumously--Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions (1995), a collection of short stories, essays, and conversations; and Those Bones Are Not My Child (1999), a novel.

(3.) This citation is excerpted from the African Burial Ground National Monument page on Wikipedia, National_Monument. Both the US General Services Administration's website, print-radio&utm_term=africanburialground&utm_campaign=shortcuts, and the National Park Service's website,, give detailed information on African burial grounds.

(4.) Audre Lorde, "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action," in her Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1986), 44.

(5.) See "Facts About Violence" at html#global and the World Health Organization's "Violence against women: Intimate partner and sexual violence against women Fact sheet Number 239 (updated October 2013)," at

(6.) Silence ... Broken is an experimental narrative short about an African American lesbian's refusal to be silent about racism, sexism and homophobia. The film can be viewed at ist=UUPLJEZvnPfdsxOwIBio49dw.

(7.) Mission statement on the website of the Audre Lorde Project, about.

(8.) For more information, see the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective's website,

(9.) Online registration page for School of Our Lorde: Poetics, Pedagogy, Politics, and Publishing,

(10.) Audre Lorde, "What I Do When I Write," Women's Review of Books 6 (October 1989): 27.

(11.) Audre Lorde, "A Litany For Survival," in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), 255.

(12.) This saying is widely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, although there is no record of him actually saying it.

(13.) Barbara Deming, We Cannot Live Without Our Lives (New York: Grossman, 1974).
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Author:Simmons, Aishah Shahidah
Publication:Feminist Studies
Article Type:Lecture
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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