Their timelines on social media had returned to normal in the last week, with less and less content that showed evidence of the great civil rights struggle still ongoing in the country. Videos of protesters clashing with police had been replaced with more pointed action items about donating to charities and petitioning for legislation. A series of surprise Supreme Court victories had given the country the momentary breath of hope that things weren’t entirely doomed, which only distracted from the fact that things very much still were.
Still, the girls’ collective reading list remained filled with queer black authors for Pride Month, and it was in that spirit that they turned to Audre Lorde’s 1984 collection of essays, Sister Outsider. A foundational text in modern studies of queer theory, feminist theory, critical race theory –– there was hardly a theory that Lorde’s writing hadn’t touched on. Dania had read selections of the book’s fifteen essays before, in college, but had never made the time to analyze the full text before. Eleanor and Gwen were reading for the first time.
On a hot summer day, when the sky was beginning to look as clear of strife as their timelines, the three sat, reading copies of the book together. Gwen had been the one to shell out for the physical copy, while Eleanor and Dania had settled for digital editions, not wanting to wait for the delivery. However, the deeper she dove into Lorde’s prose, the more Eleanor regretted the decision. So many lines and thoughts within the essays needed highlighting and note-taking. She longed to scribble her thoughts in the margins.
“How far along are you?” asked Dania, as Gwen put the book to the side and stood up.
“I’m in the Grenada essay,” she replied, as she walked to the kitchen. “Nearly at the end. You?”
“Oh, I finished it a few days ago,” Dania said. “I’m just re-reading sections of it, now. Trying to…I don’t know, internalize it.”
Gwen set the water on for tea. “What do you think of it?”
“What do I think of it?”
“Yeah,” Gwen repeated. “I’ve got thoughts.”
“Um…” Dania stalled. “I’m not really sure. I mean, no, it’s good. Definitely good writing. But I’m not sure my take is going to be one worth sharing.”
Dania looked away, thinking about how best to phrase her praise of the book.
“I’ll go,” said Eleanor. “It’s a very surreal read, nowadays. Not just because of the protests, but more generally. So much of what she’s saying comes across as so obvious now, because it’s the foundation for what is now commonly accepted fact. I keep finding myself remembering the context of when it came out. How much further back the feminist movement was at that point.”
“This was second wave, right?” said Dania. “And we’re in the third wave now, yes?”
“Wikipedia says fourth, as of 2013,” Gwen pointed out. “But these divisions tend to be a bit liquid. Drawing a hard line where one ended and the next began is impossible –– social movements change slowly and unevenly. There are activists today who have some truly Fifth-Wave level plans, alongside others who are stuck in the second or third wave.”
“My division would be based in aims and goals, not in timeframe,” said Eleanor. “The thing that truly sets the modern feminist movement apart is that––”
She reconsidered the phrasing of her statement, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. “Well, it’s part of the current Black Lives Matter movement, too. This aim to be intersectional, to acknowledge differences and hold up everyone, rather than center your own personal experiences. That’s all…I think every social justice movement is doing that.”
“Well, everything’s bleeding into each other, now,” said Dania. “I mean, I feel that all the time right now. Is this a seminal moment in African American history, or in women’s history, or in labor? It’s basically all of them.”
“There’s a quote in the book about that,” said Gwen, paging through her copy to find the bookmarked page. “From the ‘Women Redefining Difference’ chapter:”
By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.
“That’s it, basically,” said Eleanor. “God, she’s concise.”
“She truly has a gift for taking a complex issue and presenting it in such a way that you’re unable to find an argument around it,” said Gwen. “It’s literary, still, not quite colloquial. But extremely accessible for people who aren’t versed in the language.”
“That’s the difference, then,” Dania repeated. “All of the social justice movements right now are, like, one giant movement shouting ‘please let things get better for all of us.’ What’s weird about reading the essays now is that…well, I don’t think Lorde ever makes the same ‘tear it all down’ argument, but after reading her perspective, you certainly feel inclined to do that. To tear it all down, all of it.”
“And to make that impact in 1984?” Eleanor added. “At the height of the Reagan era, when the black and queer communities were under direct attack?”
“There’s a telling quote, almost prophetic,” Gwen recalled, flipping through pages again. “In the chapter about the 60s. Where is it…”
“‘Revolution is not a one-time event?'” quoted Eleanor.
“No, it was later than that,” said Gwen. “Although that’s the book’s most concise quotation, for sure.”
“It’s not untrue,” Eleanor pressed. “The overall theme I get from reading Lorde’s writing, hearing all the different positions she embodies blending together –– feminist, lesbian, black, poet, educator, mother –– the theme I take away is the omnipresence of revolution. How successful revolution involves almost constant vigilance, which in turn exerts emotional weight on the participant. But with a body and life like Lorde’s, there’s simply no other option than to revolt. Her very existence is revolution.”
“Oh, I book marked this part,” said Dania. She began flipping to the same page.
Gwen looked up. “I found mine, but you go first.”
“No, yours is probably more relevant to this new conversation, mine was about the previous topic.”
Dania and Gwen stared each other down, books in hand, ready to bow to the other. In the end, it was Gwen that nodded to hand the baton to Dania. She held out her phone.
“‘To survive in the mouth of this dragon we call America’––first of all, such a great way of phrasing it,” said Dania.
“The image is a powerful one,” said Eleanor. “It’s not like their being chewed and spit out. Living in the country is to remain in the dragon’s mouth. To find purpose as you are figuratively consumed.”
“The full quote…”
“Ah, yes, sorry.”
Dania held the phone out again. It didn’t quite have the same oratorical heft of a paperback, but they knew the full book was on her phone.
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.
“What was the quote from Mrs. Blakk For President?” asked Eleanor. “The poignant one, at the end?”
“Oh––’live; they don’t want you to,'” Gwen recited.
“That’s a very similar sentiment,” said Eleanor. “The idea that merely surviving becomes a political act, when you live under a system so fundamentally built to demolish you.”
“That’s what I consider to be the most radical element of Lorde’s work,” Gwen said. “Why it resonated so hard in 1984, and continues to today.”
The kettle began whistling, and Gwen retreated to the kitchen to pour. “Anyone want chai?”
Two hands went up.
“I was saying,” Gwen continued. “Eleanor’s right, to observe that a lot of Lorde’s arguments about white passivity, or patriarchal heterosexism, or being a mother of a boy, all still hold up to readers. And there’s a certain joy to be found in the book on that level alone––that a second-wave feminist writer could so thoroughly embody that intersectional division of focus, that calls for an overhaul of the system by way of showing you how broken the system always was.”
“Reading them all in one volume is part of the appeal, too, I’d argue,” Eleanor added. “Imagine if these were published today, separately. A Medium article here, an Atlantic editorial there…the scope of Lorde’s vision wouldn’t be as apparent.”
“What really sets Lorde’s work apart––Dania, you already kind of brought it up––is the writing style. It’s gripping to listen to one person wrestle with so many aspects of themselves. Recalling her memories of, as she calls it, ‘metabolizing hatred like a daily bread,’ and slowly pulling her experiences apart bit by bit…it’s a format of self-reflection that invites the reader to make their own self-reflections, too.”
“I’d go so far as to say that it commands the reader to self-reflection,” Eleanor said. “There’s a section where she discusses white teachers’ resistance to teaching black subjects in school––their fears of getting it wrong, of it making students uncomfortable, and so on. But by the end of the book, she cleverly turns it around on the reader, to make ignoring the work feel as discomforting as doing it. The only possible path forward is improvement. Analysis of your own biases.”
“That might be my thought,” Dania said, jumping back in. “It’s a necessary read, in the way that, say, 12 Years A Slave is a necessary film. The act of reckoning with history requires discomfort on the part of the viewer. The difference with Sister Outsider, though, is that it’s also just really stellar writing, besides.”
“Agreed.” Gwen brought out three mugs. “For you, and you.”
Each took their mug of tea, and silently tucked back into their respective copies of Audre Lorde’s essay collection. Outside, the world was mired in revolution, slow but comprehensive. Inside each reader, their own perspective was revolving, too––similarly slow, and, with luck, equally comprehensive.
Image Source: Thought Co.