Audre Lorde on What to Do When Difference Ruptures Society
By Maria Popova
“If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” the young poet Nikki Giovanni told the elder James Baldwin in their historic intergenerational conversation. Perhaps it is because we are such strangers to ourselves — so opaque in our own motives and vulnerabilities, so haunted by confusion and self-contradiction — that we so bruisingly misunderstand and mistreat others, so readily seize on their otherness, lashing our confusions at them, so readily forget that diversity and difference are the reason life exists.
The antidote to that reflex is what Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) considers in an interview found in Black Women Writers at Work (public library) — the superb collection that also gave us Maya Angelou on writing and our responsibility to our creative gifts.
A generation after Hannah Arendt’s insight into the power and opportunity of the outsider position, and an epoch before the term intersectionality existed, Lorde considers the challenge of the multiple identities we each inhabit, which further alienate us from each other for as long as they remain unreconciled and unintegrated within us:
When you are a member of an out-group, and you challenge others with whom you share this outsider position to examine some aspect of their lives that distorts differences between you, then there can be a great deal of pain. In other words, when people of a group share an oppression, there are certain strengths that they build together. But there are also certain vulnerabilities. For instance, talking about racism to the women’s movement results in “Huh, don’t bother us with that. Look, we’re all sisters, please don’t rock the boat.” Talking to the black community about sexism results in pretty much the same thing. You get a “Wait, wait… wait a minute: we’re all black together. Don’t rock the boat.” In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction.
Considering her own responsibility to that recognition and that reconciliation, she adds:
My responsibility is to speak the truth as I feel it, and to attempt to speak it with as much precision and beauty as possible.
Complement with Lorde on kinship across difference, feeling as an antidote to fearing, and turning fear into creative fire, then revisit Bear and Wolf — a tender illustrated fable about walking side by side in otherness.
Published January 29, 2023