The House of Difference
Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies
Edited by Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015, 250 pp., $28.95, paperback
The Wind Is Spirit: The Life, Love and Legacy of Audre Lorde
by Gloria I. Joseph
New York: Villarosa Media, 2016, 352 pp., $20.00, paperback
Reviewed by Jan Clausen
“I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now,” writes Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (2010), responding to the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the subsequent killing of officers in Dallas. The comment recalls Audre Lorde’s work, with its relevance to our historical moment—for Lorde always knew that “something more” was required, and she galvanized her publics to rise to the occasion. A prophet within the “house of difference”—her name for the fraught but promising terrain of the marginalized and multicultural—she called out with terrifying clarity the endemic strain of white supremacist violence in American life.
In “Power” (in her 1978 collection The Black Unicorn), a poem about the fatal police shooting of a ten-year-old black boy, Clifford Glover, in 1973, she included both the words of the cop who said, “I didn’t notice the size or nothing else/only the color,” and the outline of “the destruction within me [emphasis added],” forecasting further acts of seemingly senseless mayhem. In a voice whose range spanned the oracular and the earthy, she warned of and mourned the cycles of devastation fueled by local injustices and globe-spanning imperial wrongs (Undersong: Chosen Poems ): “…you who hear tell the others/you are drowning in my children’s blood/ without metaphor.” Those cycles have only intensified since her death in 1992 at the age of 58.
When she turned her attention to Europe, in the late 1980s, Lorde nailed that continent’s failure to rethink its exclusionary self-definitions, in language that now reads like prescient commentary on an unfolding saga of traumatized displacement (a.k.a. the “refugee crisis”) and xenophobic backlash. She informed the audience at a 1988 Berlin writers’ conference,
I believe it is the hyphenated people of Europe who represent a last chance for Europe to learn how to deal with difference creatively, rather than pretending it does not exist, or destroying it....Our survival means learning to use difference for something other than destruction. So does yours.
These remarks, reprinted in Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies, exemplify that volume’s significant insights into the activism of Lorde’s final years, fueled by the urgency of her core belief that her own struggles as a US-born woman of African and Caribbean descent resonated with and could dynamically inform the fates and futures of justice-seekers worldwide.
The cover of The Wind Is Spirit identifies the book as “a bio/anthology by Gloria I. Joseph.” Joseph, a noted scholar and activist, became Lorde’s life partner in the mid-1980s; the couple made their home in St. Croix, the birthplace of Joseph’s parents. Joseph’s introduction explains that the volume originated as the fulfillment of her promise to write the dying Lorde’s biography. A “call and response” structure intersperses an overview of major life events with brief reminiscences by many who knew Lorde. There are homey anecdotes from relatives, among them Lorde’s sister, Phyllis Blackwell, and assessments of her personal impact and public significance by sister poets, public intellectuals, and movement leaders such as Kate Rushin, Angela Y. Davis, and Assata Shakur. We hear from male friends in St. Croix with whom she pursued local projects (beekeeping, mounting a protest against the first Gulf War) and from a group of Afro-German women whose mutual support and activism she helped catalyze during a series of sojourns in Berlin.
Issued by the fledgling independent publisher Villarosa Media and illustrated with plentiful photographs (sadly, the reproductions are often of poor quality), The Wind Is Spirit is best approached as a charming, idiosyncratic personal album, to be sampled rather than read from cover to cover. Among my favorite pieces is Cherríe Moraga’s electrifying dual tribute to Lorde and Pat Parker, the poets who, along with Judy Grahn, she credits with giving “lesbianism a body: a queer body in the original, dangerous, unambivalent sense of the word.”
Another gem is “Meeting Audre Lorde,” by Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins, a wry and beautifully balanced look back at being the teenaged daughter of a structure-loving mom whose poetry and fame felt ancillary to a household seemingly ruled by “Ozzie and Harriet. Or Harriet and Harriet.” A craggy-voiced, unsparing meditation on the ravages of “colonizer culture” by the poet Chrystos (Smith) includes this note of gratitude: “No part of Audre was afraid of me, which is an ocean of relief.” The book’s intimate glimpses into Lorde’s choices about health, pleasure, and activism in years marked by intensifying illness offer a poignant coda to The Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde’s pathbreaking self-portrait as a wounded but unyielding feminist opponent of cultural silencing and medical arrogance.
Taken as a whole, The Wind Is Spirit feels like a printed archive, sprawling and uneven. Contributions by such key figures as Barbara Smith (who provides an overview of Lorde’s role with Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press) and Michelle Cliff (Joseph reproduces a found poem, using snippets from Lorde’s writing, that Cliff sent her following Lorde’s death) seem perfunctory, oddly chosen. There are careless lapses, such as the listing of a publication date of 1995 (instead of 1978) for Lorde’s pivotal poetry collection The Black Unicorn, and an unglossed comment that Lorde could be seen as a “forerunner” of the Black Arts Movement. (Although her early career unfolded in tandem with that movement, she related warily to its masculinist leadership.) Joseph’s effort to convey the entire arc of Lorde’s life leaves her in the awkward position of trying to present dispassionately such aspects of her late beloved’s experience as the latter’s relationships with other romantic partners. While the bio/anthology makes a useful companion volume to Alexis De Veaux’s illuminating, carefully researched 2004 biography Warrior Poet: A Life of Audre Lorde, it is no substitute. I grew impatient with Joseph’s rhetoric of uplift and her efforts to cement Lorde’s status as an icon: “[She] surely belongs alongside the great leaders, the humanitarians and the philosophers whose words of wisdom and deeds remain alive throughout the world.” All these years after Lorde’s death, I thought, isn’t it time for celebration and gauzy endorsements to give way to a sturdier edifice of interpretive frameworks?
Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck, editors of Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies, suggest some reasons why that level of critical engagement often remains elusive. Citing the lack of “an existing comprehensive scholarly archive” of Lorde’s transnational interactions with diasporic communities, they announce their goal to produce an “alternative archive”—despite the problems presented by a necessary reliance on nontraditional sources such as oral histories. In an introduction that models the searching analytical work such an archive could make possible, they comment thoughtfully on some of Lorde’s specific theoretical contributions—for example, on the perils of constructing an undifferentiated “black” transnational subject.
The anthology itself offers an eclectic combination of reminiscence, reflection, and engaged scholarship centered on a range of Lorde’s international involvements, including the solidarity network Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa (SISA). However, the book’s center of gravity rests in Lorde’s European sojourns, anchored by her time in Germany, where she made annual visits for alternative cancer treatment. (This period is also the subject of a recent documentary film, Audre Lorde—The Berlin Years 1984-1992.) The “archive” of Lorde’s interactions with European women of African descent offers important insights into transnational movement building. In dialogue with Lorde—but also, crucially, with each other—these women forged solidarity as “hyphenated people,” reared in circumstances that frequently obscured the implications of their racialization. For example, “Naming Ourselves as Black Women in Europe: An African American-German and Afro-Dutch Conversation,” by Cassandra Ellerbe-Dueck and Gloria Wekker, not only considers Lorde’s centrality as the “wind beneath the wings of Black German women’s political activism and feminism,” but also delves into disparities across national borders, pointing out the need for a “comparative social and political history of the black presence in Europe.”
Despite the clear value of this material, the European focus creates a sense of imbalance, given the sweeping promise of the book’s title. To quote Alexis Pauline Gumbs, one of a handful of contributors who explicitly tackle Lorde’s deep engagement with the global South (and whose probing essay is titled “‘But We Are Not the Same’: Generating a Critical Poetics of Diaspora”),
critical work on Lorde’s impact as a theorist has rarely treated her articulations of solidarity, difference, intimacy, and accountability as a US-born woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage, who navigated her relationships with majority-black spaces that had been (and continue to be) directly harmed by US imperialism. Why not?
In essays grouped under the heading “Connections,” we find useful analytical perspectives on both Lorde’s texts and her activism; crucially, this section pays the most sustained attention to her poetic legacies. In addition to Gumbs’s look at diasporic poetics, I especially appreciated the critical perspectives in Tamara Lea Spira’s “The Geopolitics of the Erotic: Audre Lorde’s Mexico and the Decolonization of the Revolutionary Imagination,” which mines Lorde’s writing for insights into “the force of her thinking as it developed at the fringes of US empire.” In “‘I Cross Her Borders at Midnight’: Audre Lorde’s Berlin Revisions,” Paul M. Farber attentively tracks the poet’s response to that famously divided city, reading the ways she approached its physical and social geography as objective correlatives for her perennial concern with connections across lines of difference.
In an afterword to their volume, Bolaki and Broeck reflect that their project has been a venture in “meaning making” but also an effort at “opening up material to wider audiences, a way of starting a conversation.” In the interests of doing just that, I will say that my own thoughts about Lorde’s bequests return again and again to the question mark that hovers over her poetic legacy. Among the contributors to these two volumes, Chrystos is especially emphatic about what she considers the shameful neglect of Lorde’s poetry. Although The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde appeared in 1997, to date there has been a dearth of critical work that closely examines the stages of her development as a poet or that centers an understanding of her work on her effort (in her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” collected in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches ) to position poetry itself as foremost among “those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes.” Instead, her poems are mined for quotable quotes and insights into the substance of her views on difference, anger, blackness, sisterhood. It is not that these approaches are wrong, but we also need to absorb and reassess her lyrical body of work in its totality, even as we ponder the implications of her claim that poetry elevates “[t]he quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives.”
Over and above the work the commentators in both of these anthologies do to clarify some contours of Lorde’s prismatic achievements as seer and activist, the books powerfully demonstrate that legacies, like texts, are not inert. They are fashioned and transformed in intimate, strenuous dialogue with oncoming generations. As we near the 25th anniversary of Lorde’s death, something more is indeed required, on multiple fronts.
Jan Clausen’s most recent book is the poetic hybrid text Veiled Spill: a Sequence (2014). In 2017, Seven Stories Press will reissue her 1999 memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey Through Sexual Identity. She teaches in the Goddard College MFA in Writing Program and at New York University.