The best recommendations I’ve ever gotten for new books or writers have come to me not from fellow readers, but from the authors whose stories have stayed with me over the years. I had heard Audre Lorde’s name before as an English major at UVA, but I never sought out any of her work until I read that two of my favorite poets, Joy Harjo and Adrienne Rich, both listed her as one of their favorite writers. Rich and Lorde have had multiple conversations discussing writing and racism, and Harjo dedicated a typically gorgeous poem about survival to Lorde. Seeing both of these women, whose works have inspired me so much, endorse Audre Lorde drew me to the incredible catalogue of writing that Lorde created in her lifetime. And I thank them so much for it.
Published in 1984, Sister Outsider documents a collection of speeches and essays curated by Lorde over an eight-year span. I can’t articulate how seminal of a collection this is. Chimimanda Adichie wrote that We Should All Be Feminists, and if you consider yourself a feminist who wants to upend the racist patriarchy we live in, you should read Sister Outsider. Lorde’s experiences as a black lesbian poet and activist inform every moment of this volume. Sister Outsider serves as a crucial reminder that even in the 30+ years that have transpired since its publication, we have a lot to learn from Lorde and other visionaries of her time.
Erik Killmonger Should Have Read This Book
Yes, Lorde is so relevant that her essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” applies to the core philosophical debate in Black Panther. It’s one of the shorter essays in this volume, and in it Lorde discusses the tendency of American academics to separate women’s experiences into categories like race, age, class, sexual orientation, etc. Lorde cuts through this tendency immediately by demanding intersectionality, and argues that in our country, “racism, sexism, and homophobia are inseparable,” as are the experiences of race, age, class, and sexuality. If we want progress, we cannot use the tools of an oppressive patriarchy (racism, etc.) to take down the patriarchy. Lorde maintains that instead, we must “recognize difference as a crucial strength” and create new tools. New tools include understanding each other because of our differences and not in spite of them, and accepting that the existence of differences does not mean one group is more dominant than the other. These tools are the way to take the patriarchy down.
(minor spoilers for Black Panther ahead that you can probably glean from movie trailers, so just keep reading)
So now, Black Panther. If you haven’t seen it yet, WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE. The primary antagonist (not villain) of the film is Michael B. Jordan in the role of Erik Killmonger. Killmonger wants to take the vibranium-rich technology of Wakanda and give it to all the oppressed peoples of the world, so they can rise up and oppress their oppressors. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, king of Wakanda, wants to continue with tradition and keep their advancements safe from the general shittiness of the world. Since Killmonger grew up in the United States and witnessed the centuries-long crimes against his black brothers and sisters, it’s easy to understand how and why he developed his agenda (and there are other spoilery reasons for his anger as well). And even though Killmonger’s intentions are good, because he chooses the tools of the master (oppression) rather than cultivating new tools, the movie sides with T’Challa. Because director Ryan Coogler KNOWS Audre Lorde, or at least this particular argument, he knows that if you want to take down the master’s house, you’re going to need a whole new toolbox.
Eros as The Ultimate Creative Force (Nerds, Unite!)
The relevance of Sister Outsider not only extends to modern-day conversations about America’s racial inequality, it bleeds into discourse about we can improve our daily, personal lives. Lorde unexpectedly upends our understanding of the erotic and addresses the lack of creativity in our society in “Uses of the Erotic.” The traditional Greek concept of eros is defined as romantic or passionate love. Lorde argues that by historically attaching this idea to only personal, sexual relationships, we have created a world in which we feel less joy. By opening the bedroom door and unleashing eros from being chained to only sexual pursuits, Lorde recreates a world in which we are passionately in love with all aspects of our lives, “whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.”
Despite the number of affirming coffee mugs and hashtags we use every day, I can’t say that I know too many people who actually live their lives with this kind of passionate love. I know that I don’t, for a number of reasons. We are socialized not only to respect fear, as Lorde iterates, but also to accept a sense of painstaking boredom. We push the passionate and the romantic to the fringes of society, and deem them obsessive and “other.” For the longest time, our pop culture icons and idealized heroes have been haughty and aloof, uninterested and therefore “cool.” It hasn’t been acceptable to be passionate. Thankfully, the tide is changing. Shows like Stranger Things and The Big Bang Theory are bringing nerds to the foreground of our culture. Nerds in my mind are the ultimate passionate players, because they do what they do simply because it brings them joy. It’s a lot cooler now to be passionately in love with our lives, whether they involve cosplay or not. I’d like to think that Lorde would celebrate nerds as highly erotic beings. So, feel more joy, friends. Read that book. Sing that song. Climb that mountain. Do it with the same level of passion and intensity we associate with the boudoir.
There are thirteen other pieces in Sister Outsider, and Audre Lorde’s genius is radiant in every single one. Her writing transcends her time period and provides specific and prolific insights on how to live intersectionally and joyfully. If you, like me, want to live that kind of life, read Sister Outsider. We still have a lot of work to do.