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Let’s Joyfully Destroy That Patriarchy: Review of Sister Outsider

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.

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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.

My Verdict:

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.

 

Photo by Autumn Goodman on Unsplash

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There’s A New MJ in Town: Review of This Will Be My Undoing

Reading is highly subjective. We all know this. So for me, the stories that I love most are those that allow the ordinary, everyday experiences of human life to commune with the divine. Writers whose stories oscillate easily between micro and macro, and who center their characters, real or fictional, with feet firmly rooted in history and the present-day are the ones I return to again and again. In her first essay collection This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, Morgan Jerkins intricately unfolds formative moments in her life and grapples with the decidedly non-monolithic concept of a “black woman,” and is the most extraordinary voice I’ve come across in a long time.

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An Education for EVERYONE

Near the end of her first piece titled “Monkeys Like You,” Jerkins tells us that this collection of ten personal essays is for everyone. “It is meant for all women, and men, and those who do not adhere to the gender binary.”

I know what you’re thinking. A lot of authors say this. Every modern artist creating today wants their work to be consumed and appreciated by as many people as possible. They try and craft an experience that is marketable to every audience.  But from what I’ve read and seen, very few artists are actually able to do this, because the artists want to be marketable, they also want to be unique, and their endeavors to be unique often box their art into niches that can only be accessed and enjoyed by a select few. But like I told you in the title, there’s a new virtuoso in town, because Morgan Jerkins is one of those artists.

This collection is obviously about an experience of being black and female in America. Jerkins says so in the title. Each essay is a personal endeavor into deeply intimate moments of Jerkins’ life, from being called a monkey after trying out for her elementary school cheerleading team to her stepfather’s death, and each one incorporates Jerkins’ black and female identities and their shaping of those experiences. But her prose is so elegantly consumable that she transcends any barriers of understanding that might exist between her words and the reader.

There are no throwaway sentences in this book. Each word is precisely chosen and weaved into a narrative that is both a history lesson as well as a portrait of an artist as a young woman. Jerkins is a writer reminiscent of bell hooks, whose intellect shines on the page. She pores over and pours into her ideas with a depth of a woman three times her age (she graduated from Princeton in 2014), but her stories remain accessible and grounded in a language that anyone can read and enjoy.

A Journey through Time and Space

It’s challenging to write about this essay collection without giving away all of the interesting bits of Jerkins’ work (which is honestly all of it). She writes a beautiful letter to Michelle Obama in “A Lotus for Michelle” and thanks her for giving her an “actual image of black ascendancy,” all while enduring years of ridicule rooted in racism against black female bodies. She unapologetically embraces her own body and hair in “The Stranger at the Carnival,” and delves into the historical implications of language surrounding black hair, with loaded words like “kinky” and “nappy.” She exquisitely navigates the black identity politics of inhabiting the physical space of Harlem after growing up in white-centric New Jersey in “Human, Not Black.” And while these are all topically fascinating, it’s Jerkins’ abilities as a true artisan of language that makes her stories extraordinary.

Jerkins’ writing undulates inward and outward constantly, from her own microcosmic existence as a black woman just trying to emotionally and physically survive to the macrocosmic, centuries-long trajectory that led her mind, body, and spirit to this time. The historical oppression of her ancestors and the modern-day ramifications of that oppression exist side by side on the page, but it’s never burdensome for the reader, because Jerkins doesn’t allow it to be. She dexterously moves between time and space in her storytelling, and conveys a wisdom that is both educational and inspiring.

In “How to Survive: A Manifesto on Paranoia and Peace,” Morgan Jerkins creates a step-by-step guide for black women on how to maneuver through this world while preserving their mind and spirit. At one point, she reminds them that they are not alone, and that there is always someone out there rooting for them. She says, “There is a cosmic wavelength of our universal spirit” that binds black women together. Jerkins taps into that wavelength with every word of her outstanding essays.

My Verdict:

Every great genius has her beginning, that moment of introduction when everyone else looks up and says, “Whoa. We’ve never seen this before.” This Will Be My Undoing is Morgan Jerkins’ beginning, and you owe it to yourself as a citizen of this world to read her words.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash