Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison were born on the same birthdate, February 18: Morrison in 1931 and Lorde in 1934.
Thanks to the good folks at Many Voices, I’ve been listening to Audre Lorde speaking to students at UCLA. The date of the lecture is unclear, but the video uploader places the session in the early 1990s.
She begins by inviting the audience to inquire of themselves, “Who am I and how do I use who I am in the service of what I believe?”
Then Lorde reads from her stories of her childhood and early adult in the East Village, New York City, learning to recognize her identity as Black, woman, and lesbian, and how each of these components of what made her her also differentiated her life experiences from those of the people around her.
The talk is about an hour long and includes an extended Q&A session with UCLA’s students on seeking and building community and being courageous.
Some of the highlights:
- “We recognized oppression as oppression no matter where it came from. It is not the function of a woman—any woman—to love or to accept the psyche of her oppressor, even when that psyche is embodied in another woman.”
- “As we identify who we are, we begin the journey to use that power. It is what empowerment is all about. Power that is not used is dangerous because power is never quiescent; it’s never neutral. If I do not use my power, however relative it is; if I do not find out what it is and learn how to use it, someone else is using it. The power you do not use, is being used against us.”
- “We get strong by doing the thing we need to be strong for. So there’s always that little risk. And yes, you’re afraid. We’ll always be afraid. If we wait until we’re not afraid to move, not afraid to act, [then] we’ll be sending little messages on the Ouija board… I started out like we all started out: like a coward.”
- “You must have a group where you feel articulated and accepted. And if it doesn’t exist, you have a responsibility to create it.”
- “Isolation is corrosive and it is dangerous. It is anti-revolutionary, too, which is why so many of us exist in isolation. Get together. If there are two of us doing something, maybe next week, there’ll be four. You need to know you are not alone. And you have a responsibility to make whoever you identify with know that they are not alone either.”
I wonder how Toni Morrison would respond to Lorde’s concept of collective courage: Morrison draws strength from a more solitary generative process.
She describes writing as an act of creation that connects her with the external world and gives her the tools to interpret the world and reinvent it. Morrison has said that the artist and writer have the power to challenge tyrannies and that they do that work by persistently creating and writing.
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” she wrote.
I first quoted that statement in March 2015. Six years beforehand that, Morrison explained to UC-Davis’ Pam Houston how writing allows her to experience the good news that we can continue to grow: wherever we start in our understanding of ourselves or our sense of connection to the wider world isn’t the end of our story. We can, as Lorde said, grow more courageous through disciplined action. We can perceive others more clearly as we attend to the world around us.
Toni: I feel more friendly when I am writing, nicer to people, much more generous, also wiser. I am full of a kind of tenderness toward people and all they have to hide, all they have to construct. Not pity, not sympathy, just tenderness. Knowing that the job of being a human is so hard, and it is the only job there is left—though we keep on pretending otherwise. If I am in that good place and I run into someone I dislike, I feel more human and they seem more human…
There are all sorts of ways people try to stay connected, try not to live in hate. Religion may be one of them, but for me the central thing is the writing. The art itself. Putting my intelligence and my humanity to the best possible use, and I get better because I am doing it. The writing teaches me that I can’t just reach some little plateau and say that’s it, this is the place. It is always a search.
Pam: And that is the good news.
Toni: That is the good news.”