Audre Lorde directed her critical attention within movements for justice. Photo: Getty
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Nathifa Greene on Audre Lorde: Dismantling the master’s house

As a black lesbian feminist, Audre Lorde fought both white supremacy in the feminist movement, and misogyny among civil rights campaigners. 

This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.

 

Audre Lorde created space for plurality and differences among Second Wave feminists. The main aim of her work was to expose the false dilemma that forced a choice of one form of oppression over another, or solidarity with only one facet of identity at a time. Throughout her work, Lorde stressed that difference counts as a strength, not weakness, making way for later developments such as intersectionality in black feminism and multiculturalism.

Instead of making sexuality and domestic relationships a lower priority than struggles for civil rights and legal transformation, Lorde argued, there is a common ancestral root that generates racism, sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia, and violence in relationships as well as in the public sphere. This common root is the belief that survival means domination over others, and a belief in superiority. The forms of knowledge that grow out of this common root all display one important feature in common, according to Lorde: “an inability to recognize the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening.”[1]

The dominant white, middle class version of a feminist struggle that Freidan described, in The Feminine Mystique, was only one small sliver of women, which overlooked the specific kinds of experiences that women of other social classes and sexual orientations faced. That insensitivity ended up reinscribing oppression, Lorde argued.

Lorde directed her critical attention within movements for justice. Her critical assessments of feminism were radical, at a time when feminists would sometimes claim that racial solidarity betrayed feminist causes - and men of color would claim that expressions of gender solidarity by women of color betrayed the struggle for racial justice. So where was the place for women who were not white, or middle class, or heterosexual in anti-racist and feminist politics? Lorde pointed out that feminists could be racist and that men involved in antiracist struggle could be misogynist. That kind of zero-sum game thinking, where benefit for one cause only occurs at the expense of another, was perhaps the reason that Lorde claimed “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house”, because aversion to difference is a form that various instances of oppression share in common.

For Lorde, coming of age in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, when apartheid was legal in America, class-conscious New York bohemians nevertheless found sexual difference suspect, “bourgeois and reactionary”[2]. The confines of gendered performance and self-presentation were narrow among gay women. Where could she find solidarity for all parts of herself, as a self-identified Black lesbian poet, in black and socialist circles uptown in Harlem, and gay bars downtown, in Greenwich Village? Choosing one kind of solidarity to the exclusion of another would require an amputation, to fit a procrustean bed.

Lorde's work took a stand against a narrow version of justice for women, and a false solidarity for that narrowly defined political agenda, which would involve a suppression of important parts of herself. However, she never stopped noticing the casual racism she experienced among her queer friends and fellow feminists, as well as sexism and homophobia among black people, within movements for racial justice.

One of her most significant contributions is her exposure of the ways that feminism could fail women of color. Lorde spoke out against patriarchy within movements for racial justice, and psychological as well as physical violence, shedding light on the ways that black women and queer women can be vulnerable to particular forms of violence, especially sexual violence. The divided loyalties of domestic workers, at work earning low wages in the very homes where other women wrestled with “the problem with no name” were not addressed in the feminism of Betty Friedan.

However, because women’s oppression and economic exploitation share a common cause, the argument for greater emphasis on other women’s experiences is a demand for honesty, and openness, rather than an indictment that stops at an accusation, offering nothing more. Lorde valued all forms of love and relationships among women, in deep bonds of love that led her to think of herself a woman-identified woman, pointing out that the tendency to value women as women, not only in relation to men, was the exception rather than the rule. The silence that stifled all kinds of love among women, both sexual and nonsexual, is a similar kind of silence that made it risky for black women to speak out against violence committed by black men. Women of color struggled against gendered oppression, as all women do, but only some women struggled against impunity for violence, as well as exploitative and unsafe working conditions.   

Lorde explored hidden and silenced areas in her essays and speeches. In Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power she broadened the sense of the term “erotic” to embrace its generative power and its whole creative spectrum, beyond preset gender roles. These texts encouraged women to express the full range of human emotion, including anger. In The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, Lorde described the tactics that dismissed, excluded, and silenced the voices of women of color, risking the reinforcement of white supremacy by diverting focus to anger between women, siphoning off the potentially revolutionary power of anger turned against racism, rather than each other. The psychological control of women by other women within feminist movements, because of the proscription against anger, left important issues unaddressed within feminist circles.

Because of her attention to the specific ways that women of color experience oppression, Lorde echoed the late 19th and early 20th century reflections of Anna Julia Cooper, who discussed the restriction of movements for women’s rights to white women. Lorde developed a position that came from a similar place as Sojourner Truth, whose 1851 question “ain’t I a woman?” was still relevant a century later, in an America that condoned and profited from racist exploitation. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1937, the doubly excluded position of black women in America made them “de mule uh de world,” words that domestic workers knew all too well, confined as they were to low paying work deemed unfit for other women to perform.

Although she believed in the idea of a common cause, Lorde always stressed the importance of admitting difference within feminist circles. She also explored the affective space to disagree, carving out spaces where white middle class feminists did not belong at the center.

 

Nathifa Greene is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Stony Brook University (State University of New York) in the US.


[1] (1978/1984) “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving.” Reprinted in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Crossing Press p.45

[2] (1982) Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography. New York: Random House. p.149

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.