Sister Outsider: Emotions, Essentialism, Self

Cover of Sister Outsider

Title: Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde

Author: Audre Lorde

Publication Date: 1984

Call Number: PS3562.O75S5

Gender Trouble was the November read for A Year of Feminist Classics, and Sister Outsider was the December selection, and it is so weird to read Lorde after Butler.  After working very hard to keep my mind clear of the idea of an extradiscursive reality, I read Lorde and while I imagine I’d find her a bit essentialist at any time, Butler magnifies this by making everything seem essentialist.  But while I think one of the points of this project is to pay attention to the dialogue created between these works, I also think I ought to take Lorde on her own terms.

The discussion questions for this book were very interesting; perhaps the most interesting was this one:

In her interview with Lorde, Adrienne Rich asked her to speak to similar criticisms, one of which was that, in response to the essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury”, she’d “heard it remarked that here you are simply restating the old stereotype of the rational white male and the emotional dark female” (p. 100). Her response was complex and nuanced. Personally, I wasn’t completely sure what to make of it, so my first question is:

Did you find her response to this question convincing and/or satisfying? Do you think the criticism itself is valid?

This is a really hard question, but it’s close to what was on my mind as I read.  In the essay in question, Lorde writes:

The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of this language. (38)

This reminds me of Butler’s writing about Kristeva—the idea that there is a maternal language beyond patriarchy—and the thought of claiming such a language to find truths that culture has hidden remains appealing, whether it is really possible or not.  Still, Lorde’s language here, at least if I rip it out of context like this, appears to accept the binary in order to make her point. She reminds us that we know that the emotional, intuitive, and less verbal is valuable, even though it has not been valued in our culture in the same way that the logical and verbal have, and insists on the importance of experiences that can’t be expressed in syllogisms.  That’s an important point to make, and something I’ve struggled with myself.  The peculiar thing about it is that she expresses it in a way that makes use of the very dichotomy between logical/masculine/white and emotional/feminine/black that has been used to devalue the emotional in the first place!  This was definitely one of the moments where, in the back of my mind, I could hear Butler raising her eyebrow. (But then, where is the emotional in Butler?)

But if I put Butler aside for a moment to think about this more thoroughly, that’s a really interesting trap to be caught in.  All the constituent parts of that constellation—emotion, femininity, and blackness—have been devalued by association with each other. So emotion isn’t taken seriously because it’s  seen as feminine, women aren’t considered an important part of society because they are thought to be emotional. Lorde is attacking this by attempting to recover all three at once rather than falling into the trap of denying her emotional self because it is feminine.

Of course, it’s not only in this essay that she does this. She writes in “Uses of the Erotic” about using passion to fuel her work and refusing the assumption that the personal and emotional is a private, separate thing.  And in many of the essays in this collection, Lorde discusses anger and the ways that dismissing emotion prevents anger from being used productively to right wrongs.  I think my favorite essay in the collection was “Eye to Eye, “ which covers so much ground that I can’t possibly do it justice here, but which discusses all the ways that anger can both connect and divide.

Lorde needs to embrace the emotional in order to credibly discuss the harm done by its suppression, as well as to recover from it herself. So I can see where she’s coming from with this, or at least, I think that I can. However, that still leaves all these concepts—race, gender and emotion—connected to each other in the reader’s mind in almost the same way they were when he or she came in.

Lorde’s response to the question, as Emily Jane notes above, is complex. First, she critiques the assumption that rationality is so valuable that women need to wrest control of it away from men, describing pure rationality as “a road that begins nowhere and ends nowhere,” but then she backs off from that a little: “Rationality is not unnecessary. It serves the chaos of knowledge. It serves feeling” (100). She emphasizes that she does not mean that rationality belongs to men, or that feeling belongs to women, but that we all have access to both of these—but then, why describe them in the terms that she does? The obvious answer is that this is because she is a poet and wants to take advantage of the associations we already feel with these things. Using language is tricky like that.  But at the same time, she also believes that these associations are real:

I personally believe that the Black mother exists more in women; yet she  is the name for a humanity that men are not without. But they have taken a position against that piece of themselves, and it is a world position, a position throughout time (101).

So, yes, there is definitely some built-in essentialism here and I’m not completely comfortable with it. In a way, I think that she is really talking about her own experience and trying to use it to make sense of the world, which is obviously important but which has certain pitfalls. Similarly, in “Eye to Eye,” she talks about mothering and the love of Black mothers as if this were a universal thing, as if all mothers provide the kind of fierce love for their children that she does.

It’s possible, too, that I’m approaching this with an attitude too similar to the ones that Lorde criticizes.  I don’t know. I, too, am having trouble knowing what to make of this.  But I do love the way she writes:

“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?” (41-42)


Filed under Literary thoughts

6 responses to “Sister Outsider: Emotions, Essentialism, Self

  1. This is such an excellent response…you managed to get at a lot of what I was trying to say, but much more articulately. It’s certainly true that everything seems incredibly essentialist after reading Butler, and that Lorde should be taken on her own terms. That said, I still don’t know how to approach the question, either.

  2. Again. An impressive discussion of some very difficult points relating to Lorde. I agree and can also be uncomfortable with her essentialism, but you are right in describing how she is using it. And where IS the emotion in Butler? I tend to see Butler and others like her as going too far to the opposite extreme by trying to account for so much rationally–exactly what Lorde is protesting. There is something of value at both ends, but I care more restoring body and feeling than figuring everything out.

    You might be interested in some of my blogs on Lorde and other black women.

  3. Thank you both.
    The thing is, figuring things out logically is challenging and often uncomfortable, but it can also be fun in a way, while dealing with body and feeling, though necessary, is painful.

  4. Absolutely true!! I wish I could disagree. I don’t think it is an accident that women of color are the ones who write most forcefully about the need to consider the body and work to lessen its pain. But bodies can be great as well as painful–which is part of what I think Lorde is affirming in “Poetry” and “Erotics.”

    I don’t disagree with Butler and friends and I think what they do can be both fun and useful. I just don’t think they have the whole truth.
    They are right I think to say that concepts like gender are created and flexible, not fundamental to who we are. But why can’t we enjoy the bodies we have and accept the pain of them rather than try to make them disappear all the time.

    Ursula LeGuin has a wonderful piece, first presented as a commencement speech at Bryn Mawr about father and mother languages–not as essential differences, but as styles of being appropriate in different situations. You can find it online and will try to add a link to it on my blog.

    I don’t always respond quickly either, as you can see.

  5. I love Le Guin, and I see the essay is here: .. but I haven’t read it yet. I will when I can.

  6. Pingback: Borderlands/La Frontera: Being the Wild Tongue | onereadleaf

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