Has there ever been a more germane time to read Audre Lorde? This trailblazing Black writer, a lesbian and the daughter of immigrants, stood unflinchingly at the vanguard of the many interlocking fights for social justice during her lifetime. More than 25 years after her too-early death, many of the issues Lorde advocated for and articulated in her work are once again capturing national attention and demanding action. The ever-thoughtful, often brilliant Lorde hasn’t always received the notice she deserves. Ideally, The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, edited by one of her artistic progenies, the author Roxane Gay, will right that wrong.
For Gay, and no doubt for many others, Lorde was “a beacon, a guiding light. And she was far more than that because her prose and poetry astonished me,” Gay writes in her introduction. The works collected here are equally divided between prose and poetry, providing an excellent entry point into Lorde’s wide-ranging yet particular concerns and capturing her singular literary voice, aptly described by Gay as “intelligent, fierce, powerful, sensual, provocative, indelible.” The poems explore womanhood, motherhood and race, as well as love in its many manifestations. Her poetic style alternates between frank directness and elliptical inquiry.
Lorde never shied away from unpopular truths, and her essays, often written as public addresses, take on not only the patriarchy but also the feminist movement, which shunted aside (or blatantly ignored) the different realities of women of color. Feminism’s failure to recognize nonwhite, non-heterosexual experiences not only harmed marginalized women but also undermined the movement as a whole, as Lorde made clear in her writings.
Racism was an inescapable companion for Lorde, and her fierce reactions to it—weariness, rage, sometimes astonishment but never acceptance—remain timely. This passage, from a 1981 piece on women’s response to racism, could easily have been written in 2020: “I cannot hide my anger to spare your guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”
Perhaps the world is catching up with Audre Lorde at last.