Rating 5 stars
Read as part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge.
I put The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House on my list of books for the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge because I’ve owned it since November 2018 and made a couple of attempts to read it, both times putting it down after a couple of pages because it felt too much. The current protests against the brutal treatment of black people by police and society in general made me get over myself.
This pocket sized volume of 50 pages packs a punch. It brings together five essays by Audre Lorde that are a call to dig deep, find our passion, harness our anger and make a permanent, radical change to the assumptions that underpin the world we live in. These essays highlight sexism, racism and homophobia and underline their intersectionality.
Out of the objects of these loathings, I share one characteristic with Lorde: I am a woman. Her perspective on being a woman is necessarily different to mine, because her experience of being a woman is combined with the experiences of also being black, also being a lesbian.
Layla F Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy, wrote in the Guardian recently about books that can help white people who are struggling with the concept of white privilege. She includes another collection of Lorde’s essays in her list and wrote
Reaching back to books published by black thinkers and feminists decades ago shows us (depressingly) how things are still very much the same, but also (empoweringly) gives us language and context for understanding what we are seeing now…
That sums up how I feel about this slim volume of essays.
I’m trying to read widely – non-fiction, memoir, fiction – to inform myself so that I understand how I personally think about race and my relationship to people of colour as a privileged white person and can change it where my thinking is wrong. I still have lots of books on my reading list and lots of work to do on myself.
Out of all I’ve read so far, Lorde’s writing in the essays collected here challenged me to think differently. Because I am white, I have a way of looking at the world that is informed by white history and culture. From the Renaissance and the Enlightenment onwards, white western culture has defined the world in its terms. Many of the black writers whose books I’ve read write within the precepts of western culture. In the first essay, “Poetry is not a Luxury”, Lorde characterises white culture and thinking as a white father. She talks about how limiting this is for women generally, black women in particular.
I speak here of poetry as the revelation or distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean – in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.
As Lorde defines poetry, it’s a tool that women feel able to use, because it allows for the expression of our anger when the world tells us that women should be passive.
Women being told to think and behave a particular way is at the heart of the second essay, “Use of the Erotic”. Here, Lorde separates the word erotic from the meaning that has been imposed on it, that confuses it with pornography. For Lorde, “The erotic is a measure of the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” It is not the plasticised sensation of pornography. “Pornography,” she says, “emphasizes sensation without feeling.” Pornography is the misnaming of the erotic by men so they can use it against women, because when women engage with their sense of self and draw power from it, they are dangerous and need to be taught to separate the erotic and plasticise it. Women are either madonna or whore, our feelings and the power we draw from them deemed inferior to those of men. Women who connect with the erotic are contemptible and suspect in the eyes of society, because men have made it so. I can’t argue with that. It is my experience.
Lorde expands on what the erotic truly is in a way that connected with me, because I have felt the things she describes. It is demanding the most of ourselves and feeling liberated by that. It is feeling fully the satisfaction and completion of doing by engaging fully with that doing. The doing can be anything. It is the enrichment and celebration of our lives. It is knowing that the good we feel comes from psychic and emotional engagement with our work and not from the money we earn doing it. It is about fulfillment not necessity. It is about everything, not just the sexual.
I was single for a long time, in and out of non-relationships that quickly failed because I was too connected with who I am. I was told by men, both in words and actions, that I was too much, too intense, not docile enough. My passion was what hooked them in at first, but it was also what repelled them in the end. I learnt that, if a man was to stay, I had to tone down and internalise the intensity of who I am. The soft word is compromise. The more angular one is repression. Women have learnt to present ourselves to the world in a way that makes us less threatening – to men and to each other. We don’t always know that we’re doing it, it’s so ingrained in us.
Think about Lizzie and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, a tale that depicts relationships between men and women, and between different classes, in the early 19th century. Darcy is attracted to Lizzie despite himself because she is truly herself. Her passion draws him in. We don’t know what happens after they marry, but you can bet there’s a fair bit of compromising on Lizzie’s part. Much as there is for her friend Charlotte Lucas when she takes on the role of Mrs Collins. Because society demands it.
As is my way, I digress.
The erotic is also, Lorde says, about
… sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.
Pow! A different way of doing things. Remove fear or suspicion of The Other (whatever your Other, your prejudice, is grounded in – gender, race, sexuality, age, belief system, physical ability, mental ability) by sharing deeply in the joy of common ground. It sounds so simple, and yet western culture has conditioned white people (I can’t speak for anyone else) to believe that this is undesirable, destabilising behaviour. It takes us out of our comfort zones while simultaneously denying us the chance to widen that comfort zone. And that’s why we fail to choose a different way of doing things. We look away from the experience of sharing because it frightens us. We find ways of calling it something else and so distort it, from a unifying movement into a temporary mob, for example. The power afforded us in the joy of sharing can’t then be sustained.
Recognising the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.
For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.
Choose joy over fear. Don’t think emotions are just for women, or confuse them with weakness. Don’t accept that western patriarchal capitalism is the only or the best way.
The titular essay captures something that is still happening – the marginalisation of women and people of colour to only speak about ‘issues’ – feminism, sexism, racism, underrepresentation – and only when those issues cycle into the public consciousness. Lorde writes about a conference commemorating the 30th anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex in 1978 at which Lorde was invited to speak. She, and the only other black woman speaker, was invited to speak at the last minute. She was invited to speak about difference, in particular race. The programme curators, she says
… assume that lesbian and Black women have nothing to say about existentialism, the erotic, women’s culture and silence, developing feminist theory, or heterosexuality and power.
This happened 42 years ago. Meanwhile, in 2020, comedian Sophie Duke posted a thread on Twitter describing a similar last minute invitation to appear on BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz in order to diversify the panel and give a black perspective on Black Lives Matter. Duke generously credits the programme makers with meaning well. But even when we mean well, we get it so wrong. And we don’t learn. We make an effort while something is news and forces us to think about it, and then we settle back into our comfortable old ways.
What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.
Lorde also captures something else that is still happening – the expectation among white people that black people will educate us about their existence. “This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” Lorde also quotes the poet Adrienne Rich on the way white feminists have been able to educate themselves about many things but need black women’s help to educate themselves about black lives. We all have access to the same resources. White people need to stop demanding black people do the work for them.
This essay wasn’t just challenging on the issue of racism. It challenged me, too, on my own sexism towards other women, and the times when I don’t elevate but choose to criticise and disparage. I did it yesterday, watching Fearne Cotton on the One Show talk about the podcast and festival she originated, Happy Place. My internal monologue was scathing and critical, because I assumed Cotton was a superficial opportunist pandering to a specific market. When she spoke about living with anxiety and depression, I was ashamed of my internal monologue and my disdain for what Cotton represented to me.
As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. … But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.
I really must do better. As Lorde points out
I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you.
I wish we still had Audre Lorde in the world. I’m glad we have her writing. This Penguin Modern is an excellent introduction. I’ll be reading more of her work.