An enduring voice for inclusive social justice
Audre Lorde’s dreams and goals underscored by Long Beach filmmaker
By Phillip Zonkel, Staff Writer
Reprinted from the Long Beach Press Telegram – July 17, 2003
Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was on the verge of collapse.
In 1983, two decades after his historic “I Have A Dream” speech and the civil rights march on Washington, D.C., a 20th anniversary gathering was planned for the same site.
But in scheduling the day’s speakers, the organizing group was adamant in refusing to allow anyone from the National Coalition for Black Lesbians and Gays to the podium. Eventually, Coretta Scott King stepped in and told the group to let lesbian-feminist Audre Lorde speak.
In her three-minute speech, Lorde challenged the audience to broaden its thoughts on social justice and make room for everyone.
Jeff Gritchen/Staff photographer
“Audre said there’s a war on classism, homophobia, agism, racism, sexism; we need everyone to fight this war. You’re not going to include us? Are we not black enough?” says Jennifer Abod, a Long Beach-based filmmaker, who produced 1988’s “Audio Profile on Audre Lorde” and the new “The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde,” which screens Friday and Saturday at Outfest, the gay and lesbian film festival.
It was a watershed moment.
“It was a very important speech,” says Angela Bowen, an assistant professor of women’s studies at Cal State Long Beach. “She spoke to so, so very many people who within their own communities would never have heard anybody gay speaking.
“There were many people who were important to the social justice movement, but she as a lesbian and willing to be a part of that movement as a lesbian, an open lesbian, was the biggest contribution that she could’ve made.”
At the time, Lorde was a celebrated author, publishing 15 books of poetry and prose, including 1984’s “Sister Outsider,” which is often included in the curriculum of women studies programs.
In 1980, Lorde published the autobiographical “Cancer Journals,” where she courageously wrote about her mastectomy and her decision to pursue alternate treatment when the cancer recurred.
She also provided avenues of expression to future generations of writers by co-founding the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
Lorde also was a social justice trailblazer (she was one of the featured speakers at the first national march for gay and lesbian liberation in Washington, D.C., in 1979) who pushed for inclusion.
“During the 1970s, there were a series of movements, black, Chicano, feminist, gay and lesbian, each of whose leaders, or spokespeople, tended to speak as if they were representing the whole of their population,” says John D’Emilio, gay political historian and director of the gender and women’s studies program at University of Illinois at Chicago.
“But, in fact, the black and Chicano spokespersons tended to be men; the feminist leaders tended to be white; and the gay and lesbian leaders weren’t gay and lesbian but were often men, and white men at that,” he says.
“Here was Audre Lorde looking around and saying, or writing, out loud, ‘Well, you know, you’re not really speaking for me, or of me. Your black experience isn’t quite mine. Your female experience isn’t quite mine. Your gay experience isn’t quite mine. There’s nothing wrong with your experience. But just don’t make claims for it that aren’t true, and don’t spin out theories of social change, or of political activism, that assume you are speaking for me.'”
“For some individuals, this kind of message could have been delivered with an edge that was divisive, or polarizing or embittering,” D’Emilio says. “But, it never seemed to come from Lorde in that way. She was insistent, and firm, and ruthless, in her call to expand each of our understandings of the world so that it looked differences in the eye and said yes to them. And she did it in a way that always kept a dialogue, or discussion, going.
“In that sense, there has always been something very hopeful, and bracing and invigorating, about Lorde and what she was trying to say — the unity, or cooperation, that’s possible when you recognize the differences is far more powerful and durable than what you get when you pretend we’re all just the same.”
But the message wasn’t easy for everyone to hear.
“Black men were, for the most part, hostile to feminism,” Bowen says. “They saw it as a diverse from the racial justice issue. They saw black feminists as traitors to the cause.”
“Once she declared herself a lesbian in the mid-70s, her ostracism from the black arts movement was complete,” Bowen says. “Even the women among the black arts movement who admitted among themselves that Lorde was right, especially on the sexism issue, dared not speak out on her behalf.”
Lorde’s inclusive philosophy, and the struggles and triumphs, is examined in Abod’s one-hour video, “The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde.”
The primary footage was shot at the four-day, 1990 Boston conference, “I Am Your Sister: Forging Global Connections Across Differences,” where 1,200 people from 23 countries came to examine Lorde’s work and celebrate her life.
Two years later, Lorde, 58, died from breast cancer.
“Lorde was a woman for all times and all people,” Abod says. “Her vision of inclusive and her vision to recognize and use power and use our differences creatively as opposed to destructively meant that as a black woman she never turned away from white women. She was a lesbian but never turned away from heterosexuals. She was a lesbian but spoke directly to men, particularly black men, about the importance of feminism to their lives.”
She didn’t want us to tolerate differences, but to recognize them and grow and stretch from those differences.
“When she spoke in the white women’s movement, she talked of racism. When she spoke to black women or straight white women, she talked about homophobia,” Abod says.
“She challenged the narrowness of each movement because they couldn’t accept all of who she was. She was not going to shrink in the face of their bigotry,” she says. “If they were at all supposed to be involved with social justice, she needed to challenge them on the blinders and bigotry that was going to weaken the goal that everybody believed in but was impossible with a narrow nationalism or feminism.”
The video also explores the impact and influence Lorde’s work had on the conference’s participants.
“A particular strength of Jennifer’s documentary is the way she combined footage from Lorde’s life with reflections from others that allowed you to see the deep, deep influence, transformative, really, that Lorde had on so many folks,” D’Emilio says. “It wasn’t a hero worship that surfaces, but an excitement about figuring things out about yourself and about life that came from the encounter with Lorde and her work. Lorde doesn’t tell you what to think. Instead, she demands that you think.”
“She challenged people on an individual basis,” Abod says. “When they came up and said, ‘Oh, your work is wonderful.’ She then would always turn it around and say, ‘What are you doing?'”
Phillip Zonkel can be reached at 562.499.1258 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.