Film honors ‘The Vision of Audre Lorde,’ who was out front in the war against classism, homophobia, ageism, racism, sexism
Audre Lorde refused to sit at the back of the civil rights bus.
Twenty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s 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, event organizers and participants were adamant in refusing to allow anyone from the National Coalition for Black Lesbians and Gays to the podium. The National Organization for Women even threatened to boycott the ceremony.
Eventually, King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, stepped in and told the group to let Lorde, a member of the coalition and a renowned poet and feminist, speak.
In her three-minute speech, Lorde challenged the audience to broaden its thoughts on social justice and be inclusive to everyone.
“Audre said, ‘There’s a war on classism, homophobia, ageism, 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, whose film “The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde” will be screened at Equal Writes bookstore in downtown Long Beach on Feb 18. A discussion will follow.
Lorde’s appearance at the rally was a watershed moment.
“It was a very important speech,” says Angela Bowen, an assistant professor of women’s studies and English 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.”
Lorde acted as a bridge between the civil rights movement and the lesbian and gay liberation movement.
“This was consistent with the way she was an ideological link between the civil rights, lesbian and gay liberation movements and the feminist movement,” says Alexis De Veaux, author of “Warrior Poet” (W.W. Norton & Company, $29.95), a biography of Lorde. “It was a huge movement in social justice causes. It has been unmatched since then.”
Lorde, who died in 1992 from breast cancer, described herself as a “black feminist lesbian poet warrior mother,” but maintained that phrase was inadequate in capturing her full identity.
Born in Harlem, N.Y., in 1934 to Caribbean immigrant parents (her mother was from Grenada, and her dad was from Barbados), Lorde graduated from Columbia University and Hunter College, where she later held the prestigious post of Thomas Hunter Chair of Literature.
In 1968, Lorde accepted a teaching position at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss.
For Lorde, writing proved to be her powerful weapon against injustice. Painfully aware that differences could provoke prejudice and violence, she promoted the bridging of barriers.
Lorde emerged on the social justice scene in the 1970s.
“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 the 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 in experience and standpoint is far more powerful and durable than what you get when you pretend we’re all just the same.”
Some groups refused to embrace her message.
“Black men were, for the most part, hostile to feminism,” Bowen says. “They saw it as a diversion from the racial justice issue. They saw black feminists as traitors to the ’cause.”
“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,” Bowen says.
Nevertheless, Lorde reached audiences with her numerous writings.
Lorde published 15 books of poetry and prose, including 1984’s “Sister Outsider,” which is often included in the curriculum of women’s studies programs. In 1983, “Zami” hit the shelves. Lorde referred to it as a “biomythography,” but it was essentially her autobiography.
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’s philosophy, struggles and triumphs are examined in Abod’s film. The primary footage was shot at the four-day, 1990 Boston Your Sister: Forging Global Connections Across Differences,” where 1,200 people from 23 countries came to examine Lorde’s work and celebrate her life.
“Lorde was a woman for all times and all people,” Abod says. “Her vision of inclusion 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. 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.”
— Phillip Zonkel can be reached at (562) 499-1258 or by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about contributions and how you can obtain a copy of the video, Please contact: Profile Productions, Box 21387, Long Beach CA 90801 or write to email@example.com