A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Sister Outsider: Discussion Questions and Wrap-Up

Happy holidays to all who celebrate them, and a lovely few weeks to all who don’t! I hope you’ve been able to take some time off for yourselves and your loved ones, and maybe even been able to curl up with a good book or two 🙂

Having seen Audre Lorde referenced all over the place within feminist circles, I was relieved to finally read her work for myself. This collection was more diverse than I thought it would be. I wasn’t expecting so much about poetry as a means of expression, for example, or the first and last pieces about Russia and Grenada, respectively. And honestly, I didn’t find those topics as striking as the others.

My favorite parts of Lorde’s essays were the ones in which she details some of the microaggressions she faces regularly as a black, lesbian, feminist woman by feminists and non-feminists, men and women, and people of all races alike (the bullet points on p. 126 in the essay “Uses of Anger”, for example). These allow us to see just how insidious notions of superiority really are, and how easily dismissal of others disguises itself as something benign. As Lorde makes clear, this is no less true for feminists than it is of anyone else, regardless of their academic standing or level of “awareness”. This is a really important criticism that remains relevant as feminists (and others) continue learning to understand each other better through the acknowledgment of difference while moving away from generalizing experience in attempts to build solidarity.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that Lorde made some uneasy generalizations herself. I felt this mainly in her discussion of female eroticism…(what the heck is that?!). 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?

Another thing I think we should discuss is the theme of anger. I understand that anger is a contentious topic within feminism, because it is so often used to unfairly belittle, dismiss, misdefine, or oversimplify feminist claims and arguments. At the same time, I agree with Lorde that anger is an appropriate response to oppression, that it can lead to productive work, and that it’s important both to feel it when it occurs and to be willing to deal with it. Feminism is not defined by anger, nor are feminists. We are all human, though, and anger is a human emotion. So:

How do you understand the relationship between anger and oppression, or anger and feminism? Is there one? What kind of role can/should it play? Why does it so often seem easily dismissed?

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. I know I wrote in my introduction that I would be focusing on this essay, as it seems to be the most widely quoted. It was one of my favorites, but I hope no one minds terribly that I ended up inspired to ask questions about others as well 😉 In any case, it was easy for me to agree that real change requires a complete restructuring of power relations and that Lorde’s expression of this need was effective and particularly eloquent. But, easier said than done! My question is:

How do we recognize the master’s tools for what they are?

Finally, I was interested in Lorde’s discussions of parenting a boy as a lesbian feminist in an era when separatism was more seriously regarded (by some) as a serious option. In recent years I’ve seen a lot more discussion about not only feminist parenting, but feminist parenting of boys, which I see as a really positive development. Girls seem to receive the bulk of feminist education, be it from their teachers or their parents…but boys need it too! I don’t have any specific questions about this, but if any parents would like to weigh in on what they thought of Lorde’s essays on the subject, or on their own experience, I’d be delighted.

Anything else? If there’s something you’d like to discuss or think I’ve neglected anything important, do feel free to bring it up!

Oh, and please stick around for updates on plans for 2012. We may have slacked off on hosting duties at times (ahem, sorry)…but I know the first year of feminist classics has been both challenging and fulfilling for us and hopefully some of you as well. Looking forward to hearing from you (even if it has to wait until the holiday season has passed) and thanks for your participation!

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8 responses to “Sister Outsider: Discussion Questions and Wrap-Up

  1. Pingback: Link Round Up « The Lesbrary

  2. mdbrady January 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Response to Sister Outsider
    from Marilyn Dell Brady @ME You and the Books

    Audre Lorde was incredibly important in forcing 1980s white feminists to expand their vision beyond ourselves. Some of the issues she raised have been addressed while others have simply taken another form. White women academics no longer exclude black women, but anger, hurt, and conflicting needs still make it problematic for us find common ground. The controversy around the book and movie Help is an example. That’s why the Black Women Historians list of background readings, and REAL HELP, are so important.

    Audre Lorde is primarily a poet. Many of the pieces in Sister Outsider were originally speeches, not formal essays. (See the first page of each essay for its origin.) For Lorde, sounds, images, and words are more important then rational argumentation. She is not against reason, only against being limited by it. For those of us who seek clear logical answers, that is a difficulty.

    In some of the essay/speeches, Lorde is also resisting a twentieth-century pattern of educated, middle-class black women who responded to the stereotype that they were over-sexed by being overly respectable and restrained, hiding their sexuality and passions behind masks meant to protect them. Lorde would have none of that. She sought to live life fully and passionately; like a lover, loving and expereincing life even when it hurt. (Although the dynamics differed, she resonated here with some of us were white and had been raised to be “ladies”.)

    Anger was one of those passions that Lorde said we’d kept too bottled up and thus disempowered ourselves. I believe that is true for most women, black or white. The hard part, I think, is that there is a time and place for acknowledging and expressing anger and a time for maintaining silence. We have to start with the assumption we have a right to anger and need its positive energy, but we also have a irresponsibilty to use it wisely. Feminists have sometimes missed the balance.

    The best way I know to recognize the Masters’ Tools is to consider Lorde’s discussion of them. When I was teaching, I felt a constant pressure between institutional goals of “The Master” and personal committments to myself and my students. It was a balance act never fully resolved, but I sold out less having read Lorde. I would have taught for free; I hated grading passionately and they had to pay me to do it.

    • mdbrady January 5, 2012 at 2:58 pm

      A suggestion to pass on after discussing Lorde on my blog with Eva@Stripped Chair. She is going to look up some of the essays on-line. That’s how we encountered them in the 80s, xeroxing them as they first came out. The ones I never quite forgot are “Transformation of Silence,” “Uses of Anger,” “Eye to Eye,” “Eros,” “Master’s Tools,” and “Poetry is no Luxury.” Others would say that her essays on lesbianism or debating with white feminists are more important.

    • Emily Jane January 9, 2012 at 1:52 am

      Hello, Mdbrady! You’ve given us a lot of important context that I wasn’t aware of and/or neglected in my post, like the sexual double-bind that Lorde experienced as a black woman and was writing against in her piece on eroticism. I agree with you about expression of anger and the difficulty of striking a balance. And I can definitely see how teaching could put one in a position to more fully appreciate the problems of “The Master’s Tools”. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment 🙂

  3. Pingback: Sister Outsider: Emotions, Essentialism, Self | onereadleaf

  4. onereadleaf January 6, 2012 at 3:42 am

    I can’t claim I was terribly insightful in my post, but I did struggle with these questions a bit over at my blog….

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