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Audre Lorde on Being a Black Lesbian Feminist

Karla Hammond: How would you define being a lesbian?

Audre Lorde: Strongly woman-identified women where love between women is open and possible, beyond physical in every way. There are lesbians, God knows . . . if you came up through lesbian circles in the forties and fifties in New York . . . who were not feminist and would not call themselves feminists. But the true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women. I can't really define it in sexual terms alone although our sexuality is so energizing why not enjoy it too? But that comes back to the whole issue of what the erotic is. There are so many ways of describing "lesbian." Part of the lesbian consciousness is an absolute recognition of the erotic within our lives and, taking that a step further, dealing with the erotic not only in sexual terms. . . .

While Black sisters don't like to hear this, I would have to say that all Black women are lesbians because we were raised in the remnants of a basically matriarchal society no matter how oppressed we may have been by patriarchy. We're all dykes, including our mommas. Let's really start getting past the shibboleths and taboos. They don't really matter. Being able to recognize that the function of poetry or any art is to ennoble and empower us in a way that's not separate from our living, that belief is African in origin.

Hammond, Karla. "An Interview with Audre Lorde." American Poetry Review March/April 1980: 18-21.

There's always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself--whether it's Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc.--because that's the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you've lost because then you become acquired or bought by that particular essence of yourself, and you've denied yourself all of the energy that it takes to keep all those others in jail. Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat. You know how fighting fish do it? They blow bubbles and in each one of those bubbles is an egg and they float the egg up to the surface. They keep this whole heavy nest of eggs floating, and they're constantly repairing it. It's as if they live in both elements. That's something that we have to do, too, in our own lives--keep it all afloat. It's possible to take that as a personal metaphor and then multiply it to a people, a race, a sex, a time. If we can keep this thing going long enough, if we can survive and teach what we know, we'll make it. But the question is a matter of the survival and the teaching. That's what our work comes down to. No matter where we key into it, it's the same work, just different pieces of ourselves doing it.

Hammond, Carla M. "Audre Lorde: Interview." Denver Quarterly 16.1 (1981): 10-27.

Black writers, of whatever quality, who step outside the pale of what black writers are supposed to write about, or who black writers are supposed to be, are condemned to silences in black literary circles that are as total and as destructive as any imposed by racism. That is particularly true for black women writers who have refused to be delineated by male-establishment models of femininity, and who have dealt with their sexuality as an accepted part of their identity. . . .

When you are a member of an out-group, and you challenge others with whom you share this outsider position to examine some aspect of their lives that distorts differences between you, then there can be a great deal of pain. In other words, when people of a group share an oppression, there are certain strengths that they build together. But there are also certain vulnerabilities. For instance, talking about racism to the women's movement results in "Huh, don't bother us with that. Look, we're all sisters, please don't rock the boat." Talking to the black community about sexism results in pretty much the same thing. You get a "Wait, wait... wait a minute: we're all black together. Don't rock to boat." In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction. . . .

With respect to myself specifically, I feel that not to be open about any of the different "people" within my identity, particularly the "mes" who are challenged by a status quo, is to invite myself and other women, by my example, to live a lie. In other words, I would be giving in to a myth of sameness which I think can destroy us.

"Audre Lorde." Black Women Writers at Work. Ed. Claudia Tate. NY: Continuum, 1983. 100-16.

Today the red-herring of lesbian-baiting is being used in the Black community to obscure the true face of racism/sexism. Black women sharing close ties with each other, politically or emotionally, are not the enemies of Black men. Too frequently, however, some Black men attempt to rule by fear those Black women who are more ally than enemy. These tactics are expressed as threats of emotional rejection: "Their poetry wasn't too bad but I couldn't take all those lezzies." The Black man saying this is code-warning every Black woman present interested in a relationship with a man--and most Black women are--that (1) if she wishes to have her work considered by him she must eschew any other allegiance except to him and (2) any woman who wishes to retain his friendship and/or support had better not be "tainted" by woman-identified interests. . . .

All too often the message comes loud and clear to Black women from Black men: "I am the only prize worth having and there are not too many of me, and remember, I can always go elsewhere. So if you want me, you'd better stay in your place which is away from one another, or I will call you 'lesbian' and wipe you out." Black women are programmed to define ourselves within this male attention and to compete with each other for it rather than to recognize and move upon our common interests.

The tactic of encouraging horizontal hostility to becloud more pressing issues of oppression is by no means new, nor limited to relations between women. The same tactic is used to encourage separation between Black women and Black men. In discussions around the hiring and firing of Black faculty at universities, the charge is frequently heard that Black women are more easily hired than are Black men. For this reason, Black women's problems of promotion and tenure are not to be considered important since they are only "taking jobs away from Black men." Here again, energy is being wasted on fighting each other over the pitifully few crumbs allowed us rather than being used, in a joining of forces to fight for a more realistic ratio of Black faculty. The latter would be a vertical battle against racist policies of the academic structure itself, one which could result in real power and change. It is the structure at the top which desires changelessness and which profits from these apparently endless kitchen wars.

Lorde, Audre. "Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Woman and Loving." Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984. 45-52.

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