Audre Lorde: Reading beyond Queer’dom

Abstract: Audre Lorde is a Black lesbian writer and a cancer survivor. Lorde uses the erotic as a tool to expose the hypocrisy in the white male heterosexual world that pronounces the “unexpressed and unrecognised” identities as pornography. This linguistic tool helps her to understand the relationship shared by a “womanist”. It is used to speak the unspeakable and to expose the yardsticks that construct the differences in society.

Lorde defines cancer in the light of a disease that conquers, corrupts and disrupts a nation, creating chaos. The erotic then differentiates the state of being diseased from that of being scarred and despised by the society and hence by the self. The battle of the erotic is to survive this. Lorde says that survival is not some abstract theory that operates in a vacuum but a matter of life itself. The silencing of humanity in the name of disease, racism, gender bias and socio-economic dominance and the shame they bring are to be fought like fighting and surviving cancer.

The erotic in the lesbian body is to break that silence and to refuse disguise. It is the courage to wear your identity plain and native.

Keywords: queer, erotic, sadomasochism, pornography, black women, white women, heterosexual world, black feminist

Audre Lorde is a Black lesbian writer and a cancer survivor. Lorde uses the erotic as a tool to expose the hypocrisy in the white male heterosexual world that pronounces the unexpressed and unrecognised

identities as pornography. This linguistic tool helps her to understand the relationship shared by a ‘womanist’. It is used to speak the unspeakable and to expose the yardsticks that construct the differences in society.

Lorde works with the erotic to collapse the structures which constructs the differences in society. The erotic says Lorde in her work “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” is:

… a resource within each one of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognised feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives (1984:53).

This definition does not restrict the ‘erotic’ to its conservative meaning of sexuality which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: ‘relating to or arousing sexual desire; amatory,” pertaining to a lover, to lovemaking, or to sexual love generally.’ This call, for the proposal to reconsider: ‘What nation, what people, what stretch of my own [her] history is good without blemish, without blame, without crimes of inertia, at least?’ (Jordan 37) helps Lorde to revise the definitions of race, gender, sexuality and class differences that colonises a nation and the inherent belief in the dominant powers of society says Lorde, is sadomasochism. It conspires against all the plural constructs of her identity marking her differences and naming her as queer. It is the structure of colonial domination where the color of her skin, her native black Caribbean identity, her body being a productive tool and a gaze for beauty and her threatening sexuality as she being and identifying herself as a lesbian in a heterosexual world creates the imbalance of power, law and authority. Sadomasochism is the hierarchical construction of differences and serves as the colonial and capitalist policy which is internalised into the system as civilisation and culture. Susan Leigh Star in her introduction to the interview with Lorde titled “Sadomasochism: Not about Condemnation” describes sadomasochism as: ‘someone dressed in black leather and chains… [where] the parameters of the theatre of sadomasochism…is about cities and a created culture … [and] supported by a particular urban technology’ (Lorde , 1984:51).

As a lesbian/feminist Lorde interprets the role played by the sadomasochist’s in defining gender and sexuality. It constructs the role of the dominant male as opposed to the dutiful and submissive wife and mother; it is responsible for the rape of teenage girls in high school, rise of pornography and prostitution, rights to abortion being denied for black women and forced sterilisation in the black community. The ideology as Star states is supported by an ‘urban technology’ (Lorde, 1984:51). Lorde sees heterosexism as an extension of sadomasochism where the power politics associated with passion paves the way to pornography and when it reaches into the hands of media it becomes a multi-billion dollar industry. ‘Liberalism allows pornography and has allowed wife beating as First Amendment rights. But this does not fit them into my life vision, and they are both an immediate threat to my life’ (Lorde, 1984: 53) says Lorde in her interview with Star. The threat is of being silenced, of lying and of denial.

The lesbian is doubly marginalised. She becomes the ‘other’ and she is looked upon as queer within the black and feminist institutions. She is a victim of the ‘learned intolerance of difference’ (Lorde, 1984:53). The language of the erotic is the linguistic tool that Lorde uses to deconstruct the sadomasochist theory of obscenity. The erotic then differentiates the state of being despised by the society and hence by the self. The battle of the erotic is to survive this.

The erotic shares the knowledge and wisdom to survive. It is the coordinated expressions of the social, physical, psychological and intellectual enterprises of and between women. Miriam Decosta-Wills in her introduction to Erotique Noire: Black Erotica discusses the erotic as that deep, hidden and powerful life force which nurtures desire and creativity in relation with her and the universe. It is then the art which relates the feminine body and mind in relation with ‘man to woman, man to man, woman to woman, bird to flowers and flesh to spirit’ (xix). It is the art says Decosta-Williams that have been passed on from ancestors in their ‘songs of love, their myths of creation, their celebrations of birth, and their rituals of initiation. Desire. Pleasure. Wholeness.’ (Decosta- Williams xix). The conservative reading of the erotic is confined to the phallocentric representation of the body and lust while Lorde in Sister Outsider redefines it as the bridge which connects the ‘spiritual and political’ (1984:56) and that, she says again is the erotic.

For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic – the sensual – those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love, in its deepest meanings. … The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge (Lorde, 1984:56).

The capitalist culture which relates itself to in terms of profit and economy uses sensation rather than sharing and understanding of emotions which leads to the growth, progress and survival of the community. The erotic is often perceived with fear; of being misrepresented as not being straight, as evil and abnormal within the institutions dominated by patriarchy. The term erotic is often hushed and isolated to the bed-chamber relating it merely to lust and lesbianism and the act of women loving women as pornography. ‘And this misnaming of the need and deed gives rise to that distortion which results in pornography and obscenity – the abuse of feeling’ (1984:59) says Lorde. The theory of obscenity drawn by the patriarchal framework constructs the woman as feminine, docile and weak and associates love between women with fear and shame. This creates the reluctance among women to accept their lesbian sisters. Lorde in “Difference and Survival: An Address at Hunter College” says: ‘Somewhere on the edge of all our consciousness there is what I call the mythical norm, which each of us knows within our hearts is “not me”’ (1984:203). This norm is what religion, society, culture and the heterosexual man has pronounced as right, straight and acceptable which is ‘white, thin, male/female, young, heterosexual and financially secure’ (Lorde, 1984:203). And erotic is the distortion of all the patriarchal attributes of society. Ruth Ginzberg in her article “Audre Lorde’s (Nonessentialist) Lesbian Eros” puts it as: ‘The ability to find or to construct meaning within the interior of this particular semantic hole can emerge only from that lived experience which is unmediated by phallocentric language. That by definition is a lesbian experience’ (75).

The words erotic and porn are read parallel to each other by the phallocentric language diluting the subtle yet powerful difference in the meaning of the words; erotic, which constructs and defines identities and porn that works on the structured suppression of the racial, gender and sexual politics. Alice Walker in her collection of stories titled You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down looks into the politics of the erratic sadomasochist construction of the words erotic and porn. Walker’s short story “Porn” begins with the fear and contempt surrounded against the ideology of sisterhood and the erotic. The story shows how society and its norms guide a woman into the normal world of patriarchy, heterosexuality and therefore acceptance. ‘Like many thoughtful women of the seventies, she had decided women were far more interesting than men. But, again like most thoughtful women she rarely admitted this aloud. Besides, again like her contemporaries, she maintained a close connection with a man. It was a sexual connection’ (Walker, 1981:77).

The relationship between them as lover’s spouses and as parents of their children was nurtured with the primary interest, being sexual. Similarly Walker’s “Coming Apart: By Way of Introduction to Lorde, Teish and Gardner” follows the argument of the black woman entrapped in the web of the social and capitalist agendas of slavery. Walker rewinds the histories of the black slave woman and that was filled with tales on pornography.

When the protagonist’s husband brings home the copies of Jivers and JiveBoy, porn magazines featuring black and white women as prostitutes: ‘For her this is the stuff of nightmares possibly because all the dolls are smiling. … For him the sight is also shocking, but arouses a prurient curiosity. He will return, another time, alone’ (Walker, 1981:44). She reads Lorde’s essay on the erotic, of women loving a women with pleasure, desire and feeling, ‘moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love’ (Walker, 1981:46) and looks at her man devouring the women in Jiveboy and Jivers and ‘there are women eating women they do not even know’ (Walker, 1981:46). The erotic shares the feelings and experiences of love and desire with respect for each other while pornography uses rather than to share love and feelings. She is stunned to see the underlined racist prejudice that the media popularises through these magazines in which:

“The pornography industry’s exploitation of the black woman’s body is qualitatively different from that of the white woman,” because she is holding the cover of Jivers out to him and asking: “What does this woman look like?” …where white women are depicted in pornography as “objects”, black women are depicted as animals. Where white women are depicted at least as human bodies if not beings, black women are depicted as shit. … In pornography the black man is portrayed as being capable of fucking anything … even a piece of shit (Walker, 1981: 52-53).

Lorde looks into the construction of sexuality as defined by the sadomasochist/capitalist porn industry in her interview with Star:

They are saying that there can be no passion without unequal power. That feels very sad and lonely to me, and destructive. The linkage of passion to dominance/ subordination is the prototype of the heterosexual image of male-female relationships, one which justifies pornography. Women are supposed to love being brutalised. This is also the prototypical justification of all relationships of oppression that the subordinate one who is ‘different’ enjoys the inferior position (1984:55).

The language of the erotic rejects this forced submission of the woman’s mind and body to the dominant strategies oriented towards profit and power. The erotic extends its concerns not only to the sisters of all colours but also to the citizens around the world who are subjected to differences.

The second responsibility fulfilled by Walker’s ‘fable’ was to narrate the essence of the language of the erotic, the creation and the sense of awareness, to share and feel the knowledge of ‘her’ sisters who are in pain. Lorde says in her interview with Star: ‘We, as women and as feminists, must scrutinise our actions and see what they imply and upon what they are based. As women, we have been trained to follow. We must look at the s/m phenomenon and educate ourselves, at the same time being aware of intricate manipulation from outside and within’ (Lorde, 1984:56).

The erotic defines and isolates the differences within and outside the black community and the importance of sisterhood says Lorde serves as the source for power, growth and survival. The cancer in Lorde helped her to reread the differences form the light of how disease which is silently alive, spreading and multiplying beyond control and killing the life sustaining cells in the patient’s body is in the most killing of cases found to be dormant and invisible until it is too late to be conquered. Cancer is

read metaphorically to re-present the degree of racism, sexism, and capitalism which works silently conspiring and creating the ‘other’ upon humane grounds. Alice Walker in her essay “In the Closet of the Soul” says:

…Sex, race and sadomasochism is the disease inherent and unconsciously absorbed by and into the minds and souls in society. The point is neither of these people is healthy. They are in fact dreadfully ill, and they manifest their dis-ease according to their culturally derived sex roles and the bad experiences early impressed on their personalities. They proceed to grow, to change, to become whole, i.e., well, by becoming more like each other, but stopping short of taking each other’s illness (1981:80).

The difference of being diseased and with a scarred body is tolerated with contempt often with invisibility, shame, and is followed by sympathetic gestures towards the patient. The patient under normal circumstances is led to the unconscious faith of being and looking normal under a pad with a little silicone gel and puffed up lambswool shaped to perfection and gaze. The pretense engages her into the journey of self- denial, helplessness and conformity of her-self to the norms of appearance to which her body is being designed. Disguise happens through make – up, wigs and prosthesis. The visual culture of illness is pronounced at the Look Good Feel Better classes conducted for women who’ve undergone mastectomy. They ‘… teach women how to use cosmetics to make themselves look good throughout treatment’ (Jain 504). The culture becomes as much as a cult which is funded by the billion dollar industrial kings of global capitalism through the pink ribbon campaigns. She with her cancer is expected to be silent, composed, brave and controlled like the soldier who carries his valor and dignity at the face of death. Lorde opposes the language where women’s emotions are expected to be hidden, and to be shed only within the walls of her private space while in public she is to maintain her composure so that her constructors are not disturbed. . Lorde in “Breast Cancer: A Black Lesbian Feminist Experience” says:

I want to illuminate the implication of breast cancer for me, and the threats to self-revelation that are so quickly aligned against any woman who seeks to explore those questions, those answers. Even in the face of our own deaths and dignity, we are not allowed to define our needs nor our feelings nor our lives. I could not even write about the outside threats to my vision and action Because the inside pieces were too frightening (Lorde, 1980: 25).

Lorde looks at the other side of valor and bravery of the Amazon girls of Dahomey who willingly cut off their right breasts to become able and effective archers (Lorde, 1980:35). They were brave, black, women, warriors who fulfilled their responsibility of guarding and protecting their community. This is another face of the erotic.

Lorde’s constant reference to the Amazon girls of Dahomey helps her to reflect upon the strength and responsibility that she carries and owes to the world as a poet, lesbian and feminist. The cancer within her metamorphosis’s into fury and the urgent need to question the politics of the body, the construction of feminity, the role of the American Cancer Society, the commercialisation of the disease and treatment, chemical warfare which emits toxic carcinogens into the atmosphere way above its legal thresholds and the role of women with breast cancer in a cancerous world of hegemonies, dominant power politics and capitalism. In “Breast Cancer: A Black Lesbian Feminist Experience” Lorde says:

For me my scars are an honorable reminder that I may be a casualty in the cosmic war against radiation, animal fat, air pollution, McDonald hamburger’s and Red Dye No. 2, but the fight is still going on, and I am still a part of it. I refuse to have my scars hidden or trivialised behind lambswool or silicone gel. I refuse to be reduced in my own eyes or in the eyes of others from warrior to mere victim, simply because it might render me a fraction more acceptable or less dangerous to the still complacent, those who believe if you cover up a problem it ceases to exist. I refuse to hide my body simply because it might make a woman-phobic world more comfortable (Lorde 1980: 60).

The commercialisation of breast cancer leads to the pornographing of the diseased body with hospitals and advertisements sponsored by the cancer care organisations that provide free demonstration of physical self-examination to detect lumps in breasts. Jain in “Cancer Butch” says:

It can be hard not to conclude that much of the cancer culture performs a literal pornography of death, with its constant representation of young women in sexualised poses in everything from the medical posters pinned in the doctor’s office, to the covers of cancer magazines such as Mamm and Cure, to the ubiquitous cards about how to do a breast self-exam. A recent ad by the Breast Cancer Fund of Canada featured a young, purposely slim teenager named ‘Cam’ who offers free service of doing breast exams (‘877- Ring-Cam’). Playing on the long standing joke of adolescent boys, the primary violence of the ad is the collaboration even in its purported goal of early detection in the same logic that has belittled the disease. Is any other medical procedure sexualised in this way? (525)

Lorde defines cancer in the light of a disease that conquers, corrupts and disrupts a nation, creating chaos. The erotic then differentiates the state of being diseased from that of being scarred and despised by the society and hence by the self. The battle of the erotic is to survive this. Lorde says that survival is not some abstract theory that operates in a vacuum but a matter of life itself. The silencing of humanity in the name of disease, racism, gender bias and socio-economic dominance and the shame they bring are to be fought like fighting and surviving cancer. The erotic in the lesbian body is to break that silence and to refuse disguise.


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DEEPTI PARANGOT. Is Editorial Assistant , H&C Publications, Thrissur.

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Is Editorial Assistant , H&C Publications, Thrissur.

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