Our October book club read at the Home for the Wayward was Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. This book has radically altered how I look at words and writing in ways that I’m just beginning to understand. Here’s an edited version of my final thoughts to help close out the discussion in the community.
I think I’m finally starting to understand what I love about this book.
I admit that I started reading books about social justice out of a sense of social obligation. I picked them up for their authentic representation of a specific oppressed group in a specific moment in our history. I admit that I probably would not have picked them up to read as something valuable in their own right. I would have missed out. I am learning that people who have had to fight for their lives in the battle for our global humaneness have a much deeper understanding of the whys and wherefores of our being than so many of the writers I’ve always heard called “great.”
The power in Lorde’s writing is not something I learned about in college. It’s not something I learned about in grad school. There is a freedom and an almost visceral, bodily sense of truth in her writing, like she has found a way to harness light from the wild electrical storms of the universe.
It has been hard for me to describe. I did not have words to put on my experience until I read them in Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. He writes that his mother was teaching him to read and write:
“…by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation.” Lessons in writing were, “…the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing — myself.”
These are not lessons in writing and poetry as I have known them. The art and artifice of wordplay, the toying with grammar that I learned in school feels like a discipline in crocheting decorative lace doilies when I hold it up next to the power in Lorde’s (and Coate’s) work. (Coates is going on the list for book club, by the way.) Their writing power infuses life itself into their words, animating them in reality and not just imagination.
I think I am finally beginning to understand what Lorde meant when she said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I mentioned in book club that I wasn’t sure that applied to my work as a white person trying to dismantle white culture (although of course who else would it apply to?) We are stuck with words and stories that our culture has used to brutalize others and ourselves for centuries. In my own work, I’m trying to revitalize those words and stories, pick the best ones and retell them in a way that strips away the lies and artifice of control that have robbed them of their meaning and recalls the way they can speak to the best of humanity in us. Does that mean I’m trying to use the master’s tools? The only language and stories I have are the ones in my own culture. How can I not use them?
But I am beginning to see that the master’s tools she talks about are not necessarily words and sentences and stories but the power and control lurking inside of them. Self-aggrandizement and hierarchy. Competition and bullying.
Lorde (and Coates) have used language and stories like saddles on the back of freedom. Others have put the saddles on oppression, but they fit poorly and the riders aren’t nearly as graceful and elegant. They lack what they need to reach into your intuition with their words.
This life-giving infusion of truth into words and stories, this organizing them as a means of investigation, is something I have been limping toward with my own writing. I’m grateful that I no longer have to struggle toward it alone, that someone has gone ahead of me on that path. I am ashamed that I didn’t look to these writers sooner. I am humbled by how much I still need to learn.
Interested in joining our next book club discussion? I host a monthly Zoom call and put up weekly posts for asynchronous discussion. November’s book is My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Mending of Our Bodies and Hearts by Resmaa Menakem. The book addresses the role of generational trauma in all aspects of racism. Menakem is a somatic therapist and anti-racist educator who has worked for years helping law enforcement agencies build trauma recognition and recovery into their work culture. Become a member of the Home for the Wayward to join!