Introductory Talk for “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992” Film Screening

Blog entry by Azeezat Johnson

This introduction was rewritten from the event held by The White Rose Critical Race and Ethnicities Network and The University of Sheffield Department of Geography Film Club. This event was held on Wednesday 19 November, 2014. I recommend this film to anyone who has yet to see it, and to those of us who still have much to learn from the reading and re-reading of Audre Lorde’s work and person!

This introduction is a slight adaptation to one that I provided when this film was screened at Showroom Cinemas alongside LaDIYfest and The University of Sheffield’s Centre for Gender Research on October 6th. After watching this film, I immediately wanted to screen it again particularly because it would allow me to think through some of the profound messages of defining one’s Self especially in the context of Afro-European “hyphenated identities” – to understand what happens when ‘identities’ within your Self are socially constructed as conflicting. It’s so great to see the interest that there is for the film, and there will be some of us who identify more as activists than academics and others who identify more as academics than activists. Which is why people like Audre Lorde are all the more impressive for the work that has been done on bridging these supposed divides between activist, scholar and warrior.

One of the most impressive elements of this documentary is that it breaks with stereotypical images of Women of Colour in film. So many people have commented on the power that Lupita Nyongo’o has wielded as an undeniably dark-skinned woman who takes pride in the beauty and mentorship that she can offer to children who do not see any reflections of themselves on tv or film. And yet the only way that we have been able to reach those words has been through the portrayal of a raped and battered slave, whose struggle and agency isn’t even the main focus of 12 Years a Slave. Too often Women of Colour are kept within playing the part of the abused daughter, the pregnant teenager, the slave, to prison cells, as the maids, the cleaning and kitchen staff, the baby sitters, the silent suffering wives or mothers, and the sassy side stories. Here is a film that denies these stereotypes their hold, and shows us as people engaged in every day conversation and mentorship with one another. This is a film that tells an unapologetically partial tale of a person who refused to be presented as a caricature of herself.

So I personally got to Audre Lorde’s words in a roundabout way. First, I was watching the obligatory bell hooks videos and there was a discussion with another black feminist Melissa Harris-Perry. bell hooks was talking about how for our generation, the oldest of black feminists is bell hooks – Audre Lorde was slowly being forgotten in the way she saw our movements developing towards a better future. Then I started reading Patricia Hill Collins and she spoke passionately of Audre Lorde and another great womanist scholar, Alice Walker – the lessons Collins learnt from them have been used to create a new way of thinking about academic writing. A way of thinking that removed us from lofty positions of privilege, and reminded us of the knowledges that have been shared by black women in the kitchens, in conversation, at parties and religious institutions. Knowledge that has allowed us to become the people we are now, that has prepared us for a world that fetishizes our body and isolates our experiences. And finally the first black feminist academic I’ve ever met, one who has provided me with support simply because she valued the conversations and mentorship that Black women have historically relied upon, told me that the knowledge that I was really searching for, the knowledge that had assisted Kimberle Crenshaw in expounding on the theory of intersectionality, could partly be found in Audre Lorde. But I still hadn’t found that connection.

I then learnt that Audre Lorde kept writing throughout her experience facing cancer. As someone who has faced that particular terror, this is an experience I find incredibly difficult to reconcile within myself, and to share with others in any form. But Audre Lorde used this to share her wisdom, hurt, fear and knowledge far beyond those who lived and happened to interact with her in that given moment. This is where it finally clicked for me. When Audre Lorde spoke of finishing one piece of her body whilst another piece would live onwards and move beyond her, she dedicated everything within her to represent all of her body in every sphere of her life then, and our lives now. By introducing herself as “Black, lesbian, poet, warrior, mother, teacher and activist” she named herself, and refused to allow anyone to drop any aspect of her identity for a more palatable and separated understanding. And she was so much more than the sum of these implicitly separate identity categories. She fought to present herself as all of these things, but most importantly, as her Self, and by doing so left an embodied literature that continues to be the backbone of new ways of thinking and understanding our differences, but more importantly, our points of connection.

Up until recently I have had a big problem with this idea of “difference” primarily because when it is used, it is not meant to describe the differences that we all have from one another and that can lead to points of connection, but instead is used to describe non-white and “queered” bodies. When there is a discussion of studying ‘difference,’ ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘diversity,’ the centrality of whiteness is left unquestioned and non-white queered bodies are continuously positioned as deviant from this. But this is where Audre Lorde’s work shines through – she makes a clear distinction between what is meant by difference and what is really just a theorisation of human deviance. Audre Lorde states:

For we have all been raised in a society where those distortions were endemic within our living. Too often, we pour the energy needed for recognizing and exploring difference into pretending those differences are insurmountable barriers, or that they do not exist at all. This results in a voluntary isolation, or false and treacherous connections. Either way, we do not develop tools for using human difference as a springboard for creative change within our lives. We speak not of human difference, but of human deviance (Lorde, 1996: 163 – emphasis added).

The fact that these are still critical words proves bell hooks’ point in spades – what consequences do we face when differences are perceived as human deviance? And why does there appear to be a disconnect between Audre Lorde and this generation of activists, radicals, academics, and people sharing their lives with one another and working towards freedom today?

After all this is yet another person who is too frequently categorised and forgotten within that subcategory of black feminist. Scholars like Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Kimberle Crenshaw, Angela Davis and Sojourner Truth are kept within the boundaries of “race” literature where their knowledges are seen to not speak to a wider activist and academic setting. The focus is almost always placed on the impressive feats and knowledges developed by African-Americans in their struggle for self-recognition, at the expense of experiences and knowledges developed by those of us who grew up here in Europe. This also assists in a temporary amnesia within Western Europe where the villainous nature of US slavery and Jim Crow laws is used to overshadow the inequalities and oppressions constructed through empires here. And these stories are invariably male, focusing primarily on the use of black hypermasculinity to gain a semi-liberation so much smaller than the freedom we and people like the ever quoted Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Frantz Fanon ever imagined.

These events are almost always shared amongst an increasingly privileged white audience who can usually afford, both in time off work and money, to participate and engage in this knowledge a lot more. The pricing of such events denies those of us who live exoticised lives the access to this much-needed knowledge, whether it is hidden away in unaffordable and elitist universities, in incomprehensible literature or cinemas. This film is being screened in a place that boasts Geography’s ability to discover the world, raising questions about who among us have the right passports, social and economic capital to embark on that discovery.

Although there may be moments of solidarity, these disperse when we go on to live our seemingly separate lives. Those of us who don’t inhabit black bodies can, and some choose to, continue to talk about categories like “women” “men” “English”  and “working-class” as groupings that assume whiteness, and therefore our non-acceptance. The unofficial segregation of different “civil right groups” is still prevalent. When there is a carefully developed “diversity” corporate agenda which pushes a few more people into semi-positions of privilege and socio-economic advantage, we know that this is nothing but a false victory.

So how can we use these kind of events to challenge divisions between race, gender, class, dis/ability, sexuality, and so on? How can this be done here and now, in the current British climate of cis-sexism, Islamophobia, heterosexism, border controls, poverty, able-ism, and a general liberal language of “Political correctness gone mad”?

We start by working through the power of networks and interactions, which is shown so eloquently through this film. We can start by learning from the lives of people like Audre Lorde who repeated that any struggle that benefits from the oppression of others (whether through wilful silence or active protest) cannot be successful in the long run. We re-think our forms of organisation that isolate the experiences of those of us who are already silenced the most within society. At times this will involve being asked to leave the room so that a healing conversation can take place between those who suffer through our well-meaning ignorance. We have to continuously push against the privileges that we have inherited within this system, and support one another in our move towards a better society. It is not enough to speak of race without focusing on the neutrality given to whiteness, or to speak of minority “issues” as separate from the privileges of belonging to the majority. And we must be prepared that we will at times fail, we will be told by those who have been offended by our privileged language that we need to work harder at being there to support one another.

In the words of Audre Lorde herself:

…I know I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you (Lorde, 1983: 9).

Collins, P. H. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. London: Routledge.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

Lorde, A. (1983). There is no hierarchy of oppressions. Council on Interracial Books for Children, 14(3/4), 9.

Lorde, A. (1996). Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference The Audre Lorde Compendium: Essays, Speeches and Journals (pp. 162-171). London: Pandora.

Nayak, S. (2014). Race, Gender and the Activism of Black Feminist Theory: Working with Audre Lorde: Routledge.

Noxolo, P. (2009). “My Paper, My Paper”: Reflections on the embodied production of postcolonial geographical responsibility in academic writing. Geoforum, 40(1), 55-65.

Puar, J. (2007). Terrorist Assemblages: homonationalism in queer times. Durham: Duke University Press.

Walker, A. (1983). In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

 

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