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Professors, students reflect on the work of Audre Lorde

| Thursday, November 16, 2017

On Wednesday night, Saint Mary’s professors and students presented and reflected on the life and work of Audre Lorde, a writer, feminist and civil rights activist. The presentation commemorated the 25th anniversary of Lorde’s death.

Ann Marie Short, professor of English and gender and women’s studies, emphasized the key aspects of Lorde’s writings.

Katelyn Valley | The Observer
A Saint Mary’s community member speaks at an event Wednesday honoring author Audre Lorde. At the event, Saint Mary’s students and faculty discussed the significance of Lorde’s work in their own lives.

“Lorde’s work demands intersectionality, challenging us to confront how patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, classism, ageism and ableism insidiously reinforce one another,” Short said. “Her work legitimizes the value of unabated fury. Those who have been historically oppressed, particularly women, especially women of color and more notably black women, are often called out when they express anger in the face of injustice. In these circumstances, the accusation of anger is meant to delegitimize, to distract. It is meant to make the anger more objectionable than the offense that elicits it. For Lorde, anger is not simply an emotional response, but it’s also an aesthetic, and emotional exercise, a productive way of being in the face of gross injustice.”

Lorde’s poetry broke silences, said Jamie Wagman, professor of history and gender and women’s studies.

“She wrote about police brutality targeting women of color in the 1980s,” Wagman said. “She remembered Malcolm X. She recalled her first love and lost. She came out as a lesbian. She discussed mothering, marriage, her mastectomy, and her tone was consistently honest, unapologetic and critical. She was an icon in fighting against racism, homophobia, anti-semitism and in celebrating difference, and building alliances and networks.”

Lorde’s gift was her progressive self-identification and tireless activism, explained Stacey Davis, professor of religious studies and gender and women’s studies.

“The ability to encourage others through tireless praxis was and remains Audre Lorde’s gift,” Davis said. “An activist to her bones, Lorde worked to bring about the recognition of others’ humanity, whether LGBT, African-American or African, she was intersectional before intersectionality was cool. She was a transnational feminist before we knew what it meant and she was a pragmatic optimist, who recognized that you will not win every battle you fight — but you will not lose every battle either.”

Wagman said Lorde’s writing aims to inspire her audience to act.

“So many who write and speak about Lorde today, comment that they felt that she spoke to them personally, when they first read her work,” Wagman said. “She called readers to action. ‘Perhaps for some of you here today,’ she wrote, ‘I am the face of one of your fears, because I am woman, because I am black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?’”

Eli Williams, the former executive-director for the LGBT Center in South Bend, read Lorde’s poem ‘Litany for Survival.’ Williams said Lorde’s words give her the strength to speak out.

“I use this poem often to summon the strength to speak when I’m afraid,” Williams said. “ … whenever I am in conflict now as an adult and don’t want to jump, or to speak, I count to three and hear Audre Lorde in my mind. I remember I was not meant to survive, and I take the plunge.”

Williams said Lorde‘s writing encourages her to be an activist in the community and taught her to speak up about injustice.

“I think about [Audre Lorde] often when doing activism here in South Bend,” she said. “Since we’re a smaller community, people of diverse backgrounds must come together and inhabit the house of difference in order to get things done. We find communal identity in the midst of diversity.” 

Lorde demonstrated the importance of documenting injustice, Wagman said.

“She taught me poets are born in childhood, that children recognize injustice early and that writing it down won’t save us, but it might help,” she said. “Above all, Lorde encourages us to unmask silence.”

Davis said Lorde’s writings encourage us to do our best.

“Lorde would argue that the fight for civil and human rights means that we must not wear our bodies and souls out through neglect or in lesser fights,” Davis said. “Instead, we do our best, whatever that is and wherever we are. Lorde writes … ‘We must do battle where we are standing.’”

Dionne Bremyer, professor of creative writing, said Lorde inspired her to create a collage of both her and Lorde’s words.  

“I cannot eat, cannot sleep, cannot write, cannot think,” she said. “Looking to Lorde for inspiration, for the invisible labor of pain, mental anguish. Who will testify for my black body? I sustain being black. I celebrate being black. I sorrow over being black … Women of color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger — at being silenced, at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness and which hates our very existence outside of its surface. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn how to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart.”

Senior Alex Shambery lauded Lorde‘s ability to articulate the experience of women of color.

“She understood what it’s like to be a woman of color — always concerned about doing the right thing and living behind the storm inside of us,” she said.

Senior Taylor Thomas said Lorde reminds her not to hide her inherent self when faced with diversity.

“Lorde reminds that I have been concealing issues every time I change the way I talk to appear smarter and more approachable, or when I remain silent when my friends make racially charged jokes, so I don’t appear crazy and hysterical,” she said. “Audre Lorde reminds me that I cannot run from the problems facing my community. I must always remember to call out injustice for myself and for others.”

Senior Nina Steele said Lorde’s work encourages her, as a white person, to support minorities and marginalized groups.

“As white people, we need to support women, LGBT people and people of color,” she said. “Their access to complete liberation can lead us all to possess of true autonomy and personhood, where our lives are determined by the love we give and not by the amount of violence we administer onto others.”

Wagman said she has come to depend on the writings of Lorde, because Lorde helps us to understand the world by encouraging us to speak up.

“‘Speak’, [Lorde] tells us, ‘Your silence will not protect you,’” Wagman said.

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About Gina Twardosz

Gina Twardosz is a senior English Writing and Communication Studies double major at Saint Mary's College. She's the co-editor of the Investigative Unit, a Saint Mary's social media liaison, and she occasionally writes for SMC News and Scene. Gina is a tried and true Midwesterner and yes, she does say "ope" often.

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