“How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future?”
By Maria Popova
“Our respect for other people, for other nations and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order,” the great Czech dissident turned president Václav Havel observed in reflecting on the interconnectedness of our fates in a globalized yet divided world. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted a quarter century earlier. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Every once in a while, we stumble into situations that jolt us into a sudden and palpable awareness of that inescapable interconnectedness, even across the greatest gulfs of difference. That is what Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) experienced in the spring of 1984, when she was diagnosed with liver cancer, but declined medical treatment and instead chose to undertake her teaching trip to Europe as previously planned. In West Germany, she found herself challenged to revise her existing framework of identity and belonging, emerging with a novel understanding of kinship and difference. Lorde recorded her awakening experience in a series of diary entries found in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library) — the stunning volume that gave us Lorde, shortly after her cancer diagnosis, on turning fear into fire.
Upon arrival in Berlin, Lorde was struck by a reality she hadn’t even conceived of: black German women. As she reconfigures her existing frame of reference for kinship and difference to factor in the fact of their existence, she writes in her diary:
Who are they, the German women of the Diaspora? Where do our paths intersect as women of Color — beyond the details of our particular oppressions, although certainly not outside the reference of those details? And where do our paths diverge? Most important, what can we learn from our connected differences that will be useful to us both, Afro-German and Afro-American?
Afro-German. The women say they’ve never heard that term used before.
When Lorde asks one of her students about her experience of selfhood growing up, the young woman tells her that the nicest thing she had ever been called was “war baby.” Lorde notes the absurdity — black women have lived in Germany since long before WWII, and several of her students can trace their Afro-German heritage to half a century before the war. Recounting her conversation with the young woman in her class, Lorde writes:
“I’ve never thought of Afro-German as a positive concept before,” she said, speaking out of the pain of having to live a difference that has no name; speaking out of the growing power self-scrutiny has forged from that difference.
I am excited by these women, by their blossoming sense of identity as they’re beginning to say in one way or another, “Let us be ourselves now as we define us. We are not a figment of your imagination or an exotic answer to your desires. We are not some button on the pocket of your longing.” I can see these women as a growing force for international change, in concert with other Afro-Europeans, Afro-Asians, Afro-Americans.
Reflecting on this powerful revelation of the path to kinship across difference, Lorde adds:
We are the hyphenated people of the Diaspora whose self-defined identities are no longer shameful secrets in the countries of our origin, but rather declarations of strength and solidarity. We are an increasingly united front from which the world has not yet heard.
Audre Lorde from Literary Witches, an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers.
At the heart of Lorde’s arresting encounter with the Afro-German women and her subsequent recalibration of her own conception of what it means to be black is the recognition that every plight for equality is governed by the first law of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy — any fragmentation within the movement is a diffusion of energy that only weakens it, relinquishing the lost energy to the oppressor’s gain. Upon returning from the first international Feminist Bookfair in London, shaken by the overtone of racism that “coated and distorted much of what was good, creative, and visionary about such a fair,” Lorde writes:
The white women organizers’ defensiveness to any question of where the Black women were is rooted in that tiresome white guilt that serves neither us nor them. It reminded me of those old tacky battles of the seventies in the States: a Black woman would suggest that if white women wished to be truly feminist, they would have to examine and alter some of their actions vis-à-vis women of Color. And this discussion would immediately be perceived as an attack upon their very essence. So wasteful and destructive… We should be able to learn from our errors… But we don’t get there from here by ignoring the mud in between those two positions.
In a sentiment consonant with Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s admonition that a society “is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak or a powerful one too powerful,” Lorde adds:
Feminism must be on the cutting edge of real social change if it is to survive as a movement in any particular country. Whatever the core problems are for the people of that country must also be the core problems addressed by women, for we do not exist in a vacuum. We are anchored in our own place and time, looking out and beyond to the future we are creating, and we are part of communities that interact. To pretend otherwise is ridiculous. While we fortify ourselves with visions of the future, we must arm ourselves with accurate perceptions of the barriers between us and that future.
Lorde continues to process these complex and intertwined questions during the remainder of her European travels. With an eye to the dark side of identity politics, she writes after returning to New York:
I am thinking about issues of color as color, Black as a chromatic fact, gradations and all… I see certain pitfalls in defining Black as a political position. It takes the cultural identity of a widespread but definite group and makes it a generic identity for many culturally diverse peoples, all on the basis of a shared oppression. This runs the risk of providing a convenient blanket of apparent similarity under which our actual and unaccepted differences can be distorted or misused. This blanket would diminish our chances of forming genuine working coalitions built upon the recognition and creative use of acknowledged difference, rather than upon the shaky foundations of a false sense of similarity.
A solid foundation, Lorde comes to recognize in the unfolding months, requires not a false sense of similarity but a true sense of kinship across difference. A year after her return from Europe, she writes in her diary:
How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future?
All of our children are prey. How do we raise them not to prey upon themselves and each other? And this is why we cannot be silent, because our silences will come to testify against us out of the mouths of our children.
A Burst of Light is an electric read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Albert Einstein on the interdependence of our fates and Hannah Arendt on the immigrant plight for identity, then revisit Lorde on the courage to break silence and the indivisibility of identity.