Audre Lorde’s analysis of the function of anger in combating racism is a refreshing take on the misleading assumption that black women are vessels of indisposable anger. She takes the negative connotation of anger and turns it into a catalyst for change. Women are told every day that they are supposed to look a certain way and act a certain way that does not disrupt the environment that they find themselves in. Women of color are not allowed to react to the racism that they experience, especially in the workplace. I admired how Lorde did not hold back on criticizing how the conference perpetuates racism. She states, “Yet the National Women’s Studies Association here in 1981 holds a conference in which it commits itself to responding to racism, yet refuses to waive the registration fee for poor women and women of Color – for instance, Wilmette Brown, of Black Women for Wages for Housework – to participate in this conference. Is this to be merely another case of the academy discussing life within the close circuits of the academy?” The hypocrisy of organizations meant to promote inclusivity by hosting Lorde as a speaker while simultaneously presenting as an exclusive event is unsurprising. Lorde also states, “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortion between peers, and its object is change.” I found this distinction between anger and hatred to be profound as I have correlated the two. Lorde’s description of anger as a grief of distortions between peers allowed me to understand why anger is a feeling and hatred is acted on. Towards the end of the MLK/FBI documentary it was stated that the fear of black Americans has a lot to do with white people’s own perception of themselves and the danger of black people forcing a reckoning with the violence of the American past. I think that the fear of black anger is the reason why black women are stereotyped as angry individuals and are forced to appear and act without resentment. Lorde’s analysis of anger as a form of protection and change has changed my perspective on how anger should not have to be oppressed to validate the feelings of others, while invalidating your own. Anger is more political than I imagined.
Baldwin and Lorde’s perception of what it means to be black in America is clearly distinguished by gender. Baldwin initially argues that the American Dream is desirable by all black people. However, it is an experience that they cannot attain due to their blackness. Lorde argues that this is not the case for her and she knew that the American Dream was something that she had no interest in because the American Dream did not include her. I agree with Lorde on this part because the American Dream is not an idea that was created for the oppressed. Most notably, Lorde touches on how black men and women destroy each other due to that oppression. She states, “Differences and sameness. But in a crunch, when all our asses are in the sling, it looks like it is easier to deal with the sameness. When we deal with sameness only, we develop weapons that we use against each other when the differences become apparent. And we wipe each other out – Black men and women can wipe each other out — far more effectively than outsiders do.” I find this statement to hold a lot of truth today. In my experience, I have found that there is a lack of desirability of black women in the eyes of black men. Black men find proximity to whiteness by partnering with white women as more desirable and this is also pushed through the media. How black women are treated by black men significantly impacts how black people are viewed by society. If they are not taking care of each other then the rest of the world will treat them poorly as well. Baldwin states, “In both cases, it is assumed that it is safer to be white than to be Black. And it’s assumed that it is safer to be a man than to be a woman. These are both masculine assumptions. But those are the assumptions that we’re trying to overcome or to confront…” Baldwin is trying to argue that gender inequality shouldn’t factor into overcoming racism. However, Lorde’s argument against this mindset is so important because gender does matter. She states, “And the fury that is engendered in the denial of that vulnerability – we have to break through it because there are children growing up believe that it is legitimate to shed female blood, right?” I have to break through it because those boys really think that the sign of their masculinity is impregnating a sixth grader. I have to break through it because of that little sixth-grade girl who believes that the only thing in life she has is what lies between her legs…” This conversation highlights the differences in the ways black boys and girls are raised. Black girls are taught to be modest and close their legs so that black boys do not see them as a target. However, as Lorde states to Baldwin perfectly, “But what we do have is a real disagreement about your responsibility not just to me but to my son and to our boys. Your responsibility to him is to get across to him in a way that I will never be able to because he did not come out of my body and has another relationship to me. Your relationship to him as his father is to tell him I’m not a fit target for his fury.” Lorde’s understanding that issues of race must be examined from a standpoint that includes gender and sexuality is imperative and her explanation to Baldwin reveals that understanding what it means to be black in America cannot be understood by only male perspective, because the male lens often leaves out the nuances of the female experience, no matter how much they understand about race.
Content warning: descriptions of violence
In reading Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” and Revolutionary Hope: A Conversation Between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, there were moments that made me think of the discourse that has been happening between the Asian-American and the Black community in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021. Alongside the fight for accountability regarding the murder of Black Americans (Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor), there has also been a call for accountability toward hate crimes inflicted upon Asian Americans (61-year-old Filipino man Noel Quintana slashed in the face as he rode the subway in New York; 84-year-old Thai man Vicha Ratanapakdee shoved to the ground in San Francisco, resulting in his death) due to Sinophobic rhetoric from the media in the midst of COVID-19. Prominent Asian-Americans have taken to the internet to criticise the “lack” of media attention for these anti-Asian hate crimes, comparing it to the media coverage surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement by saying “Asian Lives Matter.” An example tweet of this sentiment reads “Those of you who were so vocal w BLM, where are you on the 1900% increase in Asian-directed hate crimes?”
The reason I bring this up is in this quote from Lorde’s The Uses of Anger: “Most women have not developed tools for facing anger constructively… There was usually little attempt to articulate the genuine differences between women, such as those of race, color, age, class, and sexual identity. There was no apparent need at that time to examine the contradictions of self, woman as oppressor. There was work on expressing anger, but very little on anger directed against each other.” In some Asian-American’s attempt to guilt-trip others into being as “vocal” about anti-Asian racism as much as anti-Black racism, they have unknowingly done what Lorde criticises Baldwin for in Revolutionary Hope, that is — assuming to know what the other groups lived experiences feel like. Asian-Americans who try to evoke guilt from the public for not giving the same response they did for the murders of Black individuals are refusing to “look at our differences and not allow ourselves to be divided” (Revolutionary Hope), and are contributing to anti-Black racism with their adaptation of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and their erasure of Black struggles. On the surface, this sentiment of “we care about you, why don’t you care about us?” may seem harmless, like a cry for help, but in reality it trivialises equity and reduces the work of anti-racism into one that is purely transactional. It expresses a displaced anger that radiates dissatisfaction and jealousy, rather than solidarity and joy at the fact that movements like BLM have gained more traction in the public eye than ever before. It reduces injustice to instances of objectification, which is mentioned by Lorde in The Uses of Anger. The purpose of highlighting Asian and Black oppression should not be making people feel guilty, but should rather be a way for us to meet as peers “upon a common basis to examine difference, and to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference. For it is those distortions which separate us. And we must ask ourselves: Who profits from all this?”
In “Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde offers a really productive definition of anger: “Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change” (p. 129 in my edition of Sister Outsider). Lorde invites everyone into her project of transforming these distortions and instead recognizing the creative power of difference. She asserts that if she fails to recognize the oppressions faced by other queer women and Black women, “then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own” (132).
I love that Lorde foregrounds her belief that honoring differences is what will ultimately enable us to defeat racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other oppressions. She talks about this in the context of her identity as a Black lesbian in both “Uses of Anger” and “Revolutionary Hope.”
In her conversation with James Baldwin, Lorde calls Baldwin in. Throughout this semester, our class has noted Baldwin’s failure to attend to Black women’s lived experiences. Baldwin’s writing is largely self-reflective, dwelling on his understanding of what it means to be a Black, queer man in the U.S. In this conversation, Lorde listens to Baldwin but also challenges him to gain a deeper understanding of her experience of moving through the world as Black, queer, and female. She does not let him get away with minimizing her experiences: when he says that “in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man,” she replies, “No, I don’t realize that…. I realize the only crime is to be Black, and that includes me too.” Lorde asks Baldwin to see her—to really see Black women and queer women—to more effectively dismantle racism, sexism, and heterosexism. (I would love to learn more about the relationship between Baldwin and Lorde and how they shaped each other’s views and work.)
I think this conversation is really powerful because even when Lorde expresses a disagreement with Baldwin, she does so in a way that moves both of them forward and helps them better understand each other. This aspect of their conversation makes the title “Revolutionary Hope” fitting. The power of centering hope is so profound. Elsewhere in Sister Outsider, Lorde talks about how she has learned to speak up even when she is afraid; progress can only be made when oppressive silences are shattered. Lorde’s radically hopeful perspective, by focusing on accountability and reaching across difference, only strengthens Baldwin’s work speaking out about civil rights.