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?”
I found the conversation between Lorde and Baldwin quite illuminating. Baldwin reacted to Lorde with some resistance. At one point in particular, Baldwin asked, “But you don’t realize that in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man?” and Lorde responded, “No, I don’t realize that. I realize the only crime is to be Black. I realize the only crime is to be Black, and that includes me too.” I loved this response, and I was sort of surprised by this comment from Baldwin. Given the impression of Baldwin that I have gotten throughout the course of this semester, I suppose I would have expected him to empathize with the position of Black women, but it seems that even he too lacked a deep understanding of it. This conversation reminded me of the mission of the Combahee River Collective–which Audre Lorde was also a part of.
The 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement, written by Black feminists and lesbians, states the following: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us…Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.” Occupying arguably the most oppressed position in society, Black women are truly the “outsiders-within,” as Patricia Hill Collins described them. We have had extensive conversations this semester about what it means for Black people to be strangers in America, but as we can see from this conversation, Black women are even strangers to Black men. Baldwin states, “There’s a real difference between the way a man looks at the world…And the way a woman looks at the world. A woman does know much more than a man.” Lorde responds, “And why? For the same reason Black people know what white people are thinking: because we had to do it for our survival…” It is interesting that Baldwin incorporates this idea so heavily into his work, yet seemingly fails to understand how it operates between Black women and Black men.
Reconsidering Baldwin with intersectionality in mind had me thinking about Baldwin’s biggest message being love as a means to liberation, and Lorde’s being anger as a means to liberation. I had never had doubts about Baldwin’s message until now. Perhaps taking up love as arms is only a possibility for those in a more privileged position. Perhaps anger is a means of achieving love.
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.
We have had discussions in class on Baldwin’s decision to write this novel from the perspective of a white man. One aspect we discussed was the difficulty Baldwin would have of unpacking the weight of racial and homosexual discrimination. However, there are a lot of layers to this decision and the disapproval that came from the literary community. Since Baldwin’s earlier fiction had largely centered around “the Negro problem,” his publisher Knopf rejected Giovanni’s room because he wasn’t “writing about the same things in the same manner as [he] was before” (Jordison). Baldwin suffered a lot of criticism for writing a novel with a white protagonist living in France because it did not address the racial disparities in American society as his earlier works did. Other of Giovanni’s Room wrote that he hoped Baldwin would return to more American themes. The literary community that appreciated Go Tell it On the Mountain responded with backlash to Baldwin’s shift away from writing about homosexuality from a white perspective. However, in an interview, Baldwin said “The sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined. If Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality” (Armengol). This could also cause friction with Black homophobic writers at the time who disapproved of Baldwin connecting homosexuality with their racial identity. Yet Baldwin portrays the “othering” of gay men and their desire to find love within their community that connects to intersectional issues that Black men experience.
Additionally, the novel does not completely neglect racial issues. There was prejudice against Italians during this time that resulted in assaults and lynchings. This comes across in David’s treatment of Giovanni. Giovanni says that if David “You would not have liked me if I had stayed” and “You will have no idea of the life there, dripping and bursting and beautiful, and terrible, as you have no idea of my life now (334). David is incapable of understanding Giovanni’s background and this could contribute to the repulsion he sometimes feels towards Giovanni. I argue that just because Baldwin does not focus on the American Black experience in this novel, he is still addressing racism and should not be considered a white narrative.