Audre Lorde died twenty-one years ago today. When I first composed this post, I didn't realize the significance of this day. It's not a coincidence, I'm sure. The spiritual connection that allows black women to strengthen each other can't be broken, even in death.
Last month, I got the thrill of a lifetime with the chance to see a documentary film about Audre Lorde, my activist poet queen, at The New Parkway Theater in Oakland. Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years
was playing as the final feature film in the 2013 International Black Women's Film Festival
, an event designed to combat negative stereotyping of black women in the media by giving space for black women to tell our own stories. As soon as I heard the film festival would be playing this film, I knew it was the place for me.
It's just a movie, I know, but as I headed to the theater, I felt the giddiness of preparing to meet my idol in person. It seemed like the closest thing – when Audre Lorde passed away in 1992, I was a child unaware of her existence, and I have rarely seen evidence of her life in any form other than text. This text has felt, to me, like sacred traces of a mystical woman, echoes of divine footsteps that once walked the earth with us mere mortals. As I've read Audre's poetry, essays, and speeches over the years, I've imagined her as such a human being who is so extraordinary, she may not be human at all. In my mind, Audre Lorde has always been a goddess.
It remains true that Audre's spirit is divine and eternal. But the film showed many things, and perhaps most of all, it showed her humanity. Would a goddess walk through parks with friends, or laugh, or dance? Would she face the struggle of a cancer diagnosis? Would she endure the gentle teasing of her loving life partner? Maybe. But it's possible for any person, including me, to experience such things. Any of us could live our lives as she lived hers, with love and poetry as social action, with the capacity to change the world around us.
After the movie ended, I was a blubbering mess of joyful tears, and I didn't have the words to explain why. Maybe the sight of Audre Lorde dancing was something I never knew I needed to see. Maybe I'd been thirsting to hear her speak the words I'd read so many times. Suddenly, she felt more real to me than she ever had before. Maybe I needed to see her in the flesh. Maybe I needed to be seen.
It's strange to think that seeing somebody else on a big screen could help me
feel seen, but it's true. The film chronicles the final years of Audre's life, 1984-1992, when she spent time in Berlin and had a profound impact on the lives of black women there, challenging both black women and white women to think and write about race as they never had before. She mentored black women who had been silenced and isolated from one another, bringing them together to recognize one another and themselves as Afro-Germans. Many of these women testified in interviews that Audre's guidance allowed them to feel proud of who they are, for the first time in their lives.
The film sent me off with the exhilarating, terrifying feeling of seeing myself as Audre Lorde would have seen me. Not the goddess Audre Lorde, mythical creature of my dreams, but Audre Lorde, the human being, who really lived and breathed and saw a magnificent power in every black woman.
Now, I don't have to wonder what it would be like for me to meet Audre Lorde. Now, I know. I wouldn't have to prove my worth to her or ask her permission to step into my power. She would believe in me, simply because she could see me for who I really am.
I got to step into the power of my visibility later that day, when I read my poetry at Hazel Reading Series
, opening my reading with an epigraph by Audre Lorde: "Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs." Hazel's all about fostering the visibility of women, featuring women writers who each invite another woman to read at the next installment of the series.
Hazel's next event is today at 5:00 pm, at 1564 Market St. in San Francisco. My invitation to read went to Jezebel Delilah X, another queer black woman writer with divinity in her humanity. I can't wait to witness her sharing of magic through her words, continuing the legacy of resisting invisibility by lifting up our own stories to be seen.
The Atlantic has a great interview
with prolific writer and activist Alice Walker. It was posted just before she appeared at this past weekend's Split This Rock
poetry festival, an event that celebrates "the work of writing the poems that split open the injustices in society." Walker shares about what we can learn from poetry. This is one of the interview's highlights for me: You mention several times in your recent book--Overcoming Speechlessness—growing up in Georgia, in the Jim Crow South, and how that memory bonds you to this universal struggle for freedom of all people. What do you think of younger Americans who don't have a memory of Jim Crow and are cut off from what that American period was like? It's all happening in our time. All you need to do is open your eyes. Someone right now is living my life 50 or 60 years ago in this country, today. If you are thinking you are separate in any way, just wander onto any reservation. Wander to any part of the ghetto or any streets on the back roads of Georgia. It's still there. And so I think we have to remind ourselves of this so we don't get caught in that path that we have to have had the exact experience of someone else. But frankly what poetry does is it shows us, it's a teacher that allows us to connect, emotionally, with people so profoundly that we don't have to have had their exact experience, we can just connect with them wherever they are and live today. So there's really no need ever to feel that you can't understand something or other people. That you can't feel for other people just because you didn't grow up that way. You can and we must really keep our faith strong that we can empathize.You can read the whole interview on The Atlantic website here. What are your thoughts on the interview? Were you at the Split This Rock poetry festival? According to the lineup of featured poets, it was
quite an event, and I'd love to hear from you about what it was like to be there. Don’t you hear this hammer ring? I’m gonna split this rock And split it wide! When I split this rock, Stand by my side.-from "Big Buddy," by Langston Hughes
What does it mean to be you? Would you know how to answer that question if somebody asked? How deep
inside yourself would you need to look to find the answer? It is, after all, an answer that can only come from within yourself, based on what your identity means to you, and nobody else. What if the question was narrower? If someone asked you what it means to you to be of your race, your gender, your age? Here's a question that seems rare: What does it mean to you to be a black man? When popular perceptions of black men come so often through aggression in the media and the sobering results of the prison industrial complex, the authentic voices of black men speaking for themselves about what life means to them can be forgotten. So I'm really intrigued by the transmedia art project Question Bridge: Black Males. It's an installation currently showing at the Oakland Museum of California,
as well as a few other locations around the country. Through a unique video format featuring a question and answer exchange between 160 black men, the project "seeks to represent and redefine Black male identity in America."To me, part of what's intriguing about projects like this one is how seemingly simple it is. It's a big endeavor, setting out to redefine black male identity, and yet, rather than calling for a complex creative process, it begins simply with asking questions and offering answers. This shows how powerful it can be to just speak from our own perspective, rather than allowing the media to speak for us. In this interview with Colorlines
, one of the Question Bridge artists, Chris Johnson, speaks of creating as an "engaged artist," "trying to do something that’s transformative for people that experience it." With just a glimpse at this project, it's easy to see how such an installation can, indeed, be a transformative experience, both for those who took part in creating it and for those who witness the results. A glimpse is all I've gotten so far,
but I can't wait to get out to the Oakland Museum of California to see more. You can read more from those who have seen the installation here
, and visit the Question Bridge website
for more information about the project and where you can see it in person. Here's a preview of what you'll see. What questions would you ask these men if you could? What would you ask someone like yourself? How would you answer?
I thought it was appropriate that the sky was raining ruthlessly the day I interviewed poet Camille T. Dungy
. I was heading to a café in the Mission to meet with the woman who edited the first collection of nature poetry by black writers, and by the time I got there, nature was on my mind, in my shoes and dripping from my clothes. It felt only right to find myself sitting with Dungy and her six-month-old daughter, two black poets coming in from the rain to discuss, among other things, black nature poetry.
Having her take the time to sit down with me was a big honor. Camille T. Dungy authored the poetry collections What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison
(Red Hen Press, 2006) and Suck on the Marrow
(Red Hen Press, 2010), edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry
(UGA, 2009), and co-edited From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great
(Persea, 2009). Dungy has received fellowships from organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, The Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, the American Antiquarian Society and Bread Loaf. She is associate professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. When did you begin writing? And is that separate from when you decided to pursue a career of writing and teaching poetry?
Yes, I’ve been writing my whole life. So I couldn’t tell you when I began. I made a conscious decision during college that I was going to become an English Major with a Creative Writing focus. And then I made a conscious decision at one point to do an MFA instead of a Ph.D., so there were several times along the way when I made decisions about focusing more deeply on it, but the writing has been there all along.
It’s just the decisions and opportunities to make it professional that keep confronting me. ...