My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you.
—Audre Lorde The Cancer Journals
Our silence has been long and deep. . . . In canonical literature, we have always been spoken for. Or we have been spoken to. Or we have appeared as jokes or as flat figures suggesting sensuality. Today we are taking back our narrative, telling our story.
—Toni Morrison “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”
In late 1984, Essence Magazine published a conversation between Audre Lorde and James Baldwin entitled “Revolutionary Hope.” I begin with Baldwin’s words:
One of the dangers of being a Black American is being schizophrenic, and I mean “schizophrenic” in the most literal sense. To be a Black American is in some ways to be born with the desire to be white. It’s a part of the price you pay for being born here, and it affects every Black person. . . . Du Bois believed in the American dream. So did Martin. So did Malcolm. So do I. So do you. That’s why we’re sitting here.
Although this may seem familiar—Baldwin speaks here about a desire to be white, or to be a part of the American dream and double consciousness à la Du Bois—Audre Lorde is not convinced:
I don’t, honey. I’m sorry, I just can’t let that go past. Deep, deep, deep down I know that dream was never mine. And I wept and I cried and I fought and I stormed, but I just knew it. I was Black. I was female. And I was out—out—by any construct wherever the power lay. So if I had to claw myself insane, if I lived I was going to have to do it alone. Nobody was dreaming about me. Nobody was even studying me except as something to wipe out.
Because of her gender and her sexual identity, Lorde has experienced different dreams and desires. Her clarity about this is astonishing. Grappling with how, or even if, her Black body is able to be a part of the American dream, she makes a crucial statement: “I don’t, honey.”
Lorde has had to create her own dream, which is a question of language. How do people—and perhaps particularly women—with queer, Black queer bodies talk about themselves if they are not part of the essential conversation of the American dream? Is there an epistemology of queering blackness, a language, a new tool of reflection for a new grammar for a queer Black woman?
Through her resistance to the seduction of a dream, Lorde opens possibilities for a language that can articulate the experiences of Black LGBTQIA2S+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, asexual, and Two-Spirited) individuals. Today, we must imprint the possibility of this new language in a way that changes its grammar for future generations.
Our true stories as Black women are not the American dream. Within that dream, it would be impossible for Lorde to imagine her own narrative. Her future was sacrificed by the narrative of the master. She simply did not exist. Or she existed for a buried history, a servile history, a coolie history, one without autonomy or the truth to free her from social domination.
We cannot underestimate the power of Lorde’s stance: “I don’t, honey.” She spoke for herself. She came to this statement, this clarity, through her work. To tell her story, she knew that it must come from inside. And by starting with herself, she made philosophical inquiries and important critiques about how to construct a canon. Indeed, her “canon” was without precedent for queer Black women. It focuses on two facets of their sexuality: a process of self-actualization and the need to invent concepts so as to improve self-understanding and the reappropriation of the self by the self. Black women have to underline an interiority that is shaped by marginality, as well as trajectories marked by the absence of paths to follow in their self-development.
The moment Lorde articulated who she was as a queer Black woman, she existed for herself and for others outside the American dream and American narratives. She opened possibilities for a queer Black woman to be represented as such. The power to shape our stories lies in becoming conscious of our history. Let us never underestimate what that can create.