I grew up, as a feminist, reading Audre Lorde.  Sister Outsider was a key text in my first women’s studies theory course.  Her ideas and writings continue to be central to my understandings of culture in the 1970s women’s liberation movement.

Lorde devoted her life to creating culture connected to activism for the liberation of all people.  I cannot recommend strongly enough Alexis de Veuax’s study of Audre Lorde, Warrior Poet, which offers many insights into Lorde’s participation in developing the idea of women’s culture, her friendship with Adrienne Rich and Blanche Weisen Cook and a wealth of other insights.

In an interview conducted some time in 1974 or 1975, published in 1977, Lorde collapses the distinctions between black aesthetics and female aesthetics referring to

“alternative aesthetics” in which “art and poetry become part and parcel of one’s daily living, one’s daily expression, the need to communicate, the need to share one’s feelings, to develop within oneself the best that is possible. And the definition of art as betterment, I think, is a mainstay of the alternative aesthetics”

Lorde insists on both difference and unity as a necessity for black and white feminists

“it is absolutely necessary for women, black and white women, to get together and to begin to recognize some of the ways in which liberation is sucked away from us all, that we cannot separate the struggles for liberation … because it is all human liberation”

Her most cogent statement of the relationship of politics and culture came in Poetry is Not a Luxury (1976).

Women must “cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes” (37)

Lorde claims for poetry the ability to “give name to the namelss so that it can be thought” and praises “feelings as spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.” It is  “the poet – [who] whispers in our dreams I feel, therefore I can be free” (emphasis added).

But this is no call to utopianism, “sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new idea,” Lorde observes.   Dreams must be combined with “action in the now” as she invokes the hungry children,( again that metaphor from Rich and Griffin) because “living structures defined by profit, by linear pwer, by institutional dehumanization” create pressing needs.

In 1977 Lorde became the poetry editor for  Chrysalis A Magazine of Women’s Culture, which provided, I argue, the high point of collaboration among the various groups interested in the idea of women’s culture.

Last Issue on which Lorde worked, features her essay The Uses of the Erotic

One of the greatest critiques of the conept of women’s culture that emerged in the late 1970s was its “white roots.”  This viewpoint was articulated most forcefully by Lorde at the Second Sex Conference (written about by Lester Olson brilliantly), while she continued to defend the necessity of cultural revoluton.  Her speech and that conference is one of the key moments in The Politics of Women’s Culture.

From Irene Peslikis Papers, Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture

From Irene Peslikis Papers, Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture

Her departure from the magazine, shortly after the Second Sex conference, signals one of the moments that fragmented the coalition around women’s culture, and shifted discussion towards cultural feminism.  That is another blog post though.