Praise the Lorde: What Audre Taught Me

 Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy and Fabiola Jean-Louis

 Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy and Fabiola Jean-Louis

Audre Lorde, the “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” changed my life immensely with her work. Her truth created a lasting shift in how I tell my story. "Your silence will not protect you," she stated at a Lesbian and Literature panel in Chicago on December 28th, 1977. In that sermon, Lorde reflected upon her premature diagnosis of breast cancer, in which she was set to have surgery for what doctors thought was a malignant tumor. Between the time of medical concern and operation, the presence of her mortality weighed heavily on her, prompting her to accomplish a personal "transformation of silence into language and action." This bold declaration became my creed as well.


My story differs from Audre, but the same theme ran through my life. Growing up withdrawn and reserved, speaking was not my strong suit. Instead, my curiosity, which led to my rich inner world, preferred to observe the patterns of the people around me and take in as much as I could. However, I often shielded and protected this internal realm from the outside. With this protection, came the filtering of my emotions. I was selective about how and where I revealed my feelings, out of fear of being misperceived.


"What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say?" Spoken like a sincere mother of sages, the questions Audre posed continues to bring life to the stories buried inside of me. What I now know is that the suppression of how you feel will hurt you: emotionally, mentally and physically. As living beings, we are made up of energy, and our feelings carry a life force. Keeping that energy bound up in the vessel of our bodies will lead to combustion. The silencing of my inner world made my body crack. From depression, to panic attacks and headaches, my body was crying out for help. My soul needed expression. Writing became my way out of the dark hole I created and reading narratives of other black women, especially Audre's story, gave me the spirit to speak and write my own.


One tale that spoke to me was the relationship Audre had with her mother, which she documents flawlessly in the biomythography, Zami: A new spelling of my Name. As an offspring of Caribbean lineage, like Audre, I know first hand of the power island women carry. Their strong-willed and sometimes uncompromising leadership is both beautiful and dangerous. Unfortunately, the latter can bring about a tumultuous relationship between mother and daughter. For many Caribbean mothers, raising their daughters to follow in their pillar of strength leaves little room for exploration of unconventional identities. For a daughter growing up feeling different than the women around her, it is sometimes difficult to find common ground amongst those closest to your heart.  


This is why when Audre reminisced about feeling like a "sister outsider," amongst the women who shared her space; I related so well. In her case, finding the bond from a community of women to express the complexities of being black and gay was a challenge. Her lamentation on feeling like a stranger around her white queer friends or her heterosexual black sisters juxtaposed the separation I felt between myself and the cherished women of my life.  

At the age of 15, I gave birth and relinquished my firstborn to adoption. This life experience gave me a different identity than the one that my aunt (and mother figure) was accustomed to. I wasn't a wide-eyed, innocent child anymore. But I was now a birth mother. My relationship with that identity was one that, not only I had to get used to, but one that the people around me had to adjust to as well. I felt connected to the women in my family. Although it was before everyone's expectations, I was now a mother; I gave birth to a life. However, the role of an outsider took form when the realization of being a different kind of mother sunk into my reality. I would not be able to raise my son; he would not call me mommy. In fact, he may never know my name. All of this was new territory that created turmoil within the relationship I had with myself and the outside world.


For five years after I gave birth to my son, my go-to defense mechanism from childhood reared its ugly head. I hid the emotions that I felt, in hopes that my vulnerability would fade away. The guilt that came from carrying a baby to full term, and then passing him over to strangers, haunted me endlessly. Instead of using my voice to express my pain, I suffered in silence. I withdrew and reacted to my environment with fear and uncertainty. As a result, I guarded myself to the point that I became a prisoner to my mind. Thinking that no one would understand, and even if they did, I couldn't change the past. So what was the point of speaking or writing about my issues?


Dagmar Schultz

Dagmar Schultz

It took me years to break loose from the reasoning that my story wasn't worth being told. Even if it was for myself, being able to write and give life to the words inside of me was vital. "Your silence will not protect you." Audre Lorde did the world, especially me, a blessing when she spoke that message. Each time that I sit down and write, I think about the two questions posed in the speech given that day in Chicago. I hear the opening sentence in which Audre says, "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood." In no way am I perfect. I still hide to protect my most profound thoughts. However, because I've read the work of a woman whose unpopular identities did not stop her from speaking her truth, I know that I can do the same.


Lorde, A. (1996). Zami, a new spelling of my name: a biomythography. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press.       

Lorde, A. (2015). Sister outsider: essays and speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press.

Latoya Sinclair is a contributor at Spoken Black Girl, dedicated to living her highest purpose - spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally. She can be found on Twitter @warmsacredwoman