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The Wisdom of Audre Lorde

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom

Audre Lorde (born Audrey Geraldine Lorde; 1934-1992), was an American writer, poet, feminist, and civil rights activist. She began her career as a librarian at Hunter College and earned a master’s degree in library science at Columbia University, but she flourished as a writer. Lorde’s writing focused on racial and social injustice, black identity, and feminism. She was a passionate and eloquent advocate of civil rights, shining the light on the deep harm of racism, sexism, classism, and ageism. At an early age, she began reading and memorizing poetry. By the age of 12 she discovered that it was easier for her to express herself through poetry. She published her first volume of poetry, The First Cities, in 1968, followed by Cables to Rage in 1970. Lorde became an influential voice in the Black Arts Movement after the publication of her popular collection of poems titled Coal in 1976. Over the course of her career, she published 18 books, including poems, essays, and a biography. Shortly before she died of breast cancer, Lorde adopted the African name Gamba Adisa, meaning “Warrior: she who makes her meaning known.” Below are some of her insights and perspectives from this inspiring poetic warrior.

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” 

“When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining — I’m broadening the joining.”

“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.”

“Without community, there is no liberation… but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

“Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” 

“If I do not bring all of who I am to whatever I do, then I bring nothing, or nothing of lasting worth, for I have withheld my essence.”

“When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” 

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.”

“I learned so much from listening to people. And all I knew was, the only thing I had was honesty and openness.”

“You cannot, you cannot use someone else’s fire. You can only use your own. And in order to do that, you must first be willing to believe that you have it.”

“It does not pay to cherish symbols when the substance lies so close at hand.”

“There is an important difference between openness and naiveté. Not everyone has good intentions nor means me well. I remind myself I do not need to change these people, only recognize who they are.”

“Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.”

“Each time you love, love as deeply as if it were forever.” 

“We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not.”

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.” 

“For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

“The speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.” 

“Once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy.” 

“I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.” 

“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” 

“I do not want to be tolerated, or misnamed. I want to be recognized.” 

“The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.” 

“I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do.” 

“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” 

“If you do not learn to hate you will never be lonely enough to love easily nor will you always be brave, although it does not grow any easier. Do not pretend to convenient beliefs, even when they are righteous; you will never be able to defend your city while shouting.” 

“Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” 

“I am my best work — a series of road maps, reports, recipes, doodles, and prayers from the front lines.”

“Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” 

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