How to combat racial injustice, according to Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde (left), Meridel Lesueur (center), and Adrienne Rich (right) in 1980, leading a writing workshop together in Austin, Texas.

Audre Lorde (left), Meridel Lesueur (center), and Adrienne Rich (right) in 1980, leading a writing workshop together in Austin, Texas.

On a summer day in 1979, the poet Adrienne Rich interviewed her friend and fellow poet Audre Lorde. Throughout the interview, excerpted in Sister, Outsider, The pair talked about everything from feminist race relations and the salvage that only comes from articulating your emotions.

Audre Lorde was known for her commitment to vocalizing differences in race, class, and sexual orientation among women. This interview was no exception. As a black, lesbian feminist, Lorde was intimately familiar with issues that most white feminists overlooked, and she mentions to Rich one of her chief concerns: police violence against African-American children. In fact, her description of a 1973 murder is eerily similar to what we might see in headlines today.

That spring, a uniformed officer shot and killed 10-year-old Clifford Glover, a black boy from Queens. The white policeman was charged with murder, but eventually acquitted, much like those officers who walked after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many others. When Lorde heard on her car radio that the policeman was found not guilty, she tells Rich, “I was really sickened with fury, and I decided to pull over and just jot some things down in my notebook.” Her scribblings turned into one of her most famous poems: “Power.”

In the poem, available on poetryfoundation.org and in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, she describes the racism of the murder, and the futility of the evidence documenting the cop’s bigotry. It reminded me of the Eric Garner videos, the Walter Scott videos -- none of which were enough to prove the culpability of the officers involved:

A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn't notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

In the case of Clifford Glover, the “not guilty” verdict was unanimous. The jury consisted of eleven white men and one black woman named Ederica Campbell. Lorde dedicates several lines of her poem to exploring Campbell’s psychology, and the reasons why Campbell might have believed the officer to be innocent:

Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4'10'' black Woman's frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

Whatever Ederica Campbell’s true belief, Lorde seems to say, she was participating in a judicial system that, barely more than 100 years earlier, would have enslaved her. The cultural pressure to seek white male approval overwhelmed the “first real power” this woman ever had. Can you imagine the dynamics of that jury? How power politics must have played out among eleven white men, and one black woman? How are four centuries of institutional oppression supposed to vanish into objectivity?

"Protesters in Queens in 1974 urged that a white police officer be convicted of murdering Clifford Glover, a black 10-year-old." Source: Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

"Protesters in Queens in 1974 urged that a white police officer be convicted of murdering Clifford Glover, a black 10-year-old." Source: Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

Lorde acknowledges that objectivity is overrated. We all have specific racial, gender, and sexual identities, and our perspectives correspond to them. In her essay “Age, Race, Class and Sex,” she explains to her caucasian feminist counterparts:

“Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they’re dying.”

White women, then, have a responsibility to recognize the difference between ideological discomfort and visceral terror -- to understand the limits of our personal fears. Lorde advises us to become comfortable grappling with topics we find deeply uncomfortable, to “destroy something familiar and dependable, so that something new can come, in ourselves, in our world.” By getting rid of familiar perceptions -- about police violence, about objectivity in the legal system, about race in general -- we can deal with our beliefs “not as theory, not even as emotion, but right on the line of action and effect and change.”

Writing the poem “Power” is Lorde’s primary example. After hearing about the Clifford Glover verdict on the radio, she took all of her emotion and channeled it into her writing. She wrote from a place of survival and urgency. And when she published that poem, she stepped onto the line of action and effect and change. Once you do that, Lorde tells Rich, “it opens you to a constant onslaught. Of necessities, of horrors, but of wonders too...of absolute wonders.”

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