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NEW SMYRNA BEACH, FL - 1983: Caribbean-American writer, poet and activist Audre Lorde lectures students at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Lorde was a Master Artist in Residence at the Central Florida arts center in 1983. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Audre Lorde in New Smyrna Beach, FL (1983)

It has been some time since I have written here. Today seems like the perfect day to return to mark 36 years since Audre Lorde spoke her profound truth under the title “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Lorde’s frequently quoted axiom titled an intervention she made at the New York University Institute for the Humanities Second Sex Conference on a panel titled “The Personal and the Political.”

Lorde’s intervention––as much philosophical as urgently political; as much material as deeply informed by spirit––challenged the theoretical terms of “difference” as it had been imagined in both the content of the panel and the formal organization of the conference itself. Lorde witnesses:

It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians. And yet, I stand here as a Black lesbian feminist, having been invited to comment within the only panel at this conference where the input of Black feminists and lesbians is represented. What this says about the vision of this conference is sad, in a country where racism, sexism, and homophobia are inseparable. To read this program is to assume that lesbian and Black women have nothing to say about existentialism, the erotic, women’s culture and silence, developing feminist theory, or heterosexuality and power. And what does it mean in personal and political terms when even the two Black women who did present here were literally found at the last hour? What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.

Speaking of the weight of that “last hour” at which “the two Black women who did present [there] were literally found,” Lorde offers what would likely travel under the academic-legal terminology of an intersectional––not to mention immanent––critique. But, the term “intersectional” itself had not been coined in 1979, so we see behind and through the things that it has a tendency to shorthand when we hear it today.

Stepping through the erasures of the conference––imagining Lorde’s voice and wondering if it is a part of the archival documentation of the event itself––her words are perhaps best understood when read aloud:

Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. This is a difference between the passive be and the active being.

Lorde’s truth is poetic and poetry is her truth. Eschewing the prolonged and inappropriately universalized language of White European Philosophy, Lorde reaches the core quickly. Time is limited for the appointed representatives of difference in the spaces of sameness:

Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.

Perhaps seeing the need to assuage an audience that would be threatened by both her profound presence and her Truth telling, Lorde reroutes the discomfort, rendering interdependency as a relation revelatory of difference’s generative power. This conference needs what she has to say. It is dependent on her vision and practice of interdependency. This makes her a Teacher. The open-ended-ness of the word “generate,” free of object, teaches that difference is not a localizable phenomenon to be represented by specific bodies, but a confrontation that necessarily “sparks” outside of the institution, even if it also lands there on this, or any, occasion.

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. 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. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

Having arrived there, in that particular institution, Lorde asks a series of questions that might easily be posed in the many academic institutions today. Especially where such institutions make explicit claims to feminist and queer knowledges, practices, and politics:

Why weren’t other women of Color found to participate in this conference? Why were two phone calls to me considered a consultation? Am I the only possible source of names of Black feminists? And although the Black panelist’s paper ends on an important and powerful connection of love between women, what about interracial cooperation between feminists who don’t love each other?

The organizer in me is challenged by these questions, set afloat on the fast moving stream of officially sanctioned action. Anyone who has asked a difficult question of someone in power will understand how that act immediately thrusts you outside of the smooth reproduction of the institutional order. You hit a rough rock in the stream and it cuts you as it also becomes your refuge. If you “speak from difference” it may not differ from your quotidian experience. But if you are assumed to speak from a position of institutionally sanctioned power and authority, you will feel the sense of betrayal on the part of those who rely on your silence to justify their own.

It may seem easy to emphasize love––not for anyone who has actually loved, still––but Lorde goes further than already existing or hard fought for love. She questions everything else. She makes explicit the implicit affects that effected the very organization of the conference itself. For the timid, for those who might not yet feel it, she entrusts her point to a white Truth teller, someone who can show how to take responsibility:

In academic feminist circles, the answer to these questions is often, “We did not know who to ask.” But that is the same evasion of responsibility, the same cop-out, that keeps Black women’s art out of women’s exhibitions, Black women’s work out of most feminist publications except for the occasional “Special Third World Women’s Issue,” and Black women’s texts off your reading lists. But as Adrienne Rich pointed out in a recent talk, white feminists have educated themselves about such an enormous amount over the past ten years, how come you haven’t also educated yourselves about Black women and the differences between us—white and Black—when it is key to our survival as a movement?

Lorde references the feminist movement in a move that carries us to the coda of intervention. She speaks to and from the depth of feminism and the breadth of all it can learn if it moves beyond the mere gesture of inclusion toward the substantive and substantiating act of collective self-inquiry (auto-coscenza):

Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women—in the face of tremendous resistance—as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.

The tragic multiplication of labor, the fractious “repetition of racist patriarchal though,” the redirected power of erosion: None is particularly surprising to the Warrior Poet, but each new iteration seems to demand another call to justice. And so we are called, in terms that honour what the space of intervention––the conference itself––is actually trying to do despite itself. Lorde brings us there in words that, thirty-six years later, fall like heavy raindrops on the still thirsty, root thick soil of early autumn:

Simone de Beauvoir once said: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.”

Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

Read all of “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House” here.
(Try doing it out loud.)

Early in 2013, I was enormously privileged to attend a series of events dedicated to the legacies of Audre Lorde. Organized by the Community Arts Practice (CAP) Certificate Program and the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, in conjunction with Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto, the series included a film screening, several lectures, and an exhibition of artwork and performance by members of CAP. The inaugural event was a lecture by Professor M. Jacqui Alexander of the Women & Gender Studies Institute at University of Toronto. Titled “Medicines for Our Survival: Indigenous Knowledge and the Sacred,” the lecture has resonated in my heart and mind throughout the year and has grounded me in a new understanding of my work.

Practically, Prof. Alexander inspired my increased involvement in political struggles for justice within my Faculty and University. From an institutional perspective, this has taken the ‘recognizable’ form of committee membership on our Faculty’s relatively new Equity Committee. More personally, it has involved learning from, struggling alongside, and sharing with colleagues and comrades – faculty, students, and staff – who are committed to social justice beyond the boilerplate languages of ‘equity and diversity’ and in opposition to the violences justified in the name of ‘inclusion.’ Many of these folks, including Prof. Honor Ford-Smith were directly involved in getting Prof. Alexander up to York for her rare public lecture. Many more, including Prof. Jin Haritaworn, have been deeply involved in struggles for justice both preceding and after their arrival to FES. I name Profs Ford-Smith and Haritaworn because I have personally witnessed their incredibly hard work to organize and support struggles for justice at the intersections of race, class, ability, sexuality, and gender. In short, they help make FES (and Toronto) a fabulous place to agitate for justice.

More directly related to Prof. Alexander’s words that March evening, her discussion prompted me to start the process of thinking about legacies of colonialism and racism as they relate to my own work on urban ecologies of gentrification. This has involved learning how to draw politically honest intersectional connections to both activist and scholarly work that heretofore were not a part of my intellectual or political practices. It has involved a lot of parallel reading of both scholarly work and blogs, online archives, and political texts that travel under headings of women of color feminisms, anti-colonial struggles, critical race studies, disability studies, and trans studies. Among my favorites this year were a text that should be considered a classic of queer ecologies, Eli Clare‘s Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (2009 [1999], South End Press; I highly recommend listening to the free MP3’s of Clare reading the text) and M. Jacqui Alexander’s own book, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (2005, Duke University Press), particularly the chapter called “Anatomies of Mobilization,” which tells the story of a struggle organized by a coalition of faculty, staff, and security guards at the New School in NYC. Their movement contested dominant oppressive frameworks of ‘diversity’ in a range of institutional practices including, notably and strikingly for this courageous chapter, the hiring of Prof. Alexander to a temporary position there.

The process of getting to know histories of struggle both within and beyond my immediate institutional and personal context has been necessarily slow for me. The temporality of this learning reflects the work it takes to listen and position myself as a white, queer, male-identified person who is routinely enabled and privileged by my institution. The ‘slowness’ of this work also reflects a resistance to the isolation and over-specialization that permeates the PhD journey; in my most grounded moments, I see this slowness as a refusal to work with the ‘speed’ and ‘efficiency’ required to become a depoliticized competitive PhD-candidate. Using Alexander’s terms, I would say that the path of building ‘communities of difference’ and making ‘intelligible worlds’ is not paved in advance of our walking it, even if it is well worn by the many people who have traveled ahead of us.

As this work has unfolded, I have recalled and drawn strength from my earlier social justice organizing experiences. When I was living in Prospect Lefferts Gardens/Flatbush (Brooklyn, NY), I got involved with a group of community elders and long-time residents who were trying to rebuild the fledgling Neighborhood Association in a way that build on the long histories of social justice and civil rights organizing. My comrades in this struggle ranged from white women university professors (one of whom was involved in the New School struggle that Prof. Alexander writes about), young mixed-race hetero-families whose renovated apartments brought newcomers like me to the neighborhood, an elderly white man who moved into the neighborhood while it was still redlined and who was directly involved in the civil rights struggles for integration and reconciliation, an inspirational and brilliant queer woman of color pastor from the local church, as well as many renters, homeowners, business operators, and youth from the neighborhood. We struggled to create an organization invested as much in the ‘safety’ of the neighborhood as in contesting aggressively gentrifying development projects. We did not always agree, but we created an environment in which difference and dissent grounded our process. Along the way, I learned quite a bit about listening, respect for elders, and the complexities of negotiating different political struggles alongside knowledges and practices of the sacred.

Perhaps the last point – a politics which does not shy away from the sacred – grounds what I found so profound about Prof. Alexander’s lecture that night. Prof. Alexander opened her talk with gestures of sacred ritual and with an acknowledgment of the land claims to the territory on which we were located. She then took us on a journey that called all of us to a specific awareness of our work. Cultivating an enraptured audience, Prof. Alexander drew our attention to what we need most and want least: the truth, which she said there is often ‘an allergy’ to in the academy. Honoring Audre Lorde, she spoke of the uses of the erotic as power and reminded us that sharing in the same life force is not about sameness. It is very difficult to capture the energy of the room, which, among other reasons, is perhaps why Prof. Alexander asked that nobody use a recording device other than a pen and paper to document her lecture.

Among the many memorable moments of testimony, storytelling, and analysis that comprised “Medicines for our Survival,” one has become an important part of my own survival throughout the perilous process of PhD professionalization. At a certain point, Prof. Alexander told us, quite simply, that she was present in the room doing her work. She followed this profoundly simple statement of purpose by saying, “And I am here to ask you: Are you doing yours?” To answer this question, she told us, we would need to know who we are and why we came. We would need to summon the courage to stand up to our academic peers, advisory committees, department heads, and Deans when they imposed upon us a vision of what ‘our work’ should be. We would need, most of all, to ‘sacrifice speed for scrutiny.’

From here, Prof. Alexander told us a bit about the methods and pedagogy she uses in her courses. In one of her courses, she explained, she asks students to connect with a medicinal plant, to make the plant a subject of their work, to explore how and why the plant has chosen them. Having only recently come to consciousness about my desire to write with and through plants, this moment deepened the impact of Prof. Alexander’s already moving lecture beyond what I could have expected. She called us to ‘think, learn, love, grow, and possess ourselves.’ This call – and the context and work that went into opening the space for it – has nourished my purpose and process more than I could have imagined.

Over the last 9 months, I have brought myself back to Prof. Alexander’s lecture many times. As I have written with and about Tree of Heaven, I have had to wonder how and why this particular plant found me. I have had to wonder how to honor the moment of truth in which I was encouraged to follow a surprising intellectual and political path lined with its newly sprouting saplings. What will I find there? What have I found without looking? What has this plant revealed about my own ignorances? My own history?

I have had to wonder how to continue to follow this path despite the reality that it has demanded a far more rigorous practice of truth-seeking and truth-saying than I could have imagined as part of this process called ‘doing a PhD.’ In fact, as Prof. Alexander so powerfully attests to in her work, academic spaces are often hostile to just such practices.

The work of making an alliance with Tree of Heaven has been both a literal and metaphoric opportunity for me to nourish and ground my participation in struggles for justice both in and as ‘my work.’ When it comes to discovering and understanding the surprise of ‘my work,’ I can’t think of a more important moment from this (or any) year than Prof. Alexander’s lecture. An indisputable moment of truth, “Medicines for our Survival,” has led me well beyond the requirements of completing my program to struggles for justice, intelligibility, and recognition. The ground on which these struggles unfold – one might say the nature of these struggles – long predates my arrival. So far, the partisans and proliferators of these struggles have been beyond generous in welcoming me, in challenging the terms of my arrival, and in leaving space for my clumsy process of coming to full awareness of oppression. My work, then, begins by accepting the invitation to rigorous self-inquiry and by taking responsibility for the state in which I accepted it.

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