Culture Opinion Politics

Audre Taught Me

This piece is written by Senti Sojwal, one of SPICY’s Guest Contributors. Sojwal is an NYC-based Indian-American reproductive justice activist and writer. She is a co-founder of the Asian American Feminist Collective.

Black feminist, lesbian, poet, mother, and warrior Audre Lorde died in November 1992 on the Caribbean island of St. Croix after a long battle with breast cancer. In the time before her death, Audre took an African name, Gamba Adisa, which means “she who makes her meaning clear”. Today would have been her 85th birthday.

Audre Lorde was the writer, activist, dreamer, and revolutionary who taught me the power and liberatory capabilities of rage. She taught me that we, as women, as marginalized people, must define ourselves, for ourselves, outside of the dominant gaze. She taught me that our difference is our strength. Most importantly, Audre taught me that my silence will not protect me.

Audre’s wisdom has found me so many times, in so many ways, at different points in my life.

At the time of Audre’s death, I was two years old and living with my parents in Nagpur, India. From my understanding, Nagpur is notable for little else than the famed Nagpur orange, which blossoms in the lurid humidity of the monsoon rains each summer. The oranges are exported around the world, and said to be uniquely sweet and sour.

Little did we know then that life would take us, like the oranges, across oceans, to an existence my parents could never have imagined for themselves. I grew up, like Audre, a child of immigrants in New York City.

Much of my adolescence was spent negotiating what it meant to live a hyphenated existence, feeling neither here nor there. I was a rebellious teenager. Good immigrant daughters are not rebellious. They don’t smoke cigarettes in front of the high school or sneak out to go to basement shows in the East Village. Especially, they don’t let boys slide hands up their thighs in Riverside Park on warm evenings, drunk on Olde English 40s and possibility.

Sometimes I was filled with a kind of rage I couldn’t understand. In college, navigating my early days in activism and organizing, I read Sister Outsider for the first time. So much of the feminist writing I had been given before just didn’t speak to me. It was a long time before I found South Asian and other women of color feminist thought leaders who gave a voice to my understanding of collective liberation, that made me feel seen for the very first time.

I read Audre’s words and something in me came alive:

Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.

Audre spoke about self care long before the term was co-opted by wellness culture and used to sell us face masks and spa treatments. To Audre, our self-preservation was our highest prerogative, our weapon against a system that sought to dehumanize and debilitate us at every turn.

Audre encourages us to use our pain, because that’s power, too. I returned to Audre once when my heart was beaten to a pulp. Everytime you love, love as deeply as if it were forever, she said. To Audre, the revolution was tender, messy, intersectional, celebratory, and unmistakably erotic. The revolution necessitates us falling in love with ourselves.

Sojwal as a child in New York City.

Today, as I pursue a career in public health in Trump’s America, as we fight daily to retain even the smallest of human dignities, I turn to Audre once more, and her words continue to feed and fuel me.

I think mostly of The Cancer Journals, a collection of essays and diary entries published in 1980, where Audre chronicled her experience with breast cancer. She writes of her mastectomy and the supreme pain and frustration of her illness. She writes about the loss of her body. Still, she radiates with defiance. Even in her clear despair, Audre refuses to ever be invisible.

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.

In 2019, women, people of color, immigrants, the queer community, the disabled, the undocumented, stand to lose so much. Our futures, our autonomy, the beauty and strength of our communities, and our livelihoods are on the line. At times, it feels, there is a new horror each day.

What would Audre say today, were she to see our monstrous president and his ilk aim to strip us of our healthcare and our right to reproductive freedom? The near endless footage of black bodies murdered in cold blood by police, the ICE raids that rip parents from their children, the systemic violence inflicted on trans communities to no recourse?

Audre, of course, would know that a world rife with injustice is nothing new. She knew the time was always now. I think she’d say that still, no matter what we face, we are filled with fire, and with joy, and that our survival is forever tied to our refusal to remain silent.

I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.