“After a first book”


Paper is neither kind nor cruel
 only white in its neutrality
 and I have for reality now
 the brown bar of my arm
 moving in broken rhythms
 across this dead place.

All the poems I have ever written
 are historical reviews of a now absorbed country
 a small judgement
 hawking and coughing them up
 I have ejected them not unlike children
 now my throat is clear
 perhaps I shall speak again.

All the poems I have ever written
 make a small book
 the shedding of my past in patched conceits
 moulted like snake skin, a book of leavings
 I can do anything I wish
 I can love them or hate them
 use them for comfort or warmth
 tissues or decoration
 dolls or Japanese baskets
 blankets or spells;
 I can use them for magic
 lanterns or music
 advice or small council
 for napkins or past-times or
 disposable diapers
 I can make fire from them
 or kindling
 songs or paper chains

Or fold them all into a paper fan
 with which to cool my husband’s dinner.

“Who Said It Was Simple”


There are so many roots to the tree of anger 
that sometimes the branches shatter 
before they bear.
Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march 
discussing the problematic girls 
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject 
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed 
see causes in color 
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive 
all these liberations.

“Who Said It Was Simple” was published in Lorde’s third volume of poetry, From a Land Where Other People Live in 1973. The brief poem scrutinizes those who define themselves as feminists but continue to accept and benefit from the oppression of other groups. In it, Lorde identifies aspects of her identity that make her unable to approve of such a conditional form of feminism.

This poem focuses specifically on the flawed notion of a “whites-only” feminism, addressing racial oppression through lines like, “discussing the problematic girls / they hire to make them free,” and “the ladies neither notice nor reject / the slighter pleasures of their slavery.” The poem’s climax, which doubles as the piece’s conclusion, is a direct testament of Lorde’s intersecting identities. She writes, “I who am bound by my mirror / as well as by my bed,” referencing her status as a black, homosexual woman. The final lines of the piece read, “and sit here wondering / which me will survive / all these liberations.” Here, Lorde employs irony skillfully, calling attention to the fact that limited liberation movements are inherently oppressive. In obliging readers to process this notion between the lines, Lorde pushes them to reflect more broadly on hypocrisy.

“Who Said It Was Simple” is a more narrative-based piece than most included in “Leaning into Lorde,” especially due to its specified setting of Nedicks, a chain fast food restaurant. It conveys a “practice what you preach” message to readers, encouraging them to be activists beyond organized activities like marches. Ultimately, Lorde uses this poem to emphasize that all social justice movements must be rooted in a foundation of intersectionality to be genuine and effective.

Source: Lorde, Audre. “Who Said It Was Simple.” From a Land Where Other People Live. Broadside Press, 1973.

There Is No Hierarchy of Oppression

“There is no hierarchy of oppressions” was published by the Council on Interracial Books for Children in a bulletin on “Homophobia and Education” in 1983. Of the works included in “Leaning into Lorde,” it is the last to have been published and, predictably, the most direct in its treatment of identity. Lorde wastes no time in establishing the piece’s message: the title is the work’s thesis.

Lorde begins the short essay with a characteristic claiming of identities, writing, “I was born Black, and a woman.” She later expands on this self-labeling and describes how these aspects of herself interact: “As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.” Lorde clarifies that sexism, heterosexism, and racism are all rooted in the same struggle for power. She emphasizes that no aspect of one’s identity can benefit from injustice done to another aspect of it.

Towards the end of the piece, Lorde uses the intersection of her own racial and sexual identities to demonstrate the inherent inseparability of elements of one’s experienced existence. Putting it plainly, she writes:

Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black.

“There is no hierarchy of oppressions” unites and further clarifies tenants Lorde has put forth time and time again in various poems, essays, and speeches from prior years. In it, Lorde widens the theme of these antecedent writings to address power more broadly. In doing so, she identifies power as the basis for social identities and thus, obliges her readers to reconceptualize all forms of oppression as inextricably linked. This message, by virtue of its focus on connection and similarity (as opposed to separation and difference), directly aligns with Lorde’s overall distinguishing approach to feminism and the world.

Source: Lorde, Audre. “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.” Bulletin: Homophobia and Education. Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1983.


I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing across Sexualities

Published in 1985, “I am Your Sister” is the third pamphlet included in Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press’s Freedom Organizing Series. The piece is based on a speech Lorde gave at the Women’s Center of Medgar Evers College in New York City. It addresses divisiveness in the feminist movement, specifically in relation to heterosexism and homophobia which Lorde names as “two grave barriers to organizing among Black women” (3).

From the very beginning, Lorde speaks of a need to redefine the framework through which we examine and determine identity. She illustrates a need “to deal constructively with the genuine differences between us and to recognize that unity does not require that we be identical to one another” (3). Lorde clarifies that effective feminism will not be built around ignoring intricate intersections of identity but rather around embracing and wrestling with them. She exemplifies this approach in the context of her own lived experience, writing, “When I say I am a Black feminist; I mean I recognize that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my Blackness as well as my womanness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable” (4). This definitive statement is a near direct precursor to the notion of “intersectionality,” which Kimberly Crenshaw coined four years after “I am Your Sister” in a 1989 article called, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”

The message Lorde desires to convey in “I am Your Sister” is apparent:  “We cannot afford to waste each other’s energies in our common battles” (7). She asks her audience, “How do we organize around our differences, neither denying them nor blowing them up out of proportion?” (7) and upholds that the solution is ultimately “an effort of will” (7). Lorde concludes the piece with characteristic eloquence and clarity, writing in reference to stereotypes about lesbians,

Those stereotypes are yours to solve, not mine, and they are a terrible and wasteful barrier to working together.  I am not your enemy. We do not have to become each other’s unique experiences and insights in order to share what we have learned through our particular battles for survival as Black women……I do not want to be tolerated, nor misnamed. I want to be recognized. I am a Black Lesbian, and I am your sister. (8)

The use of “and” and the italicization of the “am” here are crucial. These linguistic choices clarify what Lorde believes to be inherent to identity on the level of form: that it is both aspects that are inalienable, and their existence is active and undeniable.

Source: Lorde, Audre. I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing across Sexualities. 1st ed., Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1985.

Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices

Audre Lorde’s Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices was “first written in 1979 after 12 Black women were killed in the Boston area within four months” (3). Published in 1990 by Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press as part of their Freedom Organizing Series, Need was intended for “particular use in classes, small community meetings, families, churches, and discussion groups, to open a dialogue between and among Black women and Black men on the subject of violence against women within our communities” (3). The text is written to be read aloud, with four distinct listed narrators: a woman named “Pat”, her son, “Bobbie,” “Poet,” and “All.”

In the preface to the piece, Lorde states, “I wrote this poem in 1979 as an organizing tool, as a jump-off point for other pieces on the theme, and for discussion among and between Black women and men” (4). She then further develops her motive for authoring Need, repeating the line “I wrote it for…” and listing several women who have been violently murdered. Eventually, she broadens out these acknowledgments, writing, “I wrote it for every Black woman who has ever bled at the hands of a brother” and later, “I wrote it for my son, and my daughter” (4).

Lorde’s use of layering, developing repetition here, along with her continual reference to those reading as “my sisters” and “my brothers” (4), offers insight into her views on identity. These linguistic choices exemplify a tenant that appears over and over again in Lorde’s work: we must revel in the singularity of our own experience and simultaneously openly claim the identities that define it socially.

Source: Lorde, Audre. Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices. First ed., Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1990.