Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Generation After Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde,
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
(Tantor Audio, 2016)

Brittney Cooper,
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower
(MacMillan Audio, 2018)

Rebecca Traister,
Good and Mad: How Women's Anger Is Reshaping America
(Simon + Schuster Audio, 2018)

"Women's March - Washington DC 2017"
by S Pakhrin, Jan. 20, 2017
via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0 Licence)

Last year I joined the Our Shared Shelf reader group on Goodreads. It is an ambassadorial project that Emma Watson, who is famous for her acting work but has also undertaken women's rights work for the United Nations, began to help fulfill her UN role.

For November and December, the reader group discussed three works by American women: Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde.

REBECCA TRAISTER represents — to me — the viewpoint of an East Coast left-wing media junkie and journalistic professional. But I am judging by the first 11 chapters of the 25-chapter audiobook to which I'm listening.

Traister is concerned with the race- and gender-related scandals and uproars, large and small, that have been widely reported in the American press in the Bush, Obama and Trump years. What worries me is that this focus fails even to skim the surface: By taking the better-known examples of police brutality or juror prejudice, for example, the other prejudices and brutalities in the system are not examined. Injustices that authors need to write more detailed books about, things that affect women as well as men, are left unexplored too. Higher death rates in childbirth, 'redlining' that prevents African-Americans from moving into neighbourhoods they want to live in, the ineffective way in which the system protects women and men and children against domestic violence, wage gaps and dead-end jobs, harassment and assault in the workplace, separation of parent and child during superfluous imprisonment, police-enforced oppression that is quieter but cumulatively deadly, etc. should be laid before the public more often, more deeply and more clearly, without relying too much on statistical numbers.

To be fair, I doubt that many people would read or buy the books I have just described. Secondly, an interview between Traister and Dr. Cooper shows that Traister is certainly not ignoring the fact that these problems exist. Thirdly, perhaps the public is aware already, only too hopeless or (if in a position of relative power) spiritless to fix matters.

Dr. BRITTNEY COOPER is a Gender and Race Studies professor from Louisiana. Her perspective encompasses her Christian southern upbringing, her strong academic and intellectual bent, and her fascination with popular culture as a creative influence. She theorizes about gender and racial attitudes in the present-day US, pays homage to Audre Lorde and her own mother, praises Beyoncé, and describes her childhood, her student life, and her adulthood.

Her Eloquent Rage is often poignant and almost invariably entertaining, and written in a more natural idiom than pure academic jargon or Lorde's poetically obfuscatory bent.

Although the autobiographical passages in her book do address some of the serious problems I mentioned above, and I've had little experience of anything dramatically tragic like losing a father to a gunshot at a young age, many passages feel relevant to my life too: I am just five years younger, and I too did not 'blend in' at school, and the cultural references are familiar... Regarding school experiences, I'm not sure if a published book is the ideal place to settle personal scores, though, so I winced at the book's episodes about specific childhood persecutors as well as perfidious ex-boyfriends.

(It definitely feels like a book for my demographic, but perhaps that's a typically solipsist reader's view other generations will understand and enjoy it just as well.)

But, jumping to another aspect, Dr. Cooper's trains of thought, although not eccentrically revolutionary, are independent-minded. The train's metaphorical wagons seem to have been dismantled and re-soldered and turned inside out, again and again, until she was satisfied, in a thorough way that makes me happy. It lent her book the thorough-going clarity of a First Book, I think, although it isn't — she also published Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women in 2017, the year before Eloquent Rage came out.


BOTH Traister and Dr. Cooper are contemporary figures. But Audre Lorde, a born New Yorker whose poetry, speeches, and general influence flourished through the 60s and 80s and who was a pioneer in many aspects — being a lesbian black feminist in the public eye then cannot have been easy — already died in 1992. She is, I guess, the most influential of the three; and the other two women frequently praise and quote her words and concepts, tying the three works together in a pleasingly neat way. Sister Outsider's audiobook that I listened to is just a new edition of a venerable book.

Poetry-writing despite lacking inspiration, etc., is not the fiercest and deepest endeavour or quandary in Lorde's book. So I am missing the main point of it by narrowing in on this aspect.

But I will still quote what she said about poetry-writing, in a 1979 interview with her fellow American feminist poet Adrienne Rich. I love it and don't happen to remember seeing this metaphor elsewhere:
You can't take a poem and keep reforming it. It is itself, and you have to know how to cut it.
It seems that Lorde is stating that poetry-writing is like the working method of a sculptor. He needs to work with marble in such a way that he respects the natural shapes, and tries not to trigger the natural weak spots, of the stone. A poetic inspiration or idea can be just as temperamental.


Quoted from: "An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich" in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches 
[I obtained the year of the interview from: "Sister Arts: On Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Others" by Lisa L. Moore, on the website of the Los Angeles Review of Books, February 8, 2013]

Authors Dr. Brittney Cooper and Rebecca Traister in conversation for Our Shared Shelf
[Goodreads: Our Shared Shelf]

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