Audre Lorde on the Vulnerability of Visibility and Our Responsibility, to Ourselves and Others, to Break Our Silences
“That visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”
By Maria Popova
“Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each,” Paul Goodman wrote in his anatomy of the nine kinds of silence shortly after Susan Sontag penned her masterwork on the aesthetic of silence as a creative choice. “The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her beautiful meditation on writing and how silence fertilizes the imagination. But against these fecund conceptions of silence stands silence of a very different kind — the oppressive muting of dissenting, divergent, and minority voices, imposed first from the outside and then from the inside. (James Baldwin captured this internalized oppression memorably: “It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.”)
That oppressive silence and its most potent antidote are what the great Caribbean-American poet, essayist, feminist, lesbian icon, and anti-war, civil rights, and human rights activist Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” — a galvanizing short paper delivered at Chicago’s Modern Language Association in 1977, later included in Lorde’s indispensable anthology Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (public library).
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect. I am standing here as a Black lesbian poet, and the meaning of all that waits upon the fact that I am still alive, and might not have been.
Lorde is writing shortly after her doctor discovered a tumor that turned out to be benign but forced her to confront her mortality in the agonizing three-week period of uncertainty. She reflects on the sobering urgency into which the experience shook her:
I was forced to look upon myself and my living with a harsh and urgent clarity that has left me still shaken but much stronger… Some of what I experienced during that time has helped elucidate for me much of what I feel concerning the transformation of silence into language and action.
In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.
I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.
Turning to the audience — and, across space and time, to us — Lorde issues a clarion call for introspection:
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
Echoing Anaïs Nin’s reflection on what lies beneath our fear of the unfamiliar, Lorde adds:
Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?
And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger. But my daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.”
In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear — fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live… And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.
Lorde considers our responsibility to that visibility, out of which arises the transmutation of vulnerability into strength:
In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation.
For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it. For others, it is to share and spread also those words that are meaningful to us. But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.
With an urgent eye to the necessity that we “not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own,” Lorde concludes:
We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.
The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.
Decades after its publication, Sister Outsider remains a silence-shattering force of uncommon might and pulsating timeliness. Complement it with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s magnificent forgotten conversation about race and identity and Ursula K. Le Guin on oppression, freedom, and how storytelling expands our scope of the possible.
Published May 20, 2016