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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.”

Audre Lorde on the Vulnerability of Visibility and Our Responsibility, to Ourselves and Others, to Break Our Silences

“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).

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

Lorde writes:

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.

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?

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

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.


From Scripture to Screen: Kate Tempest’s Electrifying Spoken-Word Meditation on Our Fraught Fillers of Existential Emptiness

“You’re handed the mould and told — fit in to this.”

From Scripture to Screen: Kate Tempest’s Electrifying Spoken-Word Meditation on Our Fraught Fillers of Existential Emptiness

Partway between poem and public service announcement, the spoken-word masterpiece “Progress” by English poet and playwright Kate Tempest, found in her altogether terrific poetry collection Hold Your Own (public library), is the finest, sharpest thing written about why religion exists since Bertrand Russell, the most sobering case against the cult of consumerism since E.F. Schumacher, and the most piercing take on the violence of image-culture since Susan Sontag.

The creative ferocity that leaps from the page comes alive with tenfold more power in Tempest’s extraordinary performance on the Australian television program Q&A:


Once there was a purpose,
so I hear: there was a God.

It made it all less worthless
and it gave us the because

we’d all been searching for.
An unarguable truth.

A reason to be kind and just,
a reason for the noose

that sent the sinner off to sinnerland
and made us all feel better

in the knowledge that the righteous
would be right and just forever.

Once there was religion,
and it ruled. We had it bad.

We fooled ourselves to sleep at night;
This was This, and That was That.

And if our morals ever shook,
we looked no further than The Book.

But over time we felt the pressure;
it became the great oppressor.

And without God, the wars seemed crueller
life seemed bleaker. Art seemed foolish.

Death seemed stranger now than ever.
What was mankind for? What terror

flooded us to understand
there was no point, no grander plan.

There was just living out each day.
Work. Eat. Sleep. Fuck. Pass away.

Without the fear of retribution
we found guilt-free pleasure

but we lost the sense of union
that had kept us all together.

We needed something new to fill
the emptiness that grew;

and what’s better to believe
in than all-you-can-eat Freedom!

The joy of being who we are
by virtue of the clothes we buy.

The dream of getting rich enough
to live outside the common life.

And now, there is no purpose
that exists beyond our needs.

Now there is the worship
of convenience and speed.

We run around the circuit,
pit our grace against our greed

And all we have is surplus
to what’s needed and we feed

our callous little urchins
in the best way that we can.

And then wonder how they’ve grown
to only know what’s in their hands.

Now we have the Screen,
and it rules.

Our kids are perma-plugged into its promise,
admiring all its jewels.

And couples eat their dinner,
in the glimmer of its rays,

we stare until we’ve learned
the world’s ways.

Pre-teens learn what heart-throbs are.
Heart-throbs gorge on hot pork and watch sport.

Reality played for us to sneer and weep at —
here is morality at last! See us caught

in full colour, high definition.

Look — a cripple on a blind date.
Look — young people getting fucked in Magaluf,

look — the mother of a dead son, weeping, irate,
look — a celebrity eating shit and singing Agadoo.

We used to burn women who had epileptic fits.
We’d tie them to a stake and proclaim them a witch.


we’ll put them on a screen if they’ve got nice tits,
but they’ll be torn apart if they let themselves slip.

We’ll draw red rings round their saggy bits.
And flick through the pictures while we eat bags of chips.

You can either be a beauty or a beast or a bitch,
you can either be cool or kooky or kitsch.


you were damned for the things that you did,
or if you didn’t live how the villagers lived.


You’re handed the mould and told — fit in to this.
And maybe one day you could really be big.

Behind-the-scenes footage
of a famous last gig.

Backstage close-up
of the singer’s last twitch.

Before she pulls her gun out
and blows herself to bits.

The world is your playground,
go and get your kicks,

as long as you’re not poor,
or ugly, or sick.

We never saw it coming,
like all the best tricks.

Once we had the fear;
now we have the fix.

For more brilliantly disquieting spoken-word genius, see Lee Mokobe’s terrific piece on what it’s like to be transgender and Sarah Kay’s electrifying “If I Should Have a Daughter.”


The Art of Medicine: W.H. Auden on What Makes a Great Physician and How He Influenced Oliver Sacks

“A doctor, like anyone else who has to deal with human beings, each of them unique, cannot be a scientist; he is either, like the surgeon, a craftsman, or, like the physician and the psychologist, an artist.”

The Art of Medicine: W.H. Auden on What Makes a Great Physician and How He Influenced Oliver Sacks

The poetry of W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) was among Oliver Sacks’s formative books. When the two men eventually became friends in the final years of Auden’s life, Dr. Sacks was still a thirty-something neurologist with little more than a weightlifting record under his belt, a long way from becoming the Dante of medicine. Auden became an invaluable mentor as the young writer was honing the singular voice that would later render him the greatest science-storyteller of our time.

In the pages of A Certain World (public library) — Auden’s terrific commonplace book, that proto-Tumblr of fragmentary inspirations fomenting the poet’s imagination — I was delighted to discover the surprising seedbed of the kinship of spirit between these two otherwise rather different geniuses.


Under the entry for Medicine, Auden writes:

I can remember my father, who was a physician, quoting to me when I was a young boy an aphorism by Sir William Osler: “Care more for the individual patient than for the special features of his disease.” In other words, a doctor, like anyone else who has to deal with human beings, each of them unique, cannot be a scientist; he is either, like the surgeon, a craftsman, or, like the physician and the psychologist, an artist.


It is precisely those members of the medical profession who make the bogus claim that they are “scientific” who are most likely to refuse to consider new evidence.

Radiating from this private reflection is the sudden illumination of why Dr. Sacks, that poetic humanist of modern medicine, was so enchanted by Auden’s work and the spirit from which it sprang. (In my own life, I have found that all of my close friendships with people whom I’ve first encountered through their work are based on something larger than aesthetic admiration for one another’s work — they are based, rather, on a certain resonant affinity for the spirit undergirding the work, of which the work is only a partial expression.)

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Writing shortly before the publication of Dr. Sacks’s groundbreaking Awakenings — the record of his miraculous work with patients frozen in a trance-like state by sleeping-sickness, brought back to life in large part by music — Auden offers a beautiful figurative counterpart to Dr. Sacks’s literal solution:

As Novalis wrote, “Every sickness is a musical problem; every cure a musical solution…” This means that in order to be a good doctor a man must also have a good character, that is to say, whatever weaknesses and foibles he may have, he must love his fellow human beings in the concrete and desire their good before his own. A doctor, like a politician, who loves other men only in the abstract or regards them simply as a source of income can, however clever, do nothing but harm.

In his magnificent autobiography, which remains one of the most rewarding and life-expanding books I’ve ever read, Dr. Sacks recounts the advice Auden gave him as he was writing Awakenings:

You’re going to have to go beyond the clinical… Be metaphorical, be mystical, be whatever you need.

How marvelous to uncover, buried amid the pages of his forgotten commonplace book, the seed of this wisdom, which helped Dr. Sacks write the book in such a way that Auden himself would later laud as a masterpiece.

Complement this particular fragment of Auden’s altogether wonderful A Certain World, which also gave us the poet on writing and the most important principle in making art, with the story of how Oliver Sacks once saved his own life with music.


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