Audre Lorde and a Celebration Through Labels

Audre Lorde, born Audrey Geraldine Lorde, was born on February 18, 1934 in New York City to Caribbean immigrant parents. Her parents came to the United States from the West Indies. As the youngest of three children she was raised in Harlem and was born so tounge tied and nearsighted that she was considered to be legally blind. Growing up Lorde developed a love of poetry early on from her mother teaching her to read and talk around the age of four, and being influenced by her mother’s “special and secret relationship with words’ writing her first poem in the eighth grade. Lorde stated “words had an energy and power and I came to respect that power early. Pronouns, nouns, and verbs were citizens of different countries, who really got together to make a new world”. While in high school she became the literary editor of her schools art magazine and her first poem was published to Seventeen magazine before she graduated high school.

After high school Lorde attended Hunter College from 1954 to 1959 and graduated with a BA studying library science and a spent a year at the National University of Mexico, which Lorde described as a time of affirmation and renewal. She supported herself by working numerous odd jobs as a factory worker, ghost writer, social worker, x-ray technician, medical clerk, and arts and crafts supervisor. After graduating from Hunter College, Lorde went on to get her master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961. In 1962 lord met Edwin Rollins, to which she had two kids, Elizabeth and Johnathan, and the two would later divorce in 1970. Before divorcing her husband, in 1968 she became a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo University. There she met Frances Clayton, who would that became her long term partner.

Lorde self describes herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. Lorde embraces these labels and uses them as a form of expression and almost liberation. She writes in the Cancer Journals “imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness”. Lorde used these labels as inspiration and a platform in her poetry for writing to tell of the injustices against woman, African-Americans, individuals of sexual oppression and many others. She looked at these identities, though seemingly different and incompatible, as working together to form one unique identity that encompasses all of her complexities and fully embraces them. In her poem Martha, she eloquently came out as a lesbian through storytelling:

I need you need me

Je suis Martha I do not speak French kissing

oh Wow. Black and…Black and…beautiful?

Black and becoming

somebody else maybe Erica maybe who sat

in the fourth row behind us in high school

but I never took French with you Martha

and who is this Madame Erudite

who is not me?

And in her poem Coal she openly accepts and embraces her race and say it in a way that can be interpreted as uplifting

“I

Is the total black, being spoken

From the earth’s inside.

There are many kinds of open.

How a diamond comes into a knot of flame

How a sound comes into a word, coloured

By who pays what for speaking….

I am black because I come from the earth’s inside

Take my word for jewel in your open light”

Lorde’s perspectives on labels is quite the opposite to some people’s views of labels today. Over the course of the semester, especially during the history unit when looking at Walt Whitman labels were seen as something that is no longer important or of use. It seems that one of the main consensuses was that people are starting to move away from these labels and push them aside in order to define themselves. There is very much a “you do you” attitude amongst the younger generations. The common belief may be that labels put the individual into a box and restricts them from being the complex being that they are. This rejection or unwillingness to accept a label has been around for years, and a prime example of this lack of labeling is Walt Whitman. Within Whitman’s poetry he commonly alludes to relationships between individuals sometimes without giving them a gender and has described these intimate relationships between men but refers to them as “friend” or “comrade”.  In the Calamus Cluster several of Whitman’s poems describe these intimate relationships between two men. In the poems A Glimpse and This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful, Whitman develops and describes relationships between men that could be interpreted as much more than a simple friendship

“A GLIMPSE through an interstice caught,

Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the 

         stove late of a winter night, and I unremark’d seated in a
corner,

Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching
and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand,

A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drinking
and oath and smutty jest,

There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, 

 perhaps not a word. “

 

“THIS moment yearning and thoughtful sitting alone,

It seems to me there are other men in other lands yearning and
thoughtful,
 

It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany,
Italy, France, Spain,

Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or Japan, talking other
dialects,

And it seems to me if I could know those men I should become
attached to them as I do to men in my own lands,

O I know we should be brethren and lovers,

I know I should be happy with them.”

Even when questioned about his sexuality and his poems, Whitman denies and runs from full disclosure, while Lorde seemingly does the opposite. Lorde can be cited as saying “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”. While possibly in today’s standard these labels may be seen as confining and restricting, and that labels do nothing more than divide us and don’t explain how complex we are, Lorde would challenge otherwise. She wouldn’t look at the labels and think that she is being pushed into a box, she would look at these label and see a celebration and argue that we don’t have to pick just one aspect of ourselves to focus on or pick just one label to define ourselves. We are in control of how we define ourselves and these labels allow us to show our difference while also learning to live in harmony with the complexities within ourselves and other. Labels don’t have to be a source of confinement or a box; they can be whatever we want them to be.

“it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”

“The Electric Lady” by Janelle Monae

The Electric Lady is Janelle Monae’s second album, and it was released in early fall of 2013.  This follows her first album, The ArchAndroid. which was released in 2010.  Janelle Monae’s single “Q.U.E.E.N.” was featured on The Electric Lady. The lyrics and music video, as well as the album as a whole, feature a number of queer topics such as same-sex attraction, resisting labels, questioning religion, and challenging gender roles.

The Electric Lady fits in a queer archive because Janelle Monae embraces difference, an idea often associated with the queer community in numerous ways, including her album’s concept, lyrics, and music videos.  She as an artist is unafraid to take risks and address potentially taboo topics in her work.  Additionally, Monae speaks to a number of possible identities, including queerness, blackness, and womanhood.  The story of The Electric Lady is queer in itself.  Both it and The ArchAndroid depict a dystopian community in which there is a totalitarian government, humans are forced to wear cages on their heads, and everyone looks down on androids. Monae portrays the character of  a revolutionary android who actively resists the regime that is in power.  The androids could be compared to various societal minorities, including those with which Monae identifies.

“Q.U.E.E.N.” is a song that does not shy away from questioning our societal roles. Janelle Monae is well-known for this, and while she has not officially confirmed or denied any rumors about her sexuality, she is a great representation of queer ideals, saying “I won’t allow myself to be a slave to my own interpretation of myself nor the interpretations that people may have of me.” “Q.U.E.E.N.” itself has many lyrics that can be connected to queer thought, such as “Am I a freak because I love watching Mary?,” “Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven?,” and “Categorize me/I defy every label.” Also, Monae sports a multitude of styles in the music video which include aspects of masculinity and femininity, challenging gender norms. I wanted to feature this song because I believe Monae is one of the more progressive artists of our time. Her music constantly questions the labels and differences our society seems so focused on.

The ideas expressed by Janelle Monae’s music seem to align specifically with those of Monique Wittig. Monae resists the general norms set up by society, which is reminiscent of Wittig’s sentiment that “these discourses of heterosexuality oppress us in the sense that they prevent us from speaking unless we speak in their terms…these discourses deny us every possibility of creating our own categories.” This is echoed in Monae’s lyric; “categorize me I defy every label.”  She does not believe in the labelling that is so prevalent in both our culture and that of her dystopian fantasy world.  Monae resists the norms in both her appearance and her creative output, and her work should be cemented in this queer archive as an example of an artist who is not afraid to take risks.