I am struck by how Audre Lorde strips away all pretenses to lay bare her vulnerabilities and hence, her humanity—in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. She conveys her feelings in their full momentary intensity in ways that leave me envisioning every episode with myself as the narrator. Paying homage to the friends and strangers who have shaped her identity in the opening pages of her stories, she describes the night a desperate white girl, presumably a victim of domestic violence, turned down her help upon seeing her black face. But the incident itself does not jolt me so much as Lorde’s confession that “In the rearview mirror I saw the substance of her nightmare catch up with her at the corner—leather jack and boots, male and white. I drove on, knowing she would probably die stupid” (5). This visceral reaction to such a blatant expression of racism is exceedingly realistic. I can only imagine myself, in the same situation, giving in to similar passionate frustration if my genuine desire to alleviate the suffering of a fellow sister is thus spurned.
Lorde’s recounting of the class president election in middle school exemplifies what I find to be a unique characteristic of her writing: the gradual, subtle revelation of her own misgivings and faults that render her work all the more personable. She very frankly concedes that she resorted to stealing as a coping strategy for the circumstances she was in, recognizing that “The only way I could get attention from my classmates in the sixth grade was by having money, and thanks to carefully planned forays into my father’s pants pockets every night that week, I made sure I had plenty” (61). After all, it is only her stolen bounty that secures her a nomination. Meanwhile, Lorde makes sure to contextualize her actions as rational response to the demeaning environment in which she had to learn. She records in explicit detail the racism at St. Mark’s School that was “unadorned, unexcused, and particularly painful because I was unprepared for it” (59). As I read about the repeated microaggressions the young Audre Lorde had to endure, I necessarily begin to disregard her “immoral” decision to steal and value instead her audacity to run for class president and conceive a different future.
Lorde recalls her sexual awakening and physical coming-of-age with excruciating language that encapsulates her call for the integration of the spiritual and the political in “Uses of the Erotic as Power”. As she pounds garlic with mortar after her first menstruation, she feels “a vital connection seemed to establish itself between the muscles of my fingers…and the molten core of my body whose source emanated from a new ripe fullness just below the pit of my stomach” (78). The intensity of feeling in this passage—of a young girl in shock and wonder at her sexuality—defines the essence of harnessing the erotic as positive power. Lorde’s passing to womanhood is clearly an affirmative personal experience. Her sexuality is empowering because in between her hips was “a tiding ocean of blood beginning to be made real and available to me for strength and information” (78). Lorde appeals women to (re)claim the erotic for it “offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough”. Her acute, burgeoning understanding of physicality and womanhood provides a compelling illustration of the potential for fulfillment untapped in every body. Like she exhorts all women to do, Lorde does not censor her innermost desires and trusts instead her instinct to reach deep within herself to find the most transcendent form of gratification.
It was immensely difficult sifting through the homophobia and sexism in Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice that obscure his profound observations about the dynamics of blackness and masculinity. That Cleaver equated the dismantling of racism with the assertion of manhood bothers me deeply and raises critical questions concerning the legacy of the Black Panther Party. His unabashed confession in the opening pages of the memoir—“I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out by practicing on black girls in the ghetto…and when I considered myself smooth enough, I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey”—sends chills down my spine (33). Women are categorically objectified as disposable tools that allow him to achieve self-revelation and fulfillment. I object to Cleaver’s arguments that place the redemption of black manhood at the forefront of anti-racist struggles in ways that neglect or hurt women of color.
But nor can I dismiss the racialized anguish and frustration from which his behavior springs. If Cleaver’s insights into the black American male psyche are challenging to take, it is likely because they cut so acutely to our darkest fears and emotions. Cleaver explains black men’s attraction to white women with searing language uncomfortable to hear: “His motivation is often of such a bloody, hateful, bitter, and malignant nature that whites would really be hard-pressed to find it flattering” (36). However, Cleaver proceeds to justify his conclusions with sharp commentary about internalized racism, subordination, and white-dictated norms for beauty. Moreover, his thoughts toward the end of memoir suggest a personal transformation from misogynistic rapist to movement activist whose prison inflections had freed his consciousness from the grip of white supremacy. His letters to Beverly Axelrod display an incredible amount of admiration and respect for her as an individual. What conveys even more hope is his passionate message to all black women, on behalf of black men. Cleaver acknowledges the wrongs committed by black males bent on (re)claiming manhood, whose sense of self-worth had been destroyed by four hundred years of living in an overwhelming racist society. But now that this reality has been illuminated, “It is to be pondered and realized in the heart, for the heel of the white man’s boot is our point of departure, our point of Resolve and Return—the bloodstained pivot of our future” (237). A kinder interpretation sees Cleaver offering hope that with black men coming to understand the terms of their own oppression, they will also recognize the perverted roots of their affection for white women and begin to appreciate the black women in their lives.
I also find Cleaver’s optimistic reflections on multiracial solidarity remarkably perceptive. He writes approvingly of the 1960s generation of rebellious white youth: “There is in America today a generation of white youth worthy of a black man’s respect…It was certainly strange to find myself…commanded by the heart to applaud and acknowledge respect for these young whites” (107). But if even Cleaver—so intensely scarred by the pervasive racism he sees—anticipated at the time reconciliation between black and white, why did the left remain so fragmented between white and activists of color? The development of the white New Left, with the Students for Democratic Society and the Port Huron Statement, unfolded almost independently of the Third World Liberation Front and other people of color movements on the West Coast. Cleaver’s hopes for racial solidarity as a Black Panther leader hence leaves significant questions unanswered about movement-building, the left, and the times.