Audre Lorde / On Personal Identity and Community

"The important message seemed to be that you had to have a place. Whether or not it did justice to whatever you felt you were about, there had to be some place to refuel and check your flaps. In times of need and great instability, the place sometimes became more of a definition than the substance of why you needed it to begin with. Sometimes the retreat became the reality. The writers who posed in cafes talking their work to death without writing two words; the lesbians, virile as men, hating women and their own womanhood with a vengeance. The bars and the coffee-shops and the streets of the Village in the 1950s were full of non-conformists who were deathly afraid of going against their hard-won group, and so eventually they were broken between the group and their individual needs."
~Audre Lorde, "Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name" (p.225)

Another brilliant observational piece of wisdom from Audre Lorde. Again, even outside of the original context of same-gender relationships, Lorde's observations on human community are extremely accurate and relevant. Lorde also reaffirms here what I was feeling recently about Pan Africanism and notions of cultural, tribal, political and national unity (link).

And the fork in the road that occurs among brothers and sisters, where some inevitably take the wrong fork because the Maroon community (link) we build on this land just seems to never be efficient enough to help us all. Lorde touches on it at the end of this passage, so precisely and clear, reminding me of my father's stories about his own growth into manhood and him seeing his black male brothers fall to the wayside, and me sensing underneath it all a wish that their community could have somehow been stronger (link).

The rest of the passage is below, after the continued:

Unfortunately there are moments where you have to choose between your own integrity (according to YOUR individual/local values) or the survival of the larger group, which sometimes requires the sacrifice or compromising of your individual values. Sometimes compromise can be made without much stress. But other times -- like when my pops walked out of a local Black Panther meeting because they were discussing a strategy for robbing white folks' homes and stealing their guns -- the group isn't worth sacrificing your values for. Sometimes it is. What's deep about all this is that moment, that fork, that line in the sand, etc. is a call only you can make as an individual, according to who you know yourself to be and what that self values most in life.

Community formed on a foundation of individuals who don't know themselves can never be healthy or sustainable. The required compromises that it's going to take to sustain any group of people, MUST be built on honesty, and that honestly can only exist when a person actually knows himself enough to know when he is being honest with himself. Sounds simple. But it's shocking to learn, through the experiences of my elders, how many of us -- infected with this post-traumatic disease of identity loss, of loosing self -- can't make an honest compromise, not because we are stubborn (even though it appears that way on the surface), rather, we don't know ourselves enough to know when we are compromising something inside of us. Perhaps that, if anything, is one of the greatest losses we've taken as a people, as Africans in America. And I think it has to be one of our greatest "wartime priorities", as we are forced to fight every day to win back, preserve and defend our humanity.

The rest of the passage is below:

"For some of us there was no one particular place, and we grabbed whatever we could from wherever we found space, comfort, quiet, a smile, non-judgment.

Being women together was not enough. We were different. Being gay-girls together was not enough. We were different. Being Black together was not enough. We were different. Being Black women together was not enough. We were different. Being Black dykes together was not enough. We were different.

Each of us had our own needs and pursuits, and many different alliances. Self-preservation warned some of us that we could not afford to settle for one easy definition, one narrow individuation of self. At the Bag, at Hunter College, uptown in Harlem, at the library, there was a piece of the real me bound in each place, and growing.

It was a while before we came to realize that our place was the very house of difference rather the security of any one particular difference. (And often, we were cowards in our learning.) It was years before we learned to use the strength that daily surviving can bring, years before we learned fear does not have to incapacitate, and that we could appreciate each other on terms not necessarily our own.

The Black gay-girls in the Village gay bars of the fifties knew each other's names, but we seldom looked into each other's Black eyes, lest we see our own aloneness and our own blunted power mirrored in the pursuit of darkness. Some of us died inside the gaps between the mirrors and those turned-away eyes.

Sistah outsiders. Didi and Tommy and Muff and Iris and Lion and Trip and Audre and Diane and Felicia and Bernie and Addie.

Addie was Mari Evans beautiful, a wasted sister-soul. Driven as we all were driven, she found ways out that were still alien to some of the rest of us -- harsher, less hidden.

That Sunday afternoon while Muriel and I waited for Flee and our photography lesson, Addie was turning Flee onto smack for the first time in a borrowed apartment across Second Avenue."
~Audre Lorde, "Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name" (p.225-226)

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