How Audre Lorde taught me to love myself and my community
Because of the works of Audre Lorde, I have learned to love and trust those who reflect my image
By Cosima Smith
Audre Lorde is my personal heroine. I met her writing for the first time in my first year of university, and it has been a companion helping me work through my own internalized issues with my Blackness, my queerness, and my poorness ever since.
Lorde was the first reflection of myself I was able to see, really see, in an academic setting. Her poetry and prose are beautiful, but her academic essays speak to me in a way no other can. I feel I learn something new in every essay, whether I’m reading it for the first or the hundred-and-first time. It is, in large part, thanks to her that I have grown and matured out of many of the anti-Black sentiments instilled in me (and you) since the time of my birth, and the reason I have the courage to explore, exchange, and live as a queer, non-binary, Black human.
But, even more importantly, Lorde is at the root of my ability and willingness to form meaningful connections with other Black people, “academics” or otherwise, because she gave me the tools to see the roots of self-disdain I grew up internalizing.
I was raised in Farmville, Virginia, home to one of the longest standing white flight schools that remains open as a private institution today. Born to a Black father and a white mother, and raised by my mother’s family, anti-Blackness was served for breakfast, school lunch, and supper. I found myself as one of two Black students in the “talented-and-gifted” program deep into middle school, a constant and consistent line in the sand drawn between me and my Black peers by teachers and administration. I didn’t even recognize it at the time, but I had internalized and would continue to internalize these feelings of the inferiority of Blackness until I was outed in my freshman year of high school.
Once my queerness, then labeled homosexuality, was shared without my consent, the news spread like wildfire (to be fair, my graduating class was less than 200 people). Without a piece of myself to hide, I had a choice: I could either embrace who I am/was, ALL of me, or I could fall apart.
It wasn’t easy to make the right choice, or to live with that choice, but I am forever certain that my life changed for the better that day. This was not the day that I found Lorde, or found some secret to loving myself, but it was the day that I began that journey toward those things. The next four years of my life, both happiness and adversity prepared me to meet Lorde and her work with a thirst for understanding and an eagerness to learn.
In my first year at the University of Virginia I came into contact with Sister Outsider, a collection of Lorde’s essays. It is through this anthology that I came to realize it was necessary in my youth to recognize and internalize the hatred of my skin, gender, sex, sexuality in order to survive.
I understood intimately when she articulated that through living in this negative image of ourselves, we navigate the world without a sense of intimacy that has the power to make us vulnerable, the power to make us more wholly recognizable to ourselves and our kinfolk. This internalization is something that the hierarchy of societal worth necessitates, because it serves to uphold the status quo. Without these barriers keeping us from fully interacting with and loving our own kin, we would have a greater ability to support and care for one another, and thus a greater ability to work toward change for the multiplicities of Black womanness communally instead of working alone to protect ourselves and our livelihood in competition with one another.
To white supremacy it is necessary and vital that we are taught from birth that we are too dirty to touch, because we cannot be allowed to know one another in a way that is mutually beneficial.
Lorde gave me another chance, showing me what it means to live erotically. In Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, she explains the erotic as a well of knowledge and power that is tapped into when we are able to see, hear, feel our brothers and sisters fully and without judgement.
This is, quite obviously, no easy task; but it is necessary, and even vital if we wish to create lasting and impactful change. In so many areas, we have internalized the notion that fetishization of the modes of power is the key to happiness. We have been taught that in achieving greater alignment with tenants of power, we will achieve greater access to happiness–this is a base concept for proponents of respectability politics.
This misleading has served to condition humanity to work lives away in order to produce greater power and wealth for the ruling classes instead of connecting with those around us to work toward change for the many.
In rejecting these mandates to isolate and alienate our kinfolk, we are rejecting the ideas that we have been told we must believe: the ideas that we are subpar, valueless, not worthy of loving and being loved. There is a power in telling each other that we are beautiful and worthy. Repetition has meaning; repetition is the ability to convince ourselves of new truths, the ability to deviate from the internalized degradations we hold as standards and undeniable truths for ourselves and those closest to us.
If we can manage to make this change in our own thinking, we serve to begin the snowball effect affecting this change in our sisters and brothers around us.
Even within my own household, I have been amazed to see the difference in my relationship with my sisters since I began working to change my thought patterns. In recognizing that those around us are beautiful, we begin to recognize that we, ourselves, are also beautiful. Similarly, in pointing out that those around us are beautiful, we awaken in them the realization that they can be and are loved, worthy, wholly acceptable and admirable, capable. In this exchange, we can begin to serve as support for one another, as friends and mentors, teachers, lovers, instead of enemies. We can begin to trust and care for one another in ways we may once have believed to be impossible.
Because of the works of Audre Lorde, I have learned to love and trust those who reflect my image most closely instead of shunning them or placing them under the weight of outrageous and harmful expectations. This shift has been found in my work, academic and otherwise, my organizing, my friendships, and even in the most minute areas of my life. I have seen that I am more willing and able to engage with my kinfolk and skinfolk, not shying away from difference in opinions or the difficult but necessary conversations.
I am no longer afraid to share and love who I am, meaning I am no longer afraid to accept others as they are. With the power of the erotic, the power of connection, I no longer feel the need to hide my emotional sides. I know that there are people who love me, truly love me. I know that those people are on my side, and on my team and fighting for me in the same ways I am fighting for them. Now, my anger does not need meet my sisters, my rage does not need my brother’s face. In realizing connection, we give ourselves the power to fight together instead of against one another. And this, this is the greatest gift a teacher could give us in the world in which we live.
Cosima Smith is a freelance writer, yoga teacher, and photographer (and polyglot!) from Keysville, Virginia. The degree they received in Gender and Sexuality Studies from the University of Virginia has pushed them to further explore notions of intimacy, the body, sex and sex work, and cultural/religious/linguistic representations of the gender and sexual spectrums.
Find them on twitter @CosimaCreates/@Cosimatyke and Instagram @a.misoc