- Audre Lorde, Presente!
At the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women held at Mount Holyoke College in August 1978 I heard Audre Lorde read her essay, "Uses of the Erotic, the Erotic as Power." The experience transformed my life. It wasn't the essay alone. It was Audre Lorde's presence, the quality of her voice, the clarity of sound, her thoughts propelled with such precision and confidence. It was also the story of how the panel got to happen and the audience response to it.
There were three participants. They had titled their session "Lesbians and Power." The program committee at the Berks unilaterally changed the title to something innocuous, deleting the word "lesbian," and scheduled it in a small room. Audre Lorde and her co-panelists were outraged. They printed a flyer (this is in the day before cell phones, computers, and email), reclaimed the word "lesbian" in their title, and secured the largest auditorium on the campus.
Two thousand women came. We listened with rapt attention. At the end of each paper there was robust applause. Then the floor was opened for discussion. A woman rose and told the story of the panel's titled obscurity and near demise. She asked if all the lesbians in the room would please stand. Almost the entire audience rose.
In August 1978 I had only recently separated from my husband, and while we had joint custody of our two young children, they lived with me. I had been struggling to come out for years, trying to overcome the terror induced by near-constant FBI and police surveillance because I was a member of the U.S. Communist Party and because I was a prominent activist in movements for civil rights, peace, and social justice. I also had [End Page 289] been physically brutalized. I remained seated in that moment, too frightened to stand. It occurred to me that the few other women still sitting may well have also been closeted lesbians!
However, I understood the politics of solidarity. I knew that those two thousand women were not all lesbians; and I knew that Audre Lorde and her sister organizers had presented me with a miraculous moment. One year and two months later I met the love of my life, and gradually over the next several years I came out to more and more people, until I was finally able to join my two other fully "out" colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1983. By then I had left the Communist Party. I am immensely grateful to my students and a broad spectrum of faculty and staff for their warm support and encouragement and as grateful for the unconditional love of my partner. Still, the pivotal moment of consciousness-raising, as we used to call it, was with Audre Lorde at that panel at the Berks.
Later I wrote to Audre and asked her to send me a copy of the paper on the erotic. She did, along with a note of immense kindness. When I began teaching an introduction to feminism course at the UCSC in the winter of 1980 that essay was on my syllabus as required reading. After Lorde's book Sister/Outsider was published in 1984 I used it as a text, adding "Poetry Is Not A Luxury" and "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" as essential course readings. I taught that class through the fall of 2008, also sometimes reading selections from Lorde's poetry aloud to my students. The students loved her writing.
I taught my introductory course from a multiracial, multicultural, and, later, transnational perspective. It was explicitly antiracist. It adopted an intersectional analysis of gender, race, class, and sexuality, using the Combahee River Collectives Statement as its bellwether text, and later incorporating the work of Kimberlee Crenshaw. The course embraced lesbian and gay sensibilities, again expanding and incorporating queer and trans-gender perspectives as these issues emerged. It was interdisciplinary, with a range of perspectives from the humanities and social sciences and with occasional forays into the sciences, using the work of Donna Haraway, for example, or the story of the Nobel Prize...