When I was a second year graduate student a friend of mine, Deborah Rossum, gave me a copy of Audre Lorde’s Sister/Outsider. This was in Chicago in the early 1980s; she was black, I was white; we were both pursuing Ph.D.s and battling institutional resistance to the project of women’s history, although in very different ways. It is not too much to say that this was a book that changed my life—in part because Deb not only gave it to me, but also insisted that I engage with it as a condition of our friendship, intellectual and otherwise. Lorde asks hard questions. Indeed, even after her death, her words require us to learn to love the questions themselves, especially when they seem designed to wreck everything we think we know. Her determination to name racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism terrified me because it implicated me and yet demanded that I refuse white liberal guilt, which was, admittedly, my first, well-practiced reflex. “The Uses of Anger,” “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” and “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” are essays that continue to offer crucial lessons for me about the fact of structural inequality and the necessity of taking up all kinds of political struggle as part of one’s feminist work in the world. These pieces have also become critical teaching tools in my women’s studies classrooms, despite the fact that Lorde’s anger remains difficult for students to confront—and, of course, because of the very usefulness of that confrontation. Sister/Outsider looks increasingly to me now as a product of a certain historical moment in feminism, one that is, perhaps, passing or passed. I often wonder what she would make of how feminism, queer studies, and other interdisciplinary enterprises have been institutionalized at century’s end. And, equally, what would she think of the state of our commitment to making academic study answer difficult questions about social justice and the global redistribution of wealth—questions that we must continue to ask on the threshold of the twenty-first century?
Over the past year, I have been making my way through the essays in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, edited by M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. In their sophisticated, deeply principled, and frankly utopian introduction, Alexander and Mohanty dare to reclaim the idea of democracy for feminism, in part because they refuse the privilege of giving up on a flawed political idea. Their posture reminds me of bell hooks’s position on the power of Paolo Freire’s writings about pedagogy: she embraces them even though they do not attend explicitly to issues of feminism or race politics—because when you are thirsty, you are willing to drink water with rocks in it. At the risk of mixing metaphors, Alexander and Mohanty have the same hunger for social and political transformation that Lorde had the courage to make the subject of both her poetry and prose. Their vision of democratic practice is not confined to the recognizable domains of public/private, East/West, or First/Third worlds. Cognizant of the historically hegemonic forms of power that continue to shape colonial and postcolonial experience, they are determined to track women’s movements and feminist solidarities across cultures, in defiance of global capital and its often homogenizing reach. Together with the various contributors to the volume, Alexander and Mohanty offer diagnoses and prognoses, and, in doing so, insist on a recognition of the material conditions that shape, without fully determining, people’s lives. In this sense, they do more than acknowledge the historicity of the present: they compel us to ask what use we will make of our knowledge of the past in order to imagine the possibilities of the future. That call to accountability—with its fundamental hopefulness—is one Audre Lorde would recognize, I think, as a charge that contemporary feminists can and should take with them from one millennium to the next.———Antoinette Burton
Carroll Smith-Rosenberg wrote an essay review about women’s history for Feminist Studies. She said we needed a history of the nursery and the bedroom as well as...