Power of Black Feminism in the Face of White Patriarchy

***Trigger warning: mention of rape***

Audre Lorde was a prominent contributor to the growth of black feminism. As a black, lesbian, feminist poet, Lorde exposed the uncomfortable truths of how these identities are treated within society. Lorde, “as a Black, queer woman in white academia—went on to inform her life and work” through her “personal experiences” (poetry foundation.org). Lorde’s essay collection  Sister Outsider displays her “contributions to feminist theory, critical race studies, and queer theory” as it confronts injustices related to age, class, race, sex, the concept of silence, anger, intersectionality, and the usefulness of poetry for cultivating understandings with one another. Similarly to how Lorde critiques the ways white patriarchy condemns poetry, blackness, and feminism, a contemporary performance artist and slam poet named Ebony Stewart critiques the same topics.

Ebony Stewart’s work “speaks to the black experience, with emphasis on gender, sexuality, womanhood, and race, with the hopes to be relatable, remove shame, heal minds, encourage dialogue, and inspire folks in marginalized communities” (ebpoetry.com). In her spoken word performance “Compassion Fatigue”, Stewart draws attention to the way marginalized peoples are affected by white patriarchy. In tandem with Lorde’s ideas concerning poetry, blackness, and feminism, the viewpoints discussed by Stewart no longer seem like a one off experience but rather a comprehensive conversation necessary to eliminate the gap between the marginalized and those who are not. Considered together, the work of Audre Lorde and Ebony Stewart demonstrates how black feminists utilize poetry and performance art to criticize white patriarchy.

In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins argues that the birth of black feminism stems from the need to escape, survive, or oppose oppression. She claims that black feminists bred social theory “emerging from and/or on behalf of U.S. Black women and other historically oppressed groups aim to find ways to escape from, survive in, and/or oppose prevailing social and economic injustice” (Collins, 9). Aside from typical theory within academia, black feminism extends through “poetry, music, essays, and the like” (Collins, 9). Lorde enveloped black feminist theories and experiences within her poetry which resisted “the negative controlling images of Black womanhood advanced by Whites as well as the discriminatory social practices that these controlling images supported (Collins, 10). Both Lorde and Stewart tackled these oppressive practices and images within their work yet Stewart released “Compassion Fatigue” 25 years after Lorde’s death. If the topics discussed by both women are paralleled over two decades apart, it becomes difficult to find black feminism a singular experience. Through examining both Lorde and Stewart, black feminism within poetry and performance art becomes a story of marginalized peoples rather than an easily dismissed singular experience.

As a poet and theorist, Lorde rejected the dismissal of poetry in favor of theory typically found within white academia and highlights this within her book of essays Sister Outsider. Within the introduction to Sister Outsider, Nancy K. Bereano describes how the “white western patriarchal ordering of things” enforces a separation between “what we feel and what we think — between poetry and theory” (8). This means that poetry, within the binary of theory over poetry, is seen as lesser and unnecessary because it is based on feelings rather than logic. She elaborates that both the binary and separation allow people to be easier to control “when one part of ourselves is split from another, fragmented, off balance” (Lorde, 8). Lorde, however, dissolves this separation between  and feminist, race, and queer theory. Lorde has a “need to encompass and address all the parts of herself,” which enables her to understand “the significance of difference – ‘that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged’” (Lorde, 8). Comprehending the difference, which includes race, gender and sexuality differences she speaks on within her work, means that Lorde sees poetry through multiple facets and can acknowledge its power even though these differences along with poetry are often dismissed by white patriarchy. Lorde knew that “the white fathers distorted the word poetry” by devaluing the insight it brings to audiences, allowing the audience to dismiss the messages being relayed to them and thus, only receiving their information from ‘the white fathers’ (Lorde, 37). Lorde continues:

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. (Lorde, 37) 

She insists that poetry is a necessity through which the intangible oppressions of people become tangible conversation about their experiences. Poetry, then, is “vital… toward survival” for the marginalized (Lorde, 37).

Stewart also emphasizes the need for acknowledging differences within “Compassion Fatigue.” This three minute spoken word tackles a YouTube comment written by a white woman who is tired of American poems being about race and rape. Stewart breaks down how both race and rape are as American as it comes- the country was founded off of racism and perpetuates rape culture. Stewart questions the white, western patriarchal view of “the white woman whose YouTube comment said she is tired of every other American poem being about race or rape” (Stewart, 00:07- 00:15). Stewart frames the poem on the basis that exhaustion on behalf of the poet far outweighs the ignorant exhaustion of the white woman. To tamper the passion and concern Stewart holds over rape and race ends only in her exhaustion. This exhaustion is due to the poet’s duty to continue the rehash of the effects of the oppression that accompanies race and rape culture in order to bring awareness to these issues.  “Compassion Fatigue” displays how the woman in question aids the patriarchy in undermining gender, race, and rape culture because she doesn’t want to hear about it anymore. To ignore those issues means that the patriarchy has an ally that actively silences the people that are marginalized. This dismissal aligns with Lorde’s discussion of poetry distortion as a beneficial service only to the patriarchy (Lorde, 37).

Lorde discusses how oppression is “as American as apple pie” and that being a woman alone is enough to be shunned by the patriarchy and that no single action will allow women to live within it comfortably.  In the essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Lorde criticizes delusional white feminists who believe their whiteness protects them from sexism. That illusion consists of white women believing, “the dangerous fantasy that if you are good enough, pretty enough, sweet enough, quiet enough, teach the children to behave, hate the right people, and marry the right men, then you will be allowed to co-exist with patriarchy in relative peace, at least until a man needs your job or the neighborhood rapist happens along” (Lorde, 119). Here, Lorde deconstructs the false concept that compliance serves as protection. The most important concept is that the patriarchy alone decides when your compliance is no longer enough and will use sexism and rape culture against you- whether you are their ally or not.

Through Stewart’s spoken word, she states that “there are all kinds of women who have been raped” and further deconstructs the protective compliance Lorde spoke of (Stewart, 1:06-1:10). Not only are all women susceptible to sexism and the rape culture bred from it but many of the victims “got their healing from the poems you are tired of hearing”(Stewart, 1:24-1:28). If the staple of American white western patriarchy consists of the oppression of women, then the woman tired of these stories helps rapists have “control and a silenced victim” (Stewart, 00:45-00:48). Whether or not the unnamed white woman was taught “how not to be the oppressor” or maybe “no one taught you [the white woman] how not to be oppressed”, she contributes to the marginalization of women through dismissal of rape victims and thus maintains rape cultures. The white woman has ignored her privilege and thus centralizes her understanding of all women along with this whiteness. By centralizing all experiences as white, she ignores how other races are violently battered by standards maintained by whiteness. Lorde and Stewart openly discuss how the intersectional combination of womanhood, and blackness, are often depicted negatively by white patriarchy in order to provide a ‘reason’ to diminish their experiences.

Race defines many minorities in America as stereotypes or profiling are often followed by racial violence and therefore, as black women, Lorde and Stewart cannot ignore this. Lorde touches upon how black lives are “stitched with violence and with hatred… For us, increasingly, violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living – in the supermarket, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us” and this makes it difficult to ignore race in the same way a non-racialized body would be able to (Lorde, 119). Lorde states that white women are afraid their sons will join the patriarchy, wholly ignoring the intersectional aspects of the reason black sons are killed. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined “the term “intersectionality” to deal with the fact that many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice” (Crenshaw, 04:45). With intersectionality it becomes clearer that womanhood and blackness coincide as disadvantageous in white patriarchy. Lorde calls out these white women who “turn… backs upon the reasons they are dying” because racial discrimination is outside of the scope of white feminism (Lorde, 9). Stewart also calls out the inability as a black woman poet to ignore race as she has repeatedly seen the death of black people on social media. She explains the fear held by black mothers about their children not coming home but are instead targeted for their skin color as she says black mothers are “saying “stay alive, come back to me whole, in one piece”? And not a hashtag or another dead niggas death she’ll have to watch on repeat” (Stewart, 02:04-02:14). This is where black women are entirely removed from white feminism, which is wholly unsupportive of intersectionality.

The war between poetry and patriarchy that the unnamed white woman had aligned herself with displays how black and feminism are unable to be understood as coaligned, being that the media attempts to steer her away from it. Through spoken word, books, or essays, poets like Stewart and Lorde continue to unveil the uncomfortable truths surrounding the clash of white bodies against black feminism through dismissiveness maintained by white patriarchy.

Works Cited

“Audre Lorde.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/audre-lorde.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 10th ed., Routledge, 2000.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “The Urgency of Intersectionality.” TED, 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality?language=en

Lorde, Audre. “Sister Outsider.” https://www.feministes-radicales.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Audre-LORDE-Zami-A-New-Spelling-of-My-Name…-Sister-Outsider…-Undersong-Chosen-Poems-Old-and-New.pdf.

Stewart, Ebony. “Compassion Fatigue.” YouTube, uploaded by Poetry Slam Inc., 4 April 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5Z3gc9p6DY.

—. “Ebony Stewart.” AudioTheme, www.ebpoetry.com/.

2 Replies to “Power of Black Feminism in the Face of White Patriarchy”

  1. Hi Savannah,
    As with everything and anything I have heard you say and write your personal experiences and passion shines through. Your blog effectively weaves together your thesis with Stewart’s spoken word into Lorde’s work. I loved all your connections and I think you have done amazing work. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Hi Savannah! You did an amazing job with this blog post and I absolutely loved the poetry slam in the beginning, it is very powerful. It really helps set you up for discussion of Lorde and her experiences with oppression being a black, lesbian, and feminist. The idea about poetry she creates is that the words come from the heart and soul and gives us as well as others the hope we need t survive in the world of oppression and discrimination. It also was interested in the fact that you focused on such a hard topic of rape. This is something many people may not feel comfortable talking or reading about, but that is why it is so much more important that you were able to use it to describe a true impact of black feminism on white patriarchy.

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