Year of Our (Audre) Lorde: November’s Sister Love

Year of Our (Audre) Lorde is a monthly analysis of works by queen mother Audre Lorde as they apply to our current political moment. In the spirit of relying on ancestral wisdom, centering QTPOC voices, wellness, and just generally leveling up, we believe that the Lorde has already gifted us with the tools we need for our survival.

As much as I love reading Audre Lorde’s brilliance on its own, it’s an entirely different experience to read her in conversation with someone else. In some ways it helps to put Lorde in context as a more revealing look at who she’s dialoguing and thinking with, it gives an immediacy to her writing.

This month I’ve been reading her letters with Pat Parker in Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974-1989. A birthday gift from my partner, I approached the letters as a welcome reprieve from the stress of the election and the renewed surges in Covid cases across the country. The letters between the two poets are funny, frank, and intimate above all else.

Their relationship is a testament to the enduring and life-affirming power of queer kinship. The correspondence spans 16 years, the ongoing resistance against Apartheid in South Africa, turbulent US politics at home and abroad, and the emergence of the AIDS crisis. The political and social climate they endured eerily aligns with the same genre of issues that have defined this year in particular, with the specific precarity of Black queer lives at the forefront.

This hilarious interlude from one of Pat Parker’s letters is one of my favorites, an explanation of sorts for her delay in responding to Lorde:

“Once upon a time there was this woman named Audre and she met this woman named Pat And she faithfully wrote her a letter. And for a long time she waited, but there was no answer. So Audre who knew that Pat lived in the land of the poet-killers assumed that her friend must be dead: for she knew that that was the only reason Pat hadn’t answered her letter. She knew that Pat wasn’t one of those ‘lazy n***.’ And one day out of the great smoggy blue a letter came and lo and behold it was from Pat and Audre rejoiced, for she knew that her friend wasn’t dead, but alas she had to admit and realized that her friend was indeed a ‘lazy n***.’ And the moral of this dyke tale, children, is that Pat Parker is alive and well but just a little more crazier.”

During the period of this collection of letters, both Lorde and Parker were diagnosed with breast cancer that went on to claim both of their lives — Pat Parker in 1989 and Audre Lorde in 1992. Yet even as they faced their own mortality, both encouraged the other and found moments of humor and triumph. In a 1986 letter, Lorde proudly informed Parker:

“Health wise I’m hanging in, gained 10 pounds which makes me feel really good (I was not born to be insubstantial and that’s how I was feeling last Feb when I saw you).”

Parker playfully responds, praising Lorde’s weight gain and saying she appeared “flat out skinny” and that Parker was ready to break out “chitterlings and hog maws” to help her regain weight. Yet the humor doesn’t mask Parker’s concerns and theories about her own diagnosis, as she speculates her anger, and primarily anger at their shared forms of oppression, led to her cancer:

“Why am I angry? Who am I angry at? And what can I do to change it? […] From the monumental thought of overthrowing the system and ridding my life of capitalism, racism, sexism, classism, to the smalles nuisance of getting Marty [Pat Parker’s partner] to put the toilet paper on the spool with the sheets unfolding outward, there is simply too much for me to handle. […] Sister love, sister love, sister love. We are not talking anything simple or easy here.”

Through it all, their enduring love attests to the power and beauty of Black queer sisterhood.

In particular, Lorde is attentive to her needs in a way that feels especially present as we move our actions back indoors, burrowing into colder weather and, arguably, an even more present sense of the increasing risk of Covid as cases rise to the worst numbers we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic. And while I’m leery of easy metaphors and making each moment a teachable one — I do think there’s a resonance between this season, this time we’re living in, and the attention that must be paid to what our inner selves for our collective survival.

Parker and Lorde’s relationship is like a mapping from inside out, directing us on how to build a life based on principles, writing the narratives you need to see out in the world and also radical love, vulnerability, and community as what makes it all possible. Sister Love is a window into a bygone era of coalitional politics that’s all too easy to romanticize in such a way that obscures the incredible amount of work it took to sustain their efforts. But it was without a doubt the best kind of work, with both Lorde and Parker mentioning organizations like Gente Latina de Ambiente and bygone lesbian/feminist publications such as Amazon Quarterly and off our backs. And while economic struggles were also discussed, it’s in the spirit of sharing resources. Lorde, as the older, more established poet, regularly tried to get Parker published in a journal or scheduled to perform at an event. She would also tuck bills into her letters for Parker. They both made sure to mention and promote the other and their work whenever possible, understanding that a spirit of competitiveness would never serve their shared cause of queer freedom and prosperity. Lorde laid it out explicitly:

“I have always loved you, Pat, and wanted for you those things you wanted deeply for yourself. Do not think me presumptuous—from the first time I met you in 1970 I knew that included your writing. I applaud your decision [to quit her job and write full-time]. I support you with my whole heart and extend myself to you in whatever way I can make this more possible for you. I hope you know by now that I call your name whenever I can and will continue to do so.”

Their sameness and shared sense of Black, lesbian identities reflected their most intimate selves, the fiery personalities and poetry both came to be known for. Their relationship teetered with multiple combustible elements, and what I love is seeing how they address whatever tensions arise head on, making it plain how much they loved and needed the other. One of Lorde’s letters speaks to this tension and this need with beautiful clarity:

“When I did not receive an answer to my letter last spring, I took a long and painful look at the 15 years we have known each other and decided that I had to accept the fact that we would never have the openness of friendship I always thought could be possible being the two strong Black women we are, with all our differences and sameness. Then your card came from Nairobi, and I thought once again maybe when I’m out there next spring Pat and I will sit down once and for all and look at why we were not more available to each other all these years.”

The balance Lorde strikes between love, candor, and vulnerability genuinely startles me; how much more “real” would our relationships be if we were able to state what we desire from the other in utter vulnerability?

It has felt hard to state how much I’ve been missing my family lately — both originary and chosen. For weeks now I’ve semiconsciously opted to power through, convincing myself that the experience of the sudden lockdown this spring had prepared me for the sharp wave of loneliness that’s appeared. But in reading Sister Love I came across a necessary reminder that it’s in articulating what we’re feeling that we’re able to name our pain and reclaim ourselves from it. Parker’s words perfectly capture this realization:

“Started seeing a therapist with Marty and individually and it’s proved to be quite helpful despite my resistance. It’s hard for us strong Black women types to admit we’re fucking falling apart at the seams as you must well know.”

Ultimately, what I appreciate more than anything is how Lorde and Parker illustrate the importance of never losing sight of our work as artists and creators, what we put into the world, nor losing sight of each other. At each turn, they encouraged each other to speak her truth and the importance that each woman’s work carried.

In a particularly loving exchange where Lorde affirms Parker’s recent decision to quit her job and write full time, Audre Lorde gifts her with a timely message that speaks to the need to hold steady — and guard fiercely — the shared space inside ourselves as the place where we can live and flourish:

“Things you must beware of right now–
A year seems like a lot of time now at this end—it isn’t.
It took me three years to reclaim my full flow. Don’t lose your sense of urgency on the one hand, on the other, don’t be too hard on yourself—or expect too much.
Beware the terror of not producing.
Beware the urge to justify your decision.
Watch out for the kitchen sink and the plumbing and that painting that always needed being done. But remember the body needs to create too.
Beware feeling you’re not good enough to deserve it
Beware feeling you’re too good to need it
Beware all the hatred you’ve stored up inside you, and the locks on your tender places.”

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Jehan is a writer, artist, and editor basking in all things Black and queer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apogee, VICE, Public Books, Teachers & Writers Magazine, and Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory where she is an editor. She currently lives in Harlem but remains in a committed LDR with Brooklyn.

Jehan has written 18 articles for us.


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