Let me begin by juxtaposing Audre Lorde with another Black revolutionary whose nationalist investments have been misunderstood and repressed. In “On National Culture,” Frantz Fanon reflects that
"Humanity, some say, has got past the stage of nationalist claims. The time has come to build larger political unions, and consequently the old-fashioned nationalists should correct their mistakes. We believe on the contrary that the mistake, heavy with consequences, would be to miss out on the national stage. If culture is the expression of the national consciousness, I shall have no hesitation in saying, in the case in point, that national consciousness is the highest form of culture."
I would guess that many readers familiar with Lorde would contrast her feminist diasporic politics of difference with Fanon’s anticolonial nationalism. Indeed, they might position Lorde with those who believe that “humanity . . .has got past the stage of nationalist claims.” This latter assumption drives much Black and Third World feminist scholarship, which contends that nationalism, with its investments in heteropatriarchy, homogeneity, normativity, and territory, can no longer be seen as liberatory, especially for women of color.
Postmodern subject of Third World feminism, according to Inderpal Grewal, is a heterogeneous and inclusive one that “provides a constant critique of nationalist and even insurgent agendas.” Revolutionary nationalism’s political failures are traced to the corruption of neocolonial elites who follow the bidding of First World governments and transnational corporations; the inability of Third World nations to establish democratic, equitable societies; the adoption of Enlightenment and colonial ideologies and their constitutive sexism and heteronormativity; and the increasingly complex movements of people, ideas, and capital with little regard for national borders.
As post-nationalist theorists of race, gender, and sexuality formulate alternatives to nationalist thought, they often cite Lorde to support their claims, and their work indelibly shapes how she is read: the essentialism and normativity that afflict nationalism are exposed, criticized, and replaced by her embrace of multiple and simultaneous differences as a Black lesbian socialist feminist with transnational commitments.
Lorde’s work represents a path beyond national struggle whereby she locates liberation in the erotic, the body, and the act of “working through a discourse of difference to build coalitions and communities with others.” Post-nationalist critics validate their readings of Lorde by focusing on her cultural and spiritual ties to Africa rather than her political ones. is approach draws on selective discussions of Zami, the poems in e Black Unicorn, and certain essays from Sister Outsider such as “ The Uses of the Erotic.”
In particular, Lorde’s “bio-mythography,” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, lends itself to postmodern feminist analyses of hybridity and boundary crossings. “Zami,” the “Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers,” has come to exemplify a Black lesbian feminist subjectivity that is diasporic as well as post-nationalist. Yet Zami is only one moment (albeit a clearly important one) within Lorde’s larger process of reclaiming Caribbean identity. Another phase of this reclamation is marked by her essay “Grenada Revisited,” which Carole Boyce Davies calls “one of the best evaluations of the implications of the United States invasion of Grenada and, as I see it, a fitting conclusion to the journeys embarked on in Zami."
Whereas much scholarship on Lorde delinks her anti-imperialist critique of U.S. hegemony from her theorization of identity, Davies reminds us that this critique is crucial to Lorde’s diasporic feminism. Nonetheless, even scholars such as Davies and Michelle Stephens who attend to Lorde’s anti-imperialism obscure the analyses of national liberation and national identity that became increasingly central to her thought. For Davies and Stephens, the heteronormative and patriarchal ideologies of nationalism
serve to discredit entirely its liberatory potential. Davies, for example, establishes early in Black Women, Writing and Identity that beyond acknowledging that nationalism was a “management ‘trap’” invented by Europeans,
"We may want to go further and ask, as a number of feminist scholars are beginning to do, if the concept of “nation” has not been a male formulation. This may explain why nationalism thus far seems to exist primarily as a male activity with women distinctly left out or peripheralized in the various national constructs. "
Along these lines, in reading “Grenada Revisited” as a “shadow narrative of empire,” Michelle Stephens writes,
From the windows of her own oppression, by both nationalisms and internationalisms, the Caribbean woman of color may have the clearest eye on the United States’ role in the world at large. The Carriacou woman asks us to consider, what are the ways in which we understand our own desires for national
affiliation and community, and can these be fulfilled without the interpellations of the state? What does it mean to imagine black love and its related terms, black femininity and masculinity throughout the diaspora, without the securities of home, nation, and heterosexuality?
These are crucial questions for those in the United States for whom national affiliation means assenting to and supporting institutions, laws, and beliefs that exploit and brutalize people of color throughout the world. Furthermore, it initially appears as though Stephens does not foreclose the potential that "desires
for national affiliation and community” can be viable and important, as she distinguishes, in E. San Juan’s words, “between the referents of nation (local groups, community, domicile, or belonging) and state (governance, machinery of sanctioning laws, disciplinary codes, military).” is distinction is necessary because, as San Juan argues, “state violence and assertion of national identity need not be automatically conflated so as to implicate nationalism—whose nationalism?”
However, Stephens moves away from distinguishing between oppressor and oppressed nations, as she yokes nation and home with heterosexuality. Because national affiliations are circumscribed by heteronormativity, Stephens bemoans “the dominance of the newly independent nationalist state” and values instead “insurgent attempts to imagine alternative forms of multiracial, multinational social community.”
Stephens’s dismissal of anti-imperialist revolutionary Black nationalism goes against the spirit of “Grenada Revisited,” as Davies points out
Lorde’s connectedness to the Caribbean has its impetus in revolutionary Grenada (not colonial Grenada) and the sense of possibility and challenge which it held. For Lorde, cultural identification has to be addressed along with an overtly anti-hegemonic discourse. She therefore moves the discussion beyond a Pan-African identification as in say [Paule] Marshall, to a fuller acceptance of a gendered relationship to history and an ideological consciousness of the meaning of Grenada’s thwarted revolution within the context of power,
powerlessness, and empowerment.
Despite Davies’ predominantly post-nationalist paradigm, she acknowledges that an “anti-hegemonic discourse” of Grenadian independence, one that presents “a gendered relationship to history,” is integral to Lorde’s evolving sense of self and/in history. Davies’ conclusion serves as my starting point. In my reading of Lorde,
“Grenada Revisited” is not “a fitting conclusion to the journeys embarked on in Zami,” as Davies writes, but the beginning of a new leg of Lorde’s political development. Turning to her poetry and prose from the mid-1980s on, after the invasion of Grenada, we see that independent Black nationhood becomes an
important political goal for Lorde, one not yet superseded by “free” mobility or exilic diasporic communities. is is the case in poems from Our Dead Behind Us (1986) and the essays “Grenada Revisited” (1984), “Turning the Beat Around: Lesbian Parenting 1986,” “A Burst of Light: Living With Cancer” (1986), “Apartheid U.S.A.” (1988), and a 1990 chronicle of Hurricane Hugo’s devastation of St. Croix. While “Grenada Revisited” has received minor critical attention, these other essays have largely been overlooked.
Yet it is in Lorde’s post-invasion prose and poetry that she most explicitly and consistently explores a nationalist internationalism positing that African Americans are morally and politically bound to support Third World and indigenous struggles for national sovereignty and that anticolonial struggles illuminate and impact African Americans’ situation in the United States as an oppressed people. It is analytically useful to distinguish the nationalist internationalism of Lorde’s writing after the invasion of Grenada from what I call the “cultural nationalism” exemplified by the Black Unicorn and Zami—even as this cultural nationalism extends into and is recreated by her later prose and poetry. By cultural nationalism, I refer to Lorde’s feminist recovery and recreation of African spirituality and myth, a project facilitated by her 1974 trip to Africa,
which introduced her to Dahomean and Yoruban deities such as Seboulisa, Mawu-Lisa, and Aido Hwedo. In the Black Unicorn, Zami, and essays from Sister Outsider such as “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving,”
Afrocentric epistemologies and spirituality allow Lorde to consider how differences rethink and energize monadic identity politics of race, gender, and sexuality. the politics of difference articulated in these texts, however, are largely unconnected to Third World struggles for national sovereignty. Lorde first notably registers the importance of national political liberation in “Grenada Revisited,” which surveys the meanings of national sovereignty for women workers, mothers, and wives. In subsequent essays collected in A Burst of Light, and especially in poems from Our Dead Behind Us, Lorde’s “cultural nationalist” recovery of Dahomean women warrior traditions creates conceptual, rhetorical, and stylistic bases for her feminist engagement with national liberation.
This later work after the invasion of Grenada reveals that national liberation is key to fostering socially transformative coalitions and decolonizing forms of difference. The fact that the terms “difference” and “coalition” continue to appear regularly in the later texts might camouflage the shift in Lorde’s thought that I seek to dene; one might assume that the consistency in terminology reflects a consistency in meaning.
However, Lorde retheorizes “difference” and “coalition” as national struggle becomes increasingly central in
her work. Far from including national liberation as one among many struggles, let alone national liberation as a central goal for people of color—one that has been redefined by women, lesbians, and gays. These writings thus complicate post-nationalist claims that 1970s and 1980s Black feminism opposed nationalism
and enjoin us to reevaluate our histories of Black feminist thought. For in appreciating how and to what extent Lorde adopts key ideas of nationalist internationalism regarding culture, reclamation of land, solidarity with anticolonial movements, and internal colonialism, we must recognize that the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 was not a singular event responsible for shifting Lorde’s Black feminism. Rather, the invasion crystallized certain tendencies already present in Lorde’s thought due to the influence of U.S.-based Black movements centered on national liberation. Despite their homophobia and sexism, these movements crucially nurtured and shaped Lorde’s Third World solidarity and her socialist anti-imperialist critique—along with her literary talent. The post–World War II Black Left , through the Committee for the Negro in the Arts
and the Harlem Writers Guild, first picked up on and encouraged Lorde’s poetic abilities when she was still in high school.
The Guild’s journal, the Harlem Writers Quarterly, published an early poem by Lorde in its spring 1952 issue, and Guild cofounder and pioneering Africana scholar John Henrik Clarke was an important mentor who “taught [her] wonderful things about Africa.” Other figures of the Black anticolonial Left whom Lorde encountered included Langston Hughes, Rosa Guy, and Julian Mayfield. Lorde wrote to the
latter, “I owe more than I can say here as a Black woman and writer, to the encouragement, stimulation and insights gathered in those [Harlem Writers Guild and Committee for the Negro in the Arts] meetings through the lean years.” Later, the presses and publications of the Black Arts movement reviewed and published Lorde’s poetry; Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press published From a Land Where Other People Live (1973) and New York Head Shop and Museum(1974). And in addition to befriending Sonia Sanchez, Lorde met
other Black nationalists and leftists such as Addison Gayle, June Jordan, and Toni Cade Bambara through City College’s SEEK Program. In reconstructing this history, I am not denying that Lorde, as she often said, could not find a home in these and other institutions with nationalist politics. However, I want to suggest that we oversimplify and distort in rigidly opposing Lorde’s feminism to Black nationalism’s multiple incarnations and affiliations in the mid- to late twentieth century.
In the 1980s through her untimely death in 1992, Lorde’s feminist alliances with Black and Third World oppositional nationalisms were encouraged by women activist-writers involved with the anti-apartheid movement. Gloria Joseph, a “Black revolutionary spirited feminist” and Lorde’s partner in the last period of her life, was the main force behind the 1984 formation of Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa (SISA), which recognized “the emerging South African women’s self-help movement as a form of political resistance to apartheid” and which “signified a powerful, contemporary example of the international links between the quest for black liberation in America and in Africa.” rough SISA, Lorde established a lasting friendship with Ellen Kuzwayo, a leading South African feminist writer and revolutionary, and in 1986, as Lorde struggled with liver cancer, a high point was the time she spent with the Zamani Soweto Sisters, one of the organizations SISA supported. Along with Michelle Cliff , June Jordan, Alice Walker, and Sonia Sanchez, Lorde articulated the signified cancer of anti-apartheid struggles to racial oppression in the United States and to Black feminist thought. With these sisters in arms, Lorde acted on women’s issues that were irreducible to but also inseparable from nationalist struggle. Lorde’s engagements with national identity and liberation were further informed by indigenous activism in New Zealand and Australia in which women assumed leading roles. Inspired by U.S. civil rights struggles, the indigenous movements in these countries fundamentally challenged the white settler state by insisting on their rights to their land, to cultural autonomy, and to political representation. Rejecting multicultural strategies of accommodation to existing state structures, Maori and Aboriginal people stressed their special claims as original inhabitants and “nations within” that were distinct from minority and migrant groups. As Menno Boldt observed in
1993, indigenous movements made up a new wave of Third World national liberation that succeeded the upswell of decolonization after World War II. Struggles for Maori and Aboriginal self-determination spurred Lorde to reframe her politics of difference to account for resistant nationalisms that challenge hegemonic nation-states instead of positing an oppositional consciousness that supersedes the homogenizing tendency of all nationalisms.