Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Your silence today is like a pond where drowned things live

I want to see raised dripping and brought into the sun.

It’s not my own face I see there, but other faces,

Even your face at another age.

Whatever’s lost there is needed by both of us—

A watch of old gold, a water-blurred fever chart,

A key. . . .Even the silt and pebbles of the bottom

deserve their glint of recognition. I fear this silence,

this inarticulate life. I’m waiting

for a wind that will gently open this sheeted water

for once, and show me what I can do

for you, who have often made the unnameable

nameable for others, even for me.

In her poignant and tenderhearted poem, Adrienne Rich illustrates the need to break through manifestations of silence to better understand her lover, her sister, her friend, and the need to express and articulate her feelings; specifically a silence between women. This is a common theme throughout literature; poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and social theory alike. Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Inga Muscio and many others attempt to illustrate how breaking silence by way of communication and forming a community are the most powerful methods of change and finding one’s strength. Since so many authors and theorists think this way, it is hard to imagine why communities aren’t more prevalent in the lives of women. Yet, silence is still a pervasive aspect in the literature and the social lives of women; each of these authors also finds difficulty in forming communities and making them work. Is there a cure? What are the underlying causes of this continued silence? I will be exploring the ways in which women silence themselves, and often sabotage their own attempts at community. Though women are indeed silenced by the external context of patriarchy1, the most powerful and difficult obstacle to overcome is the way women silence themselves within their own attempts at communities. The question rises, then, if women or other silenced groups are capable of sustaining this type of interpersonal connection. Is community love a myth?

The question to ask when tackling the viability of communities, is very simply, why communities? How has the idea of coming together become so coveted for women’s lives, and how is it seen as the solution to the problem of oppressive silences?

Audre Lorde’s body of work documented her personal and professional life through a series of poems, essays, and memoirs, and in doing so, illustrates quite clearly the kinds of silence that women of all types can experience over a lifetime. For this reason Lorde’s work becomes the backbone and framework of communitarian ideals that function against silence. Though her work is most often focused on her specific background a black lesbian feminist, she believes strongly in the idea that women can understand each other through great difference, not in spite of it. Therefore when we examine her work, we can safely claim to understand and relate to the silence she experienced.

Throughout her life as exemplified in her book Zami, A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde sought to build communities wherever she was, and to create bridges of understanding with the women around her. The very word “Zami” represents the message that Lorde wanted to broadcast; “Zami, a carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers.” This statement captures the sentiment of needing to be surrounded by like-minded people whose overall goal is to live in harmony with each other and the world; it defines an achieved sense of “community” for many authors and theorists.

Other social theorists and cultural critics agree with the communitarian approach to create a safe place for women to communicate and express themselves. In her book Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks touts sisterhood and community as the foundation and bedrock of feminism and equality by saying that it empowered her to fight for more female-oriented curriculum at Stanford. In a world that creates divisive boundaries of acceptable behavior for women, hooks and her group of fellow college classmates learned from the civil rights revolution. In a chapter entitled “Sisterhood is Still Powerful,” she discusses what community felt like and how it acted for her: “Feminist movement created the context for female bonding. We did not bond against men, we bonded to protect our interests as women” (15). This presents the idea that bonds which are formed out of a positive energy are more powerful and creative than those formed from a negative energy. Forming such a community describes an agency that women could potentially have if they realized their own empowerment. Furthermore, reaching the closeness that the word “sisterhood” implies is the ultimate goal of communities for hooks; to replicate the strength of a family unit between unrelated women.

Audre Lorde defines the tendency towards community as a solution in an essay entitled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”: “For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological, but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is discovered. It is this real connection, which is so feared by the patriarchal world” (Lorde3, p. 333). The idea that community is “redemptive” is a very suggestive one. It means that if women realize the power of organizing and communicating, the problems of the past can be redeemed or solved in the present and future. The desire for such redemption represents an emotional reasoning for community. The phrase “real connection” underlines the implicit notion of patriarchy, in comparison, as a “false connection.” When these two ideas of a “redemptive...real connection” are combined, Lorde creates a powerful connection between emotional and political reasons for community building.

In this same essay, Lorde asserts two important details about community building; the first is the idea that the patriarchy fears minority groups forming communities because it threatens a status quo of hierarchical strata. The second idea is that once women realize the possible power of community, it can be used to overturn the oppressive and repressive silences that the normalized patriarchy has enforced; the problem overall, that we will continue to revisit, is that women often do not accept this power, or fully work to achieve it.

With innumerable reasons for banding together and beginning communities founded on love, it is difficult to comprehend why so many forms of silence are perpetuated. In order to understand silence and its implication for women in literature fully, one must understand the backgrounds of how and why silence is an issue. So as not to start from the dawn of time or even the dawn of American patriarchal culture, we can examine specific ways in which silence is a pervasive aspect of our social identities through Bobbie Harro’s “Cycle of Socialization.” Socialization as a process occurs from birth; we are born into a particular socioeconomic or gendered situation, and from there are taught how to behave through influences such as family, educational institutions, peers, and employment (17). In other words, Harro theorizes that women are “feminized” and “silenced” both by how they are treated and expected to behave; things as simple as etiquette and being made to dress in a certain manner are ways society teaches femininity and obedience to women. Furthermore, deviations from this sense of normalcy and femininity are considered wrong2. This consideration works to silence women who do not adhere to a social status quo—socialization serves to define one type of “silence” as the inability to express anything different from characteristics of a heteronormative patriarchal society.

Audre Lorde wrote about this socialization process in Zami through describing the difficulty she had in communicating with her mother, whom she respected and loved, yet who also enforced painful reminders of the silence that was expected of her. At one point in her childhood, Lorde was crying about losing a school election that her mother had told her not to participate in to begin with; her mother had made it expressly clear that in a world where white men and women held superiority over all socioeconomic minorities, Audre should not attempt to go against the grain in a fight she could not win. This is a good example of a silence that was socialized into Lorde; it is further reinforced by her mother hitting her as she cried about the loss of the election (65). From a very young age she was taught that silence and compliance would help her, and she grappled with this conflict of interest over most of her life. This is a very esoteric example of what is a far reaching and broad notion of socialization, and it illustrates how inhibiting socialization can be.

Why is it, though, that such detrimental socialization is allowed to continue? Shouldn’t communities respond and become louder, more present? What is the true halting force? The reality is that there are many factors that act against community building. In his book Feminist Dialogics: A Theory of Failed Community, Dale Bauer writes about the fallacy of the idea of community itself. So far, the examples and idealistic images of community that have been illustrated by Lorde, hooks, et al, are simultaneously defined by people loving each other equally and openly, and people banding together in groups. By this definition, states Bauer, “community” itself is exclusionary. If certain groups of people band together, it is inherent that other groups will not be within the realm of that particular community. This is a complicated issue to grapple with, because if one fully accepts this theory, the fact that small groups can in fact spur social movements becomes null (18). A better way to examine this definition is to understand it as a warning for small communities not to lose sight of the collective goal and the world around them. A good example of an exclusionary community in which the members failed to see the world around them can be found in Zami. Lorde and her friend Gennie did everything together, from the way they dressed, to the music they listened to. They went out of their way to be different from the world around them, and in the process, became an immovable and stubborn social unit. Because of Gennie’s inability and lack of desire to communicate with the outer world that so oppressed her, she ended up killing herself. Her death is representative of a failure in communication brought on indirectly by an isolated way of living.

Robert Putnam, author of the simultaneously controversial and revered book Bowling Alone takes a different approach to the definition of community. He calls it “social capital,” which in essence refers to individual’s associations with each other, as well as trustworthiness and reciprocity that people can get from each other when living in a pre-formed community3. Very simply, he defines a functioning community as a group of people who can accomplish tasks and make decisions that work towards the greater good of that particular community; in essence, a truly democratic society. The importance of this argument lies in the composition of these communities. The communities with a “higher” social capital (i.e., more democratic and supportive communities) all have one thing in common—affluence. Putnam’s findings through several case studies in several cities across the nation point to a disturbing trend of affluence and whiteness among the higher social capital circles. What this means is that people who have more resources and opportunity, such as rich, white people, are more likely to form functioning communities. This seems like a displaced result, as these communities are generally not the type that are oppressed and silenced by the status quo—they are the status quo. A study done by political scientists supports this claim; they built a “Resource Model of Political Participation” to measure how and why people participate in civic engagement. Their findings stated more specifically that people with more expendable money and time were more likely to be politically active, thereby reinforcing the political and social status quo (Brady, Verba, Schlozman).

Audre Lorde recognizes these kinds of privileges by noting the self image of minorities as a barrier to community. In an interview conducted by Adrienne Rich, she talks about trying to build a community with the small number of black women in her class, but that they wouldn’t join her; “It was total rejection. ‘No, we can’t come together as women. We’re black.’” (726). The perception these black women have of themselves is one that lacks agency and power. These women’s positionality4 reinforces the idea that affluence and privilege in people’s backgrounds are more likely to succeed. It is evident that for nearly every move Audre Lorde made in her professional life, she was met with resistance both internally and externally. She outlines her frustration with this in anthropological terms; “The human race is evolving through women...we’ve got to take that promise of new power seriously, or we’ll make the same mistakes all over again” (729). Here, Lorde raises an interesting question about the viability of breaking silences between women to form a community. Putnam’s findings, as well as Lorde’s observations make it very clear that for people who need community and support the most, it will be the most difficult to achieve. Additionally, both maintain that with the right amount of engagement, communities can provide spaces for positive social change, which is why authors of fiction and non-fiction often blindly seek communitarian ideals as solutions to not finding a voice in an otherwise patriarchal world. What does this blindness cost a movement towards community? Mostly, this blindly sought ideal and its failure yields a return to the individual, and individualistic goals.

Individualism is an issue that further complicates the ideas of communitarianism. There is a contradictory emphasis on individualism and promoting the self first that is also present in many feminist works. There is often an emphasis on individual strength that can directly clash with community ideals. In her book Cunt, Inga Muscio writes about the fear of rape that has followed her her entire life. She states that “though rape is viewed merely as a crime, it is the fundamental, primal, most destructive way to seize and maintain control in a patriarchal society” (146). Her solution is to protect herself as an individual before going out into the night alone; she packs rocks into her pockets, wears baggy, non-suggestive clothing and walks with purpose. Though this individualistic effort is necessary for many people to feel safe in the immediate act of going out, it tends to undermine or skirt around the possibility of creating a community in which safety is possible. It also removes the agency of the act of rape from the rapist, and places responsibility on the potential victim to stay safe. Because complications like the rift between individual needs and community goals exist in feminist literature, it becomes clear that instead of focusing on one form of solution, all facets of the forces that work for and against community must be understood.

There is a more subtle way that individualistic goals undermine collective and communitarian goals in literature. Throughout Zami, Lorde promotes honesty and openness among her friends and fellow females as a way of enforcing their solidarity and power. However, she does not always take her own advice. When she meets a woman named Ginger, Lorde lets her own reputation stand in for a true sense of her personality. Ginger repeatedly refers to Lorde as “a slick kitty from the city,” and builds up mythologies around her sexual identities and escapades; Lorde does nothing to dissuade her (129). This seemingly slight oversight is never acknowledged by Lorde as an important facet of a failed community effort. It is a silence between two women that indicates problems of efficacy in community building—if women cannot be open and honest with each other, where will their solidarity and strength come from?

Because of these kinds of silences between women, there is a necessary shift in perspective which has become a vital part of shifting community ideals. As mentioned before, many authors and other individuals in society do their best to achieve community goals of freedom and expression, but often fall short due to miscommunication or an inability to grapple with the connections between the self and the community. The next step in breaking down these divisive barriers that preclude community is to examine more closely the functionality of communities themselves. What are the internal silencers? How do women inadvertently or even actively work to silence each other? By investigating these questions we are taking on a great responsibility to understand the social and theoretical world around us in a way that is generally not acknowledged. People rarely want to look at the problems within a system of social change, but when it is done it can be the pivotal moment of realization of a final goal.

In a world that creates an image of women that are bound and gagged by innumerable fears and silences, literature seeks solutions. By examining Audre Lorde’s literature, as well as supporting examples from Inga Muscio and others, we can see that life and literature mirror each other to show the divisive boundaries that women and underrepresented minorities face daily. These externally imposed silences created for the world of literature a kind of battle ground. These silences are sometimes acknowledged, fought, and even less often, conquered by authors brave enough to speak about it. More specifically, authors tend to use the power of community and love to combat the walls of silence. Lorde acknowledges this battle, and the difficulty and futility of it in her poem “Outlines”: “The war is the same/if we lose/someday women’s blood will congeal/upon a dead planet/if we win/there is no telling” (238). In this poem, Audre Lorde is saying that the uphill battle for female communities will not only be difficult, but has no visible or peaceful end. At the same time, she asserts that it will be fought anyway, in spite of these inevitable difficulties.

“Outlines” sets a literary tone for the kinds of feelings that lurk behind the breaking of a silence; the pain and anguish she refers to reinforces what is already noted about the inherent problems in community. Her phrase “there is no telling” gives way to the idea that the true goal or success of communitarianism is unknown. On whose terms do we define successful silence breaking, or even community for that matter? Will we ever even get there? By examining authors and works that attempt to break silences, one finds examples of rhetoric and lifestyles inadvertently break down and undermine communitarian goals. These examples of inadvertent self-sabotage are the kinds that will help illuminate the new perspective on understanding our own tendencies and how to work with and around them.

Early on in Zami, Audre Lorde envisions an extreme and mythological version of community: “I have always wanted to be both man and woman, to incorporate the strongest and riches parts of my mother and father within/into me—to share valleys and mountains upon my body the way the earth does in hills and peaks” (7). Generally when communities are defined, they include groups of people living, working, and loving together; Lorde takes this image a step further by saying that she wants to be a part of both binaries, in which no one could wield any power over the other. There is an element of fantasy attached to this image, which lends an ethereal mythological air to Lorde’s message. This method raises many questions concerning the line between reality and fiction in feminist literatures. Does this fictional fantasy undercut her overall message of community by taking the reader to a different level of consciousness and expression? Poetry and poetic phrasing can be strong ways of getting a political position across, but when the ideal is so far removed from the reality, the reader begins to question what the reality is, and if it can be reached at all. Lorde silences herself rhetorically here; she presents an overly mythological ideal that does not speak to the reality of her situation. This mythological and impossible sense of community is reminiscent of Bauer’s concept of community as an abstract and utopian goal (18) and thereby removes much of Lorde’s work from the realm of achievable reality.

Audre Lorde does touch on decidedly more reality-based issues of community, yet these so-called realities also tend to be dampened by a kind of internal cooperation with the forces that work against community. In Zami, Audre Lorde’s mother suggests maintaining the illusion of community for protection: “Remember to be sisters in the presence of strangers” (81). This statement about literal sisterhood is sharply reminiscent of bell hook’s “Sisterhood is Still Powerful”; it means that strength in numbers and womanhood will provide protection from unknown or unfamiliar dangers. Idealistically, this is a comforting and strong idea; however as Lorde’s life plays out with her actual sisters, it becomes more of a fantasy than reality. As Lorde grows up with her sisters, who are far lighter skinned than she, she learns the gravity of passing, and what it means to their relationship. Both of her sisters pass for white in public. In a world before the civil rights movement this passing means ignoring Audre in the street. This literal sisterhood that becomes fractured introduces a new layer of difficulty to community. Differences often cannot be ignored, and end up magnified by the inability or unwillingness for individuals to look past them.

Audre Lorde encountered much of this racially focused community silencing in her lifetime. Though she makes her beliefs and ideals about the purpose of community clear and concise in her conversation with Adrienne Rich, the true difficulty is in finding willing compatriots for her cause: “Within the interdependence of mutual (non-dominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future” (333). Here, she states that the differences between and among women should in fact make them stronger, as it would force them to understand the nature of their separate institutional oppressions and how to move past them. This is a very specific and highly contended problem within communities, which can serve as somewhat of a focal point for the tangible reasons as to why communities that Audre Lorde and her contemporaries attempt do not function.

In an essay that responds to many arguments against Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam revised his work on social capital to include concepts of increased diversity in advanced nations5. Though Audre Lorde fervently argued for communities that include women from all ethnic, socioeconomic, and sexual orientation backgrounds, Putnam counters by saying that the more diversity within a community, the less productive a social capital will be produced. He backs this up with the idea that people do not trust what they do not know—also known as the “other”. This fear of the “other” means that before we can know another person, it is predetermined that we will not experience the necessary amounts of altruism or reciprocity from or with them. There is much gravity to this assertion because in essence it means that as people attempt to get emotionally and physically closer to one another, the more fractured and individualistically driven they will become.

If in fact true, this inability to accept differences is a barrier to communitarianism that has yet to be unraveled through literary expression; in essence, much of the current discourse concerning communities focuses on two general schools of thought. They have both been outlined by Lorde: the first being that people try to ignore differences; and the second being that people place too much emphasis on them and lose sight of the larger goal at hand. It is important to note that these rifts in community building are not necessarily the result of a patriarchal system, but rather the result of the individual’s inability to grapple with difference and band together. Overall it is clear that the literary and literal battle Lorde refers is not just community versus silence, but also individuals versus other individuals, and communities versus other communities.

The kinds of silence breaking through communities that Lorde and others call for are a radical rewrite of society as we know it. Putnam says that social capital is only really useful in creating more streamlined and democratic communities; if this is true, then community building in the terms of Lorde, hooks, et al is simply not enough to rewrite the world—especially given the literary evidence of individuals making choices that work against civic engagement and community ideals. In other words, internal players work in concert with patriarchal systems and socialization to dismantle their own attempts at community. The first step in overcoming these forces that combat over silence is to understand the social importance and background of both the external and internal factors. As a modern and fluctuating society, we need to understand the reality of the situation before we place all our stock in the romantic and mythological ideals of community that pioneers like Audre Lorde set out to accomplish. The threats to community and social movements have become more subtle, internal, pervasive, and rhetorical than ever before—therefore knowing and understanding these threats is the first step towards repairing a fractured feminism.


1 This can also be known as “institutional” silence, as many of the external silences imposed upon Audre Lorde in her work stem from deeply engrained institutional structures which span from slavery to the expected roles of husband and wife; in other words, this is a very far reaching term.

2 For the purposes of this paper, “normalcy” and “status quo” refer to the general “whiteness” of American society, therefore implicitly placing Lorde et al in the category of the “other”.

3 “pre-formed community” for the purposes of this paper refers to groups of people who have not specifically gotten together and chosen their particular “community”; this means neighborhoods and school districts which are comprised of sets of individuals, rather than voluntary collectives.

4 Positionality refers to the specific “position” or condition of an individual as described by their race, class, and gender.

5 i.e. not third world.

Works Cited

Bauer, Dale. Feminist Dailogics: A Theory of Failed Community. Albany, NY: University of New York Press, 1988.

Brady, Henry E., Sidney Verba, and Kay Schlozman. “Beyond SES: A Resource Model of Political Participation.” American Political Science Review. Vol. 89, No.2, June 1995.

Harro, Bobbie. “The Cycle of Socialization.” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. Ed. Maurianne Adams et al. New York: Routeledge, 2000.

hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press, 2000.

Lorde, Audre. Zami, A New Spelling of My Name. Berkeley, California: Crossing Press, 1982.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House(1979).” The Essential Feminist Reader. Ed. Estelle B. Freedman. New York: Modern Library, 2007.

Lorde, Audre. “Outlines.” Gay & Lesbian Poetry in Our Time: An Anthology. Eds. Carl Morse and Joan Larkin. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Muscio, Inga. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. Emeryville, California: Seal Press, 2002.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Putnam, Robert. “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century” Scandinavian Political Studies. Vol. 30 Issue 2, p137-174. June 2007.

Rich, Adrienne. Interview with Audre Lorde. Signs. Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer, 1981), pp. 713-736. University of Chicago Press, 1981.

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