Black History Month – those that influenced us – Audre Lorde
Date posted: 29 October 2020
During Black History Month our lawyers are reflecting on the cases and the black lawyers and activists who have most influenced them in their legal career. Our Katy Robinson pays tribute to Audre Lorde.
Self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, Audre Lorde was born in Harlem, New York in 1934 to parents from Barbados and the island of Carriacou, Grenada. Most known for her poetry, essays and civil rights activism, she worked as a librarian and later as a university teacher. She dedicated her life to challenging injustice, including racism, sexism, classism and homophobia. She was made Poet Laureate of New York State in 1991 and was also awarded honorary doctorates from Hunter, Oberlin and Haverford colleges. She passed away in 1992.
I am a latecomer to Lorde’s work, and am still discovering it, having first come across a collected volume ‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You’, published in 2017 (incredibly the first time her poems, speeches and essays were collected into one volume by a British publisher). Her work is rich and as relevant today as when she created it; this short post will fall far from doing it justice.
Several themes from Lorde’s vast body of work stand out for me in particular as having nourished and motivated me at times when I have needed it in my legal career (and outside of it):
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (A Burst of Light, 1988)
Our department has this quote printed and unceremoniously taped to a cupboard door above the kettle in our office kitchen. For me it’s a reminder that, while it is truly a privilege to be able to assist the clients we represent, our work can be hard and if we don’t take time to rest and recharge it will inevitably be tough for us to continue our work in the long run. It’s a reminder that taking holiday, leaving work on time, taking a lunch break, being kind to ourselves and our colleagues, sometimes saying no, should be as important a part of our work as complying with deadlines and making sure we have the right evidence of means on file (ask any legal aid lawyer how important that is). It’s also motivation to keep going in the current political climate, so that we can remain here to fight on our clients’ behalf long into the future.
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House, 1984)
Lorde was addressing a panel at the New York University Institute for the Humanities conference on feminism in 1984 when she said this. As one of the few black participants, she expressed her frustration that even though she had been invited to attend and speak, she was invited to do so only on the terms of the (white) organisers, who were themselves so closely entwined with the racist, patriarchal power structures around them that they were unable to see this and the impact it had on their interactions with her.
As lawyers working predominantly with refugees and other vulnerable migrants, we know the immigration system they must navigate is inherently racist. So too though is the wider world around it, and our own profession – and the legal system as a whole – which sits within it. If we are to bring about genuine change towards equality within the law, Lorde reminds us that we need urgently to think about the tools we are using, about the systems we are caught up in – sometimes so much so that they are hard for us to fully see – and about who they continue to benefit, directly or otherwise:
Which children do we encourage to consider a career in law? Who can afford the course fees? Who gets work experience and the entry level positions? Who do we hire, and who do we promote? Who are our judges? Who speaks in our meetings, in court, and on our training panels? Who wins our awards, and who decides? And while we are doing our very important work, who is busy cleaning our offices, typing our letters, translating our statements, keeping our buildings safe, and topping up our glasses at our networking events?
Critically, what do lawyers from minority groups – and in Black History Month, what do black lawyers in particular – have to counter along the way, and at what personal and professional cost to them? The recent experience of black barrister Alexandra Wilson of being mistaken for the defendant three times in one day at court, is sadly just one example. How do (we) white lawyers in particular contribute to maintaining the current status quo? What can we not see that is all around us and needs urgent attention? And what can we even begin to do about it?
Helpfully and of course, Lorde also comes to our rescue:
“Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.” (The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House’, 1984).
“Revolution is not a one–time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change in established, outgrown responses; for instance, it is learning to address each other’s difference with respect. (Learning from the 60s, 1982).
“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed
but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” (A Litany for Survival’, 1978)
We all have work to do in the fight for racial justice, and for equality as a whole, in our own lives and workplaces and in the wider world. It sometimes feels overwhelming, and as though nothing we do can make any significant difference. But, with optimism, Lorde teaches us that it starts inside ourselves, and that we can begin with the smallest opportunities to make genuine change and speak out against injustice when we need to.