What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?
I first heard these words of Audre Lorde sometime in the late 1970s. At the time, I was a young white woman rebelling against her deeply entrenched Roman Catholic roots to accept herself for who she was, a woman who was sexually and emotionally attracted to other women. Lorde’s words echoed in my head like the incessant cawing of an angry crow trying to chase off a resting red-tailed hawk from her perch in the old oak tree. Perhaps it was the certainty in which she described herself. I didn’t call myself a lesbian then. If I used any label, it was gay. Homosexual was too clinical and before an adequate amount of therapy, which I was still undergoing, words such as lesbian carried for me an accusatory and scandalous tone.
Perhaps it was the challenge she presented in paring words such as woman and warrior. Women weren’t supposed to be warriors. Not only did that go against the pervasive patriarchal view of the passive women, it flew in the face of my growing feminist awareness that challenged the giant war machine fostered by men. And yet, here she was, calling herself a black, lesbian, woman warrior poet.
Lorde’s identities, chosen or not, were as much part of her as her arms and legs. She found meaning in her life by living into all of who she was and in doing so, established herself as a person worth listening to – a force to be reckoned with. I ached to possess the confidence to be unapologetically who I was without pretense or suppression. I wanted to know, in no uncertain terms, what my work was. Lorde’s words and her challenge to discover and do my work became a test that I have found myself taking over and over again throughout my life.
Now more than thirty years later, I am finally able to privately and publicly claim many of the identities that define me. I am an American woman with Northern roots who grew up in and again lives in the South, a white, anti-racist, lesbian-feminist writer and religious leader, a lover and wife, a friend, a women’s basketball devotee, a technology enthusiast, a nature lover, a gardener, a therapist, a trauma responder, and a social justice activist. And I am certain that this list only skims the surface. I am a complex person with a wide-range of skills, varied interests, and numerous passions.
As I’ve come to claim my multiple identities, I’ve learned that my work, the work that Audre Lorde calls me to do, is very little about content and all about process. What I do matters little compared to how I do it. I wish I could say I had a moment of enlightenment in which that all become clear. I wish I could say I followed an unambiguous path to defining my work. I wish I had the magic solution that I could package and give to anyone struggling with the same questions.
Sometimes I am envious of people whose life is defined around a singular passion and it seems everything they do is focused on that one thing. We all know about people like that – athletes, scientists, politicians, peace activists, and musicians. It doesn’t really matter what their profession is, when you think of that person, you think of that thing. It’s how they spend their time, how they spend their resources, what they talk about, what consumes them. I struggle with that idea for myself. Is it a sign of immaturity that I can’t settle on the one thing that defines who I am? Or are my diverse identities and passions a sign of strength?
It’s a romantic notion in a way – to be thought of by your one passion, to be seen as the person that does or knows one thing better than anyone else. Without people like this, from Martin Luther King to Yo Yo Ma, from Mother Teresa to Steve Jobs, the world would be a poorer place. We have a need to witness people exercising an undeterred commitment to achieving their goals. We admire those people and, in many cases, try to emulate them.
But having only one known identity is also dangerously limiting. It creates one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts that fit neatly into pre-defined forms in our heads. We think we know someone because who know their cause, their interest, or their passion and we failed to notice that these same people have other aspects to their personalities, including flaws, misgivings, and trepidations. No story exemplifies this more clearly than that of Tiger Woods. He is the greatest golfer the world has ever seen. Millions of people from all over the world have witnessed his calm, his grace, and his mastery on the golf course. And yet when it became clear that, in addition to golf, he was obsessed with sex, his fans experienced it as a personal affront – they were shocked, disillusioned, and hurt. For many people, who were already cynical about our heroes, it was one more example of hero-worship gone bad. Because Tiger was seen for the one thing he does better than anyone, we never saw him as a whole person. His identity as a master golfer obscured all of his other identities.
In many cases, the superficial portrait of our heroes we have created in our imaginations serves us well. As long as we don’t have to think about the other aspects of someone’s life, about the entirety of the person, we can hold them in a cloud of innocence. They are stripped of the things we dislike about ourselves and become pure, almost holy.
Thomas Jefferson is a lot like that. This great American statesman is revered by many for his genius, his lofty writing, his grand visions, and his many accomplishments. Hardly one-dimensional, Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, served as the country’s first Secretary of State, served as Vice-President and then two terms as President of the United States, and founded the University of Virginia. He is honored for his stanch commitment to religious freedom and esteemed for his grand vision that resulted in the Louisiana Purchase, an effort that doubled the size of the United States. His image is literally carved in stone on Mount Rushmore as a great American hero with the likes of George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. And yet, not unlike his three compatriots, Jefferson was a complicated man, some would say, even a conflicted man.
Jefferson’s identities as a statesman, politician, author, Virginian, American, inventor, educator, and historian also has to include that of slaveholder, adulterer, racist, debtor, and some would even call him a rapist for having sexual relations with a woman who was his slave. It is hard for us to hold all those identities at one time about an American hero and yet Jefferson himself struggled with his own conflicted identities. In discussing slavery and the Missouri question, he said to John Holmes, “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jefferson was acting out of a conflicted moral code that Audre Lorde described as “tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own.” Our tendency to ignore Jefferson’s weaknesses and extol his virtues forces us to swallow those tyrannies, while, at the same time, by condemning him for his transgressions, we diminish his great accomplishments.
I was recently part of an 18-year-long struggle to change the name of a religious denomination’s geographic region from the Thomas Jefferson District to the Southeast District. The arguments of those who opposed the name change typically followed one of three threads: Jefferson was a man of his times and we can’t apply today’s standards to his life, the fact that he owned slaves was only a small thing when you consider the many contributions he made, or none of us is perfect and if we apply a standard of perfection to our heroes, we’ll have no heroes left. This third argument rang true for one 65-year-old man named Bob who said to me, “If you take away all our heroes, we’ll have nothing left to stand on.” Our heroes and the various identities we ascribe to them help us from our own identities, to hold on to those parts of ourselves that we want desperately so to believe in. If we can’t believe in Thomas Jefferson, how can we believe in ourselves? Bob, like so many others, feared that by losing Jefferson, he might, in fact, lose himself.
Those who supported the name change argued that by honoring Jefferson through the use of his name, we are ignoring the stories of all the people who do not experience Jefferson as a hero, who see his treatment of blacks, Native Americans, and women as deplorable and not something worthy of our adoration. For these people, by holding on to Jefferson as a hero, we exclude people who do not see him as someone who represents them.
The fact that this question took almost two decades to settle is an indication of how much importance we place on identity. Which of Jefferson’s identities do we claim and which do we ignore? If we claim them all, how do we continue to admire him? If we ignore even some of them, what does that say about the people we are?
I’d rather be known for the complicated, and sometimes conflicted, person I am, even if that means, I will never achieve greatness. I have been fortunate to live a life that is dotted with accomplishments. Nothing to compare to Jefferson’s, mind you, or Audre Lorde’s, for that matter, but accomplishments nonetheless. I am seen as a leader and I tend to rise to the top in most of the roles I have assumed. I have a knack for developing organizational structures that work. People tend to respect me and as a result, will listen to me when I try to help them do their jobs better. I have experienced a lot of different things and have developed expertise in at least a few of them.
That doesn’t means I have extraordinary talents in all the things I love to do. In fact, far from it. I have studied Spanish for much of my life and I can barely converse with a six-year old native speaker. I have longed to have musical talent but no matter how much time I dedicate to playing the guitar, I find myself learning and relearning the same material over and over again. I can’t dance or carry a tune, and as much as I love basketball, I never have had the athletic ability to compete successfully.
But whether I am successful or not, I have accepted the fact that who I am is not defined by my achievements. My identities inform me, position me, provide me with opportunities, sustain me, fulfill me, categorize me, include or exclude me, but they do not define me. Who I am is defined, not by what I achieve or don’t achieve, but by how I engage in the task. My work, the work that Audre Lorde asks if I am doing, the work I am here to do, is to embrace the values that speak to me, most importantly, love, justice, compassion, equity, and honesty, and to live my life consistent with those values. That is my work. How I do my work is to surround myself with people who challenge me to live my values, to constantly challenge myself to examine my life, and to not let myself get away with being less than who I am.
I dream of being a great writer, of writing something so significant that it will literally change the world. I don’t know if I will ever accomplish that dream. But I know that everything I write has the potential of touching someone’s life. Audre Lorde challenges us come out of our silence and let our words speak our truth. That is my commitment today — to not allow myself to question whether I have something to say, whether what I have to say is good enough, whether someone else could say it better. I will let my voice be heard and in doing so, be clear about who I am. That is what I’ve learned in these thirty- some years since I first accepted Audre Lorde’s challenge.
“Doing my work” is simply being the best, most authentic me I can be.
Thank you, Audre, for showing me the way.