“We are sisters and our survival is mutual”: Audre Lorde and the Connections between Individual and Collective Trauma

  • Cassie Premo Steele


Audre Lorde was, as she described, “a black woman warrior poet” who lived from 1934 until her death in 1992, after a 14-year struggle with breast cancer.1 Lorde was, in many ways, a survivor who worked tirelessly to end the many silences in black women’s history. As we turn now from tracing Sexton’s individual trauma of childhood sexual abuse to examining the connections between individual and collective experiences of trauma in Audre Lorde’s life and work, we will see that it is the context of a collective history that makes the critical difference in reading an individual’s life and work. At the individual level, “Unless childhood trauma is resolved through reparative experiences, including psychotherapy, components of the trauma will be incorporated into the pattern of family life in the next generation.”2 We have seen a concrete example of this in the first chapter; now in this chapter, we will see how Lorde’s work further dramatizes the effects of a traumatic history passed down through generations.


Sexual Abuse Black Woman Sexual Violence Traumatic History Sexual Trauma 
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  1. 1.
    Lorde describes herself in these terms in The Cancer Journals (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute Press, 1980), p. 21. The quote in the chapter title is from Lorde, “Sisterhood and Survival,” The Black Scholar (March April 1986): 5–7, p. 7.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Steven Krugman, Ph.D., “Trauma in the Family: Perspectives on the Intergenerational Transmission of Violence,” Psychological Trauma, ed. Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D. (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1987): 127–151, p. 138.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For arguments supporting treating black women’s subjectivity as multiple, see Francis Beale, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” The Black Woman, ed. Toni Cade Bambara (New York: Penguin, 1970): 90–100; Deborah K. King, “Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology,” Signs 14:1 (Autumn 1988): 265–295; and Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition,” originally published in Changing Our Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), reprinted in Reading Black, Reading Feminist, ed. Henry Louis Gates (New York: Meridian, 1990): 116–142.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Critics who place Lorde in a lesbian tradition include Mary J. Carruthers, “The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas,” The Hudson Review 36:2 (Summer 1983): 293–322; Judy Grahn, The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition (San Francisco: Spinsters Ink, 1985); Bonnie Zimmerman, The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction 1969–1989 (Boston: Beacon, 1990); and Ruth Ginzberg, “Audre Lorde’s (Nonessentialist) Lesbian Eros,” Hypatia 7:4 (Fall 1992): 73–90. Those who place her in a feminist tradition include Pamela Annas, “A Poetry of Survival: Unnaming and naming in the Poetry of Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich,” Colby Library Quarterly 18 (March 1982): 9–25; Mary K. DeShazer, Inspiring Women: Reimagining the Muse (New York: Pergamon Press, 1986); and Thomas Foster, “‘The Very House of Difference’: Gender as ‘Embattled’ Standpoint,” Genders 8 (Summer 1990): 17–37. Lorde’s race is highlighted to the exclusion of other categories in Stephen Henderson, ed., Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (New York: William Morrow, 1973). Lorde’s identity as a cancer survivor is the focus in Jeanne Perreault, “‘that the pain not be wasted’: Audre Lorde and the Written Self,” A/B: Autobiography Studies 4:1 (Fall 1988): 1–16; and G. Thomas Couser, “Autopathography: Women, Illness, and Lifewriting,” A /B: Autobiography 6:1 (Spring 1991): 65–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Amittai F. Avi-ram, “Apo Koinou in Audre Lorde and the Moderns: Defining the Differences,” Callaloo 9:1 (Winter 1986): 193–208; Gloria T. Hull, “Living on the Line: Audre Lorde and Our Dead Behind Us,” in Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1989): 150–173; Barbara DiBernard, “Zami: A Portrait of an Artist as a Black Lesbian,” The Kenyon Review 13:4 (Fall 1991): 195–213; and Erin G. Carlston, “Zami and the Politics of Plural Identity,” in Sexual Practice, Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism, ed. Susan J. Wolfe and Julian Penelope (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993): 226–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 7.
    From Afterword to C. Vegh, I Didn’t Say Goodbye, trans. R. Schwartz (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984), p. 166.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    These aspects of the process of witnessing are addressed in Dori Laub, “Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle,” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995): 61–75.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    While black women’s sexuality is dramatized in many narratives by black women, it is seldom that black women analyze these scenes in critical ways that “would attempt to discover, layer by layer, the symptoms of culture that engender this order of things” (94). See Hortense Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carol Vance (London: Pandora, 1984): 73–100.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Beverly Guy-Sheftall, “The Impact of Slavery On Black Women,” Lecture, September 22, 1994, Emory University, Adanta, Georgia.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 71–72.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Arena (January 1900): 15–24, reprinted in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: The New Press, 1995): 70–76.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Freud’s reading of “true” and “official” stories of a history of violence appears in Moses and Monothesism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York: Vintage Books, 1939).Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    Davis’ essay first appeared in The Black Scholar (December 1971), reprinted in Words of Fire, pp. 200–218. The Moynihan Report, as it has come to be known, was published as The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, in Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967): 39–124.Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    Beverly Guy-Sheftall, “The Women of Bronzeville,” Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, ed. Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1979): 157–170, p. 168.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    Judith Herman and Lisa Hirschman, “Father-Daughter Incest,” Signs vol. 2, no. 4 (1977): 735–756, p. 749 and 751. Although the term “incest” is used in the title, their findings apply to survivors of rape and other forms of sexual trauma as well. See Judith Lewis Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992), for a discussion of the commonalities of different traumatic experiences, from domestic abuse to political terror.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 22.
    I am following Anna Wilson’s lead in referring to the character in the narrative as Audre and the narrative presence as Lorde. See Anna Wilson, “Audre Lorde and the African-American Tradition: When the Family is Not Enough,” in New Lesbian Criticism, ed. Sally Munt (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992): 75–93, p. 91.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    Elizabeth Fox-Genovese notes that the coming-to-consciousness of race happens around the age of seven in many African American autobiographies. See “My Statue, My Self: Autobiographical Writings of African American Women,” in Reading Black, Reading Feminist, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Meridian, 1990): 176–203, p. 190.Google Scholar
  18. 24.
    Janet R. Brice-Baker, “West Indian Women of Color: The Jamaican Woman,” Women of Color: Integrating Ethnic and Gender Identities in Psychotherapy, ed. Lillian Comas-Díaz and Beverly Greene (New York: The Guilford Press, 1994): 139–160, p. 147.Google Scholar
  19. 26.
    Jennifer Gillan notes that Audre’s mother “dragged Audre from doctor to doctor in order to discover why she has not started menstruating … [and] the visits terrify Audre,” but she does not mention how this connects to the earlier incident with the boy. See “Relocating and identity in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,” in Homemaking: Women Writers and the Politics and Poetics of Home, ed. Catherine Wiley and Fiona R. Barnes (New York: Garland, 1996): 209–221, p. 209.Google Scholar
  20. 27.
    Anne Louise Keating writes that Audre learns the legacy of silence from her mother, “who used silence to protect herself and her daughters from a reality she was powerless to control.” See Keating, “Making ‘our shattered faces whole’: The Black Goddess and Audre Lorde’s Revision of Patriarchal Myth,” Frontiers 13:1 (1992): 20–33, p. 21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 28.
    Such intergenerational effects of trauma in the effects of children of the survivors of the Holocaust are discussed in Nadine Fresco, “Remembering the Unknown,” trans. Alan Sheridan, International Review of Psycho-Analysis 11:417 (1984): 417–426. Originally published in Nouvelle Revue de Psych-analyse 24 (1981).Google Scholar
  22. 29.
    Originally published in 1978, “A Black Feminist Statement” is reprinted in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1981): 210–218.Google Scholar
  23. 34.
    This poem is from Lorde, The Black Unicorn (New York: Norton, 1978): 22–24. Lorde describes reading the story of these girls in the newspaper on the tape recording, Shorelines, published by The Watershed Foundation, 1985.Google Scholar
  24. 36.
    A description of these characteristics of the ballad can be found in Alfred B. Friedman, “Ballad,” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965): 62–64.Google Scholar

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© Cassie Premo Steele 2000

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  • Cassie Premo Steele

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