Taken from Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” is a powerful speech that calls for women to unite, form a cohesive movement, and to recognize forms of oppression other than sexism. Lorde accomplishes this by speaking from her perspective as a black lesbian woman, which brings some overlooked issues to light and deconstructs many of the misconceptions and beliefs held by both white and black women alike. In addition to exposing some of the problems that create a flawed system for dealing with difference, the author discusses how often class and race are linked to various forms of literature. In fact, prose is contrasted with poetry, which Lorde believes is “the major voice of poor, working class, and Colored women,” and who many see as a “less ‘rigorous’ or less ‘serious’ art form” (116). It is interesting, then, to see how the author chooses to deliver this message and how the form itself is indicative of her ideas. By incorporating a poem at the end of her speech she is able to reflect her own identity, redefine value, and exemplify how difference can be used to create unity.
Although conventionally writers choose one form of literature over another, Lorde in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” does not seem to discriminate between poetry and prose. Much like her speech, Lorde’s identity is a complex mix of many different aspects, which is reflected in her own writing. In this particular case, the fact that she chooses to include a poem at the end signifies that she is opposed to being constrained, both in her work and in her own life. The author makes reference to this idea when she explains that others often seem to encourage her to single out one component of her identity and to put it forward as a depiction of her whole self (Lorde 120). Not only is she opposed to claiming that a single part of her identity represents her, but she also warns us that doing so might conceal other valuable qualities of one’s self. Moreover, Lorde argues that this practice is a “destructive and fragmenting way to live” and that her “fullest concentration of energy is available to [her] only when [she] integrates all the parts of who [she] is…” (120). Because she wants to be defined as more than black, or lesbian, or woman, or even poet, she constructs a text where she is able to present various components of her identity.
In addition to reflecting her different selves, the combination of poetry and prose acts as a commentary on society’s perception on which form of literature is more valuable. When she explains how a women’s magazine decided to leave out poetry in one of their issues because they viewed it as a “less “rigorous“ or “serious” art form,” she exposes how one’s ability to produce literature is often influenced by class (Lorde 116). In fact, Lorde describes how poetry is the most economical of all the art forms because it can be done “[in-between] shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper” (116). Not only is Lorde acknowledging the class difference by explicitly saying it is cheaper to produce, but she is also creating a relationship between the lower class and poetry by describing the various scenarios in which one can write poems. Even though she writes that poetry is more economical, she gives poetry a different type of worth by emphasizing how producing it requires commitment. This idea comes to fruition when one considers that, according to Lorde, many women of color who write poetry are also struggling financially and holding more than one job. To further speak about value, she writes, “For as long as any difference between us means one of us must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt (Lorde 118). By including a poem in the body of the speech, she is able to reclaim her and other black women’s literature and present it as equally valuable in relation to prose.
The notion that prose and poetry should be equally valued and can be included in the same piece also seems to be a metaphor for white women and women of color respectively. In other words, why should poetry and prose be separated just because they are different forms of literature? One of Lorde’s main arguments is that people have all been conditioned to respond to difference with “fear and loathing” and to deal with such difference “in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that’s not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it’s subordinate;” this leads to our inability to think of the other as equal and often causes “separation and confusion” (115). In other words, society has taught us that difference is something negative, which is why it becomes very complicated to embrace. In addition, the author argues that pretending those difference do not exist “results in a voluntary isolation, or false and treacherous connections” and that we need effective tools in order to use difference as a platform for change within our own lives (Lorde 115). After ten pages of skillfully crafted prose, the poem at the end does stick out. Yet, it works perfectly because of the thematic similarities it shares with the rest of the speech and because it adds a layer of complexity and emotion. Lorde points out throughout her essay that the need for unity does not equate homogeneity, which is exactly what she shows us in her writing (119).
To further speak about the thematic similarities between the prose and the poem, one can look at how much they share. At first glance the one stanza at the end seems to be the only form of poetry, but upon closer inspection one finds there are poetic elements in the prose as well. For instance, when she writes in her prose about how white women often have a fantasy that if they do everything well they will be allowed to “co-exist with patriarchy in relative piece,” she mentions how “unless one lives and loves in the trenches it is difficult to remember that the war against dehumanization is ceaseless” (Lorde 119). Not only is the language of the sentence poetic because it makes use of a metaphor and war imagery to speak about oppression, but this same idea is referenced in the poem later. In her verses she writes about women being part of the same fight and of achieving a kind of unity by using words such as “battles,” “war,” “blood,” “win,” and “lose,” which is a nod to the war imagery she had previously used (123). In addition to the poem and prose working together perfectly due to the shared imagery and language, it indicates that her choice of including two forms of literature is not to present the audience with a perfect binary. It challenges that kind of perception because there exists some overlap between the two.
Ultimately, Audre Lorde in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” urges women to recognize other forms of oppression such as racism, ageism, heterosexism, and to accept how one’s different experiences and background can be tools in creating societal change. Not only does Lorde explicitly tell us, but she also shows us with her own writing; although prose and poetry are structurally different, they work in the same piece seamlessly due to the shared language and themes. Moreover, by including one of her poems and describing how the creation of literature is conditioned by one’s class, Lorde is able to give value to poetry and to reclaim it as the literature of “poor, working class, and Colored women” (116). This rhetorical choice also reflects her own complexity due to her reluctance to single out one feature as a representation of her whole identity. The author’s decision of delivering her message using both prose and poetry also acts as a metaphor for women because it calls for a unified whole even when the components are distinct. Is it possible to extend this idea to the larger society? The only way to have a unified movement is to acknowledge and embrace difference as it presents everyone’s experience as legitimate and enriching.
Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 114-123.