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    Re-reading Audre Lorde: declaring the activism of black feminist theory

    Nayak, S. A. (2013) Re-reading Audre Lorde: declaring the activism of black feminist theory. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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    Early in January 2013, whilst I was at home in the middle of the day writing this thesis, I was subjected to an armed burglary. The experience resonates with themes that preoccupy this re-reading of Audre Lorde, specifically with regards to: the timing, place and impact of ‘epistemic violence’ (Spivak, 1988:280) visited on Black feminisms; the theft of thinking; and the disregard for, and appropriation of, the temporal and spatial dimensions of historical and socio-economic contexts that constitute Black women’s lives. Armed with weapons of authenticity, historical amnesia, hierarchies of oppression, the ‘always already’ (Althusser, 1971) and categories of identity designed to suppress Black feminism, the violations of Black women are unannounced and uninvited. My starting point is that ‘[t]he shadow obscuring this complex Black women’s intellectual tradition is neither accidental nor benign’ (Hill Collins, 2000:3). This thesis picks up on the idea of the impossibility of hospitality (Derrida, 2000) and the ‘critic as host’ (Hillis Miller, 1979) to frame a critical analysis of the occupation and location of Black feminist praxis. This thesis negotiates ‘…a channel between the “high theoretical” and the “suspicious of all theories”’ (Boyce Davies, 1994:43). The challenge of ‘Re-Reading Audre Lorde: Declaring the Activism of Black Feminist Theory’ is to maintain a persistent, hypervigilant sensitivity towards the hostility of ‘epistemic violence’ (Spivak, 1988:280). I think it is possible to re-read Spivak’s (1988) question, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in terms of, ‘Can Black feminist theory speak?’ The question of what is read and utilised and what is not, particularly when the ‘what is not’ refers to Black feminist scholarship in general, and to the work of Lorde in particular, is fundamental to this thesis. This thesis produces new re-readings of Lorde’s work that go beyond a literary textual analysis. The Kristevan idea of intertextuality as intersubjectivity (Kristeva, 1969:37) is used to show that the space and place between the words in ‘Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface’ (Lorde, 1979a:60) function as the space and place between Black and white feminisms. The predicaments of positionality reiterated throughout this thesis mirror the predicaments within feminism. How can feminist theory present authoritative, metanarrative claims (and they need to be authoritative in the face of a racist, homophobic patriarchy that denies the legitimacy of Black women) whilst being implicated? The quandary is that of how to establish and communicate any sense of a comprehensible, coherent re-reading of Lorde when each re-reading destabilises and contests any notion of an ‘established.’ The quandary takes on particular significance in relation to Black feminist political writings and communication of political imperatives. In other words, is there a possibility of ‘the transformation of silence into language and action’ (Lorde, 1977a:40) in the condition of the impossibility of language? Re-reading Lorde is both to occupy the margin and to make use of the margin so that the impossible, the unavailable, and the fissures of re-reading Black feminist theoretical communications are the conditions of the activism of Black feminist theory. Three principles of Black feminist methodology that underpin the work of this thesis include: 1. Lorde’s Black feminist ‘uses of the erotic’ (Lorde, 1978a); 2. The dialogical and dialectical relationship between experience, practice and scholarship (Hill Collins, 2000:30); 3. That methodology is contingent upon, and constituted through, Black feminist activism. Throughout this thesis, I make a concerted effort to transfer the text of Black feminist critical theory from the page to the day-to-day struggles of Black feminist activism. For example, I demonstrate the relevance of Lorde in terms of constructing Black women-only reflective spaces and service provision, interventions to confront sexual violence against Black women and the ‘…psychological toll…’ (The Combahee River Collective, 1977:266) of ‘…learn[ing] to lie down with the different parts of ourselves…’ (Abod, 1987:158). This thesis is a work of re-membering; it is a deliberate transgression of fixed, theoretical and disciplinary borders, which reinvigorates the activism of theory.

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