Book 7: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name–Audre Lorde

Admission: I added Audre Lorde to my list of Black women authors to read because I thought I should stop silently nodding my head in agreement whenever someone referenced her during conversation so I could avoid having to admit that I’d actually never read any of her work, and finally be able to critically engage in those discussions. There are certain authors that are required reading when you go to a school like Oberlin, and you sound like a fool when you don’t know them. Lorde is one of them.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to get reading Zami. I chose this book rather than her other works because I remember getting emails from/about the student organization of the same name while at Oberlin. An organization that was for LGBTQ+ students of color that engaged in political activism and published a magazine (Zami Zine).

I won’t say I breezed through this book like I have the previous few I’ve read on my 30 to 30 list, but I did finish feeling like I’d gained more insight into societal norms and expectations about women and race, into systems of oppression, into my own relationship with these systems. That probably doesn’t sound too compelling. But think of it this way: for a narrative about a Black lesbian woman, raised by Caribbean parents, living in Manhattan in the 1940s through 1950s, to resonate so fully with me, when the only thing we have in common out of that list is race and gender, is truly a testament to how enduring, penetrating, and intersectional systems of oppression are.

I walked away from the memorial rally in Union Square Park into the warm Village night, tears streaming down my face for them, for their sons, for all our wasted efforts, for myself–wondering whether there was any place in the world that was different from here, anywhere that could be safe and free, not really even sure of what being safe and free could mean (p. 149)

During the second semester of my sophomore year in college, there were a number of racist  incidents that happened on campus that brought to light (for us anyway) issues present in the larger community.  Black students have long complained about being harassed by town police officers who assumed they were community members. That year there was a highly visible (but not first) incident of police brutality. When students got angry and started organizing, Black members of the community who worked at the college let us know in no uncertain terms that this was something they had to deal with regularly, that their kids had to deal with, and all without the protection or visibility of the university.

There were campus/community meetings in dorms and in larger venues, committees were formed, and an expensive mediator was brought in. I sat in on this mediated committee for the entire semester. And at the end, it amounted to nothing but superficial suggestions and their brilliant solution to create pamphlets on knowing your rights to be distributed to first year students. No discussion of the glaring gaps in training after they showed us their manual on sensitivity and diversity, no restoration of justice, no addressing the intimidation and harassment of the student’s family who had travelled there to deal with this, and absolutely NO mention of the constant mistreatment and violence towards Black community members–which was really the issue, since most police harassment of Black students happened on the margins of campus property, or on town property, and came from the assumption that we weren’t college students.

The administration knew finals were approaching and then it would be summer. Students would be distracted and then gone, and with them, the tension and organization and protests that generated the mediation. And the new school year would mean collective campus memory of the events would be wiped out and restarted, and it would be as if none of this had ever happened. (They were right.)

Why did I bring this up and what does this have to do with the excerpt above? Well at some point during that semester I was sitting with friends in the library café, and we were talking about all the meetings and how we all suspected this wasn’t going to result in any meaningful change, when one of the college’s upper administrators (white woman) sat down with us (all black women).  Her coming over wasn’t unusual, she’d always made herself fairly available on campus and talked with us regularly. So I don’t remember how we ended up in this particular conversation, but she started getting kind of annoyed with our cynicism about these meetings and the larger racial climate, thinking we were just being unproductive and fatalistic. So she asked us something along the lines of ‘What would your picture perfect, blue sky day look like?’ In other words, since you don’t think our efforts are useful, tell me what your perfect day, perfect world, without racism would look like. And not just envision it, but base it on past perfect days, or movie portrayed perfect days, or reference historical time periods when things were ideal, so we can conceptualize for ourselves and for her how we would like our every day to look.

She asked so earnestly. Like this was going to be a great exercise. Like we could put our thoughts into actionable steps the way you would when you ask someone where they want to be in 5 years. Like this was comparable to asking someone: if they had 24 hours to spend with their ideal romantic partner any way they wanted, describe everything you’d do that day from start to finish. Like this was a college admissions essay question that we were going to brainstorm real quick.

Our response: Laughter.

We all stopped speaking, looked each other square in the eyes, and fell out in full belly laughter. She was confused. And seemed a bit hurt by our response. So once we’d stopped laughing we said to her–you do realize there has never been a point in history in this country where Black people were free from oppression, right? There is no historical time period to draw from, no literature or movie depiction (although after I see Black Panther tomorrow maybe I’ll revise that thought), and moreover, no personal reference in our own lives of a perfect day nor from any day any of our parents or ancestors may have told us about in oral histories. We don’t have quick and dirty example from which to derive what our “blue sky” world would look like, because that “blue sky” concept has never existed in recent history.

She really hadn’t thought of it like that before, and said as much. Maybe the exercise was more for her benefit than ours in the end.

That’s not to say that all is hopeless in the effort to create the world we want to live in just because we don’t have a past reference for what that would look like as non-white people, but this notion that there’s an easy to reference blueprint somewhere for creating that world is both lazy and naive and a large part of the reason we can’t get to that world. It’s evidence of the resistance to doing the required consistent and painful work, especially on the part of people who do have a “blue sky” reference.

Ten years later, I still see that to be true. It’s funnier now, more than ever, living in the era of #45 and his ‘Make America Great Again’ motto–where his and his base’s “blue sky” world goes back to post-war economic/baby boom days, when people “knew their place” and there was “law and order.” Their “blue sky” is others’ perpetual nightmare.

All of this was my roundabout way of saying that reading Lorde was an incredibly valuable, if not jarring, reminder of how much time we spend going in circles, or maybe spirals. Having the same arguments, making the same points, and rehashing them as novel ideas, decade after decade. Living in a “3 steps forward, 2 steps back” society; each generation has to be deprogrammed from whatever garbage is being taught in schools and reeducated with the words and wisdom of the previous generations’ authors and activists, before we can begin to collectively move forward again with the progressive ideals of contemporary actors.