Back when I was a young feminist, a nascent poet/writer/editor, a poetry performer long before such events were called slams, one of the women I admired hugely was Audre Lorde. Her collection of essays, Sister Outsider, became one of my favorite references and touchstones. Living in Boston, I had the great joy and privilege of seeing her perform on a number of occasions, at places like the fabulous Arlington Street Church, that Boston institution founded to exist as a hotbed of progressive thought, spirituality and social justice. Indeed, it was in the basement coffeehouse of that esteemed building that I performed my own poetry. I saw Audre upstairs, in the big, beautiful church itself, among a packed house of feminists, poets, writers and activists who, in the 1970’s and ’80’s, who were endeavoring to be loud and proud, and to redefine the experience of women. Audre Lorde was already an icon on so many levels. She was a woman, a black woman, a lesbian, a feminist, a gifted poet, a passionate activist. She wrote and spoke out about racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and social inequality with enormous wisdom and eloquence.
And then Audre Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer. And as was her wont, she wrote a journal during her experience. Published in 1980, The Cancer Journals was one of the first works of its kind. Published four years after Betty Rollins’ ground-breaking book, First, You Cry, Lorde’s book examines the notion of cancer survival to consider the political implications of breast cancer and breast cancer surgery, analyzing the ways that prostheses and plastic surgery hide the real experience of breast cancer, disguising its widespread incidence and deadliness, while emphasizing the notion of trying to restore ourselves to some socially acceptable notion of “normal” femininity.
Here we are, some thirty years later, and breast cancer awareness seems to be smothered in pink. Not only our identity as women, but the reality of our disease is muffled by myth, misinformation, and research priorities that still don’t adequately address the twin constants of incidence and mortality that have remained unchanged since Lorde wrote her journal. Perhaps more than any other type of cancer, breast cancer challenges our social and personal notions of female identity. Its treatment robs us of so many of the physical icons of feminity — our hair, our breasts, our female hormones, even sometimes our ovaries and wombs. Meanwhile plastic surgeons offer reconstructive surgeries that can involve procedures often taking well over ten hours to perform, initiating a process that may take years to complete, so that we can have insensate tissue to replace part of what we’ve lost. And after all that, breast cancer may still recur or metasticize, in the end robbing us of our lives.
Those of us who try to speak out about the crazy and unacceptable implications of all this may find ourselves accused of being negative, humorless harpies who focus too much wrath at the color pink and have nothing good to say about virtually any part of our current breast cancer awareness movement. It’s difficult for people, whose intentions may be sincere, to be receptive to rethinking their cherished, comforting notions, to have someone suggest that their efforts may be misdirected or even futile. We all need some measure of hope to exist. But hope based on false assumptions does not ultimately change or improve the prognosis for women and men with breast cancer.
“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” — Audre Lorde
Just when I feel defeated, when I feel the message to redirect the pink behemoth of breast cancer awareness is simply not getting through to the people who need to hear it the most, I come upon someone like Tania Katan. Her memoir, My One-night Stand With Cancer, is a funny and ruthlessly honest account of her own experience with breast cancer. Today, a friend posted a link to Katan’s recent TED Talk, which I’ve posted below. In it, she refers to a quote from Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany for Survival”, from The Black Unicorn: Poems, as her inspiration and guide to speaking out about the reality of the disease. If you’ve ever “run for the cure,” or been tempted to, or questioned the point of such an event, you’ll want to watch this video:
Decades ago, while I still felt imbued with youth, half-convinced of my immortality, I saw and heard Audre Lorde herself declaim the poem from which Tania Katan quotes. It was a thunderously moving experience. And I think a fitting way to end this post is to provide the entire text:
A Litany for Survival
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
— Audre Lorde
The title of this post was inspired by another quote from Audre Lorde: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” Audre Lorde died of cancer in 1992.
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