Out of all of Audre Lorde’s beautiful words in her biomythography Zami, one stanza particularly captured my attention. In shedding light on the manner in which her mother encompassed power, Lorde continues by stating, “This was so in a time when that word-combination of woman and powerful was almost unexpressable in the white american common tongue”, highlighting the sexism and misconstrued idea of what women could and couldn’t be (Lorde 1982, 15). Although Lorde’s italicization of the words “woman” and “powerful” could be a grammatical choice, I interpreted them as Lorde using italicization to slant the words and indicate the weight both carry in their pure definitions and selves. Women have been burdened by power structures, historically and still today, and forced to carry the weight of sexism and abuse and expectations on our shoulders, permanently molding us into bent and leaning positions.
This magnitude and extremity of power relations that impede a positive connection between the terms women and power is further stressed by Lorde referring to the word combination as “unexpressable”, highlighting the inability for society to recognize women as empowered in their powerfulness. Furthermore, by saying, “in the white american common tongue”, Lorde pinpoints the cultural significance of women as powerful as being strictly tied to the United States and to American culture (Lorde 1982, 15). However, the concept of female power is not simply ignored or oppressed in American culture and does not remain isolated as its own marker of inequality. Lorde further states, “except or unless it was accompanied by some aberrant explaining adjective”, indicating how the word “powerful” was used to single-out and degrade people, and specifically women, who didn’t fit the societal view of “normal” (Lorde 1982, 15). By using the word “aberrant” to explain society’s manipulation of women and power, she indicates the “otherness” aspect of women who didn’t fit into the white, cis, straight stereotype of “normal”.
Lorde extrapolates on these adjectives by saying, “like blind, or hunchback, or crazy, or Black” (Lorde 1982, 15). The words in this sequence are words that are too often attributed to “abnormal” in American society — abnormal in one’s ability to see, in one’s posture, in one’s mind, in one’s skin color — all four words share the commonality of being perceived as lacking a certain ideal, as being inferior to everyone else. However, the word “Black” stands out as the only word in the sequence that has the first letter capitalized, attracting a certain attention to it. This capitalization contrasts with the all-lower-case words of “white” and “american” that Lorde states earlier in the passage. I interpreted this stylistic choice as a statement of the long-overdue respect and attention that must be brought to Black culture and, specifically, to Black women, as opposed to the whiteness with which American history attempts to be remembered.
So, why does this matter? It matters because stereotypes around what women should and shouldn’t still exist today, and must be acknowledged and addressed if we wish to progress towards equality. When women speak up and express themselves, they are often seen as “acting out” and “being unreasonable” and “too over-the-top”. However, when their male counterparts behave in the same way, they aren’t reprimanded and are even admired for their behavior. And, the further a woman is from the image of ideality, whether that be differences in sexual orientation, appearance, or race, the more her power will be twisted into ugliness by a society that values sameness over diversity.