Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is a biomythography by the writer, feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde (you can purchase a copy of it here!). Zami explores Lorde’s personal experiences and struggles with family, sexuality and identity growing up, focusing mainly on her relationship with the various women in her life, while simultaneously exploring the reality of the racism prevalent in America in the first half of the twentieth century and her struggles with this racism throughout her youth. From her first female lover in Stamford Connecticut, to Bea who she meets after her fathers death, to Eudora and the independent lesbians of Cuernavaca, to Muriel and Lynn who enter her life as she explores the lesbian bar scene in New York, and finally Afrekete, the African mother who leaves her for her child, Lorde’s autobiographical tale intertwines strands of identity, sexuality, race, and family in a masterful and emotional story of one woman’s struggle for existence and acceptance.
While this book is one that is more than worth reading for the sheer enjoyment of it- Lorde is an incredible writer, and her writing flows evenly and smoothly all the way throughout- what I found particularly interesting, and what I believe remains current and relevant to today’s society, was the way in which Lorde struggles to reconcile her sexuality and her race, and comes to find there is, in fact, no place in which the two aspects of her can exist simultaneously. In other words, there is a lack of space within the lesbian community she belongs to in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s of her youth for black people, and conversely, she feels there is a lack of existence within the black community for lesbians. Consider how limited the scope of the out lesbian community was itself in the 1950/60s: as Lorde puts it, “Often, just finding out another woman was gay was enough of a reason to attempt a relationship, to attempt some connection in the name of love without first regard to how ill-matched the two of you might really be.” It seems that merely finding another woman who openly identifies as a lesbian is rare enough an instance to attempt a romantic relationship. The majority of the lesbian women Lorde speaks about and is close to were white, perhaps because “to be Black, female, gay and out of the closet…was considered by many Black lesbians to be suicide.” There seems to be, by Lorde’s account, a lack of space for acceptance of lesbian (or gay) individuals within the Black community: whether this act of “suicide” comes down to the particularities of gender constructions and power balance between man and woman in the Black community is something to consider. In this limiting space, then, what I wonder is how one might reconcile these two integral facets of identity? Surely to segregate and to require separate existences, one as “Black” and the other as “lesbian” is an inherently dividing and potentially damaging experience, and yet to assimilate the two, if it was even possible, seems to run the risk of simplifying the “other” identity, in this case of “Black” and “lesbian”, thereby not allowing them their respective differences and classifying them under that one umbrella term, “other”.
Clearly, as Zami seems to demonstrate, this segregation and lack of reconciliation for such minority groups seem to be largely problematic. For example, consider A Black Feminist Statement, by the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist lesbian organization active in Boston from 1974 to 1980, formed in response to the (white) feminist movement which CRC thought did not address their particular grievances. Their manifesto questions whether or not the lesbian separatism within the Black community as a political movement s a productive way of going about affecting change, in the fact that it only accounts for the sexual difference, negating class and race, which they deem to be incredibly important factors. While this call for a collective movement seems to be aware of the dangers of simplification in unification, in that it is also aware of the differences of class, race, and sexuality, it nonetheless calls for a collection of these branded “others” together, forming a molecular group of resistance and activism. I would argue that what is most essential in a movement like this, which seems to be something that Lorde was immensely aware of, is a unification with regard for the differences in class, race, sexual identity. Simplistic identity politics is a dangerous way of understanding political and social intent, but when identity politics is fluid and flexible to the identities of those involved, it can build upon itself to form a strong, well-bonded group, self-aware of the individuals that form its molecular construction, united in difference.
Overall, Zami is an incredibly illuminating book, and it’s discussion of the problems with intersections of feminism and sexuality are hugely relevant to other social movements, particularly those happening today. If you’re interested in reading more about Audre Lorde and her life, you can do so here, and click here if you’re interested in reading more about the Combahee River Collective.