“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.”
—Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”
I have been haunted by this quotation over the past year. So much so, that I asked students in one of my classes to trace its significance for a final exam—for those of you yet to take the exam, I have provided an alternative question.
Something about this quotation nags me, makes me feel itchy, restless, uncomfortable with my own thinking. How is Lorde using labor? What is tiredness in relation to work? There is something about “the necessary,” yes, but something more. Or, I want there to be something more.
There is a way to read this statement that is familiar and easy: the brave mother who faces down a lion because of her child. The scared soldier who fights in a war. The people we term “courageous,” because they act in the face of danger.
But, I wonder, do we lose something in describing these people as “courageous”? Might it be useful to focus not on their overcoming fear, but on their inhabiting its pauses and gaps, its ellipses and voids, its crevices and abysses? What kind of narrative might we have to tell then? What if our demands for courage, to read fear as courage, actually misread crucial historical acts?
Put otherwise, might Lorde be thinking with and around “courage”? Asking us to think of how “courage” functions to suture together disparate groups (the mother with child and the soldier, for instance), asking us about the masculinist histories that surround “courage” in its modern form, asking us about what it takes to act in the face of struggle.
I must confess, the term “courage” feels thin to me, because it is bandied around too easily, describing everything from one’s personal narration of “secrets” (“I was a fat child”), to one’s journey on a train (“how did you manage!”), to one’s new hair color (“how daring”), to the choice to bear children (“such bravery”), to the decision to kill someone else (“how courageous”). It is not simply that it has come to mean everything, but that its flavors mix too promiscuously for my taste, like food from my primary school kitchens—different names, same flavors.
And I am interested in what it means to act when “afraid.” In what it means to “learn” how to act when afraid. In a pedagogy that does not stress getting over fear, but learning how to work within it. Learning not to be crippled by fear, but not necessarily how to be “brave” or “courageous.”
What range of historical actors and actions come into view when we allow “fear” to form part of our historical narratives? And, to return to my initial framing, how might histories of labor inform histories of fear? And how might pedagogical practices suture both?
After a semester of teaching Lorde, I am struck by how much we desire to read her as courageous, even as her works are wracked with a “hundred indecisions,” moments of profound anxiety, lines that trail off, and not always into possibility.
In part, here I continue Wambui’s question about what it means to be a strong black woman, that tedious mythology that does so much damage. But I also want to extend her question to ask what it might mean to work and act through and with fear, and what it means to “learn to work and speak when we are afraid.”
What might we lose when we focus on “training” ourselves out of fear? When we absent certain emotions from the scene of the political—the political, here, as a shorthand for action? Might there be other ways we can imagine what Lorde might term the uses of “fear”?
We are down with her “uses of anger” and “uses of the erotic,” but I wonder what we might do with her “fear.”
I’m still nagged by this question—and want to inhabit its provocations for a while.