I finished the last few pages of Audre Lorde’s book The Cancer Journals (1980) today in the bowels of NYC’s subways at the same moment that a black woman who looked like she doesn’t have a place to call home pulled down her pants, peed on the already-dirty floor of the subway platform, and pulled her pants up again. Hipsters out to party laughed and moved away, while a subway worker ran over to confront the woman. She told him, “I don’t have anywhere else to go. What am I supposed to do?”
That certain bodies are, in particular, still denied dignity and self-determination in so many ways, materially as well as emotionally, and are the places on which various forms of violence are enacted, has a long history, of course, as Lorde’s work underscores, and is the embodiment of the machinations of racism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity — breaking, erasing, and killing certain bodies, certain people. “Silence and invisibility go hand in hand with powerlessness,” writes Lorde, offering up her experiences with her own body and breast cancer as further cause to give loud, strong voice to injustices. “As we [women] open ourselves more and more to the genuine conditions of our lives, women become less and less willing to tolerate those conditions unaltered, or to passively accept external and destructive controls over our lives and our identities.” But she also notes at one point, “Will I ever be strong enough again to open my mouth and not have a cry of raw pain leap out?”
Watching that woman in the subway reduced to urinating on a floor in public, perhaps because it’s safer there then finding a dark alley, perhaps because she’s been beaten down so often she doesn’t care anymore — perhaps for hundreds of reasons, small and/or systemic, over a lifetime of hurt — seemed to intimately bind Lorde’s assertion of a continual “quest for self-definition and power” to the continual ability to empathize, as Lorde does so poignantly in her book, with the “raw pain” of certain bodies suffering disproportionately under the weight of racism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity.
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(Photo by Cindy Milstein, NYC subway, 2013)