My first reading of Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic” left me feeling totally confused and inadequate, and it took some years for me to realize those feelings had more to do with the environment in which I read the essay and less about some lack of insight or deficiency on my part. During the first semester of my sophomore year, I took an introductory Women’s and Gender Studies course to see how I felt about declaring it as my minor. The main text we studied throughout the semester was something by Maria Shriver about the wage gap (framed in the usual white feminist ways that flattened all women’s concerns into something we can “lean in” our way out of), and Lorde was one of three texts by or about Black women. The other two were “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens” (the essay, not the book) by Alice Walker and an extract from the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
That same semester, I was trying to make up for my homesick first year by overloading on activities, saying yes to almost any and all friends and whatever they wanted to get up to, and taking classes towards the psychology double major I would eventually drop when I realized the humanities did not need a science to legitimize their study. So, it’s possible my encounter with Lorde was more like taking sandpaper to bare hands washed with lemon and vinegar and less like loving because I didn’t give myself enough time to do the readings and write the response paragraphs as thoroughly as was required of me. But I also think there was something more visceral about the way I experienced that essay in that classroom, something that made me feel confused and outside of my self for completely missing the point of a piece of writing that was supposed to be “for” or “about” me. I’m telling you I had to write a response to that essay and I could not assemble a single coherent thought, but neither Audre Lorde’s vocabulary nor the structure of her argument were to blame.
When I read Sister Outsider in grad school on my own a few years later, it was like someone had reminded me of a name I used to be called at home where I was safe, and I understood it well enough to teach from it towards the end of my time as a grad student. I first assumed the light that clicked on had to do with the passing of time and presumed maturity I had acquired, partially through the trauma of certain experiences that compelled me to harden and sharpen in ways that protected me and also…maybe I didn’t say no, maybe that didn’t happen.
Turning towards my self to try and find some of the blame for my lack of understanding within is my default posture. Only a few years had passed, and I don’t think I believe that I had to experience certain kinds of gendered violence firsthand in order to understand written works about it. I think part of the problem was located in that classroom where the only other ways Black women appeared were in graphic, lyricized descriptions by Eve Ensler of her putting her hands inside the wounds and fistulae of Congolese women who had been raped. I’m still so horrified by this detail that part of me hopes it is only a half-memory, though the detail of the horror and the depth of the disgust it still elicits tell me I didn’t dream this up.
I also have vague memories of an exercise where the professor wrote and underlined the words “black” and “white” on the board and asked us to add words we associated underneath each, and a white guy said he didn’t understand why “beautiful” would be under black because he would never feel compelled to add such an adjective for “white.” Less vague is my recollection of the time a Black man—a student minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies— in class said breastfeeding in public was inappropriate because “what if I just took my dick out and pissed in the middle of the street?” The more I write, the more comfortable I am saying the problem was the class and not me and my being an over-extended, less than diligent student at the time.
I’m thinking about “Uses of the Erotic” again because the author Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote a really insightful thread in response to a tweet that was a only a little tongue-in-cheek about the dearth of the erotic in media, “Why is nothing EROTIC anymore. Whatever happened to the slow uncovering of a shoulder? A knowing glance shared between lovers? A gentle kiss on the corner of the mouth? What the fuck guys?” Greenidge wrote, “eroticim requires a level of emotional vulnerability, directness and commitment to pleasure that is anathema to most media being produced today and honestly, most audiences consuming it.” She adds that our current algorithm-driven media landscape and mass/hyper-consumption make it so that it is almost impossible to tune into the “eroticism of the individual imagination/life,” [a lot of people’s versions of “romanticize your life” à la Tik Tok looks oddly similar, with the same beige couches and beige lattes, but I also think this romanticization is more about the simplified, easily recognizable gesture than it is about deep, individual desire] when our glowing screens are encouraging us to consume our way to a persona that will eventually have to shift when the aesthetic at hand is no longer on trend.
And then there is everyday surveillance that is any given somebody with a camera phone who could record your public moment of euphoria or crisis, “The generation that won’t dance in public anymore for the very real fear some random person will record it and upload it to social media for ridicule is fighting an uphill battle to get comfortable enough for full on eroticism.” I think there’s also something to be said for following along as people live out milestones you think you might like to have for your self. I’m not suggesting that social media invented wedding, promotion, or “just bought a house” announcements (have you heard of testimonies in church or the newspaper’s weddings section?), but church bulletins and special print columns are discreet and confined to the moment right after you leave the pew or close the newspaper, which might be less jarring, less humbling, less like an ambush, than seeing an ex or a former co-worker you didn’t particularly get along with having the destination wedding you never thought you wanted until this very exact moment, one that finds you alone on the couch on a weekend or at work on a shift that threatens to never end with no such joyful prospects on the horizon.
The thread ended with the following quote from Audre Lorde:
“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self respect we can require no less of ourselves…”
…a very timely reminder that all these months I have been searching for the words to try and explain the connection between my writing practice, pleasure, and a deep sense of self-fulfillment and satisfaction, I was looking for a Psychology Today post or an article with “nih.gov” in the URL when Audre Lorde had already given us the words.
I’ve been grasping at thoughts like dragging my hands through something spilled and scattered, trying to explain how well [I think] the novel revisions are going (only when people ask, for fear of becoming the insufferable artist friend, and also because I don’t expect people to be interested in something so narrow and so personal to me), where writing I do for other people and for work comes from a place of knowing that feels hollow. I wouldn’t even compare it to writing lists of groceries or tasks to complete, because even those have elements of ritual that can be sacred, because I am precious enough with my self to write down things like “altar flowers” and “loose leaf tea” and “plant care” and “text back” so that I not only remember these tasks, but can also celebrate their completion.
It doesn’t feel like schoolwork because I have always loved school from kindergarten through my graduate program, and there was nothing empty or soulless about the frustration I would feel trying to decipher even the subjects I didn’t enjoy [Ask me about the 2009 IGCSE Chemistry exam. I still haven’t recovered]. Writing on the behalf of another person or an organization feels sort of like writing by numbers, like internalizing rhetoric and turns of phrase that are not my own in order to produce something appropriate and slightly bland, supplanting my memory with that of the institution, like mimicry, without the bend of the accented voice or Ghanaian English discursive twists, like I’m moving my mouth and a language I only learned how to speak yesterday is coming out, in a voice much higher-pitched and slower talking than my own.
In “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” which also appears in the Sister Outsider anthology, Audre Lorde writes, “The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us-the poet-whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free…[The same white fathers who told me to look to Psychology Today or the NIH for answers I already knew?] For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men.”
The tension is not between the unfeeling, knowing place I work from as the realm of what is presumed logic or rationality versus my creative practice belonging to emotion and sentimentality, nor is it solely about my creative practice bending and taking a subordinate position to what I do to keep the lights on. If anything, my creativity and capacity to love and be loved take precedence in all ways except for time or the lack thereof, and even then, it is only my physical self spending the majority of her time between buses, office cubes, conference rooms, and back again. Anything I write for my self, even on days like this one where the words are coming out like pulling teeth from tough gums, is coming from a place so far within and so complicated that I don’t know if there will ever be words to explain what it means to write from a seeing-thinking-knowing-feeling place, but thankfully I don’t have to, because in a letter to Black women published in Essence Magazine in 1985, Toni Morrison said: “You had this canny ability to shape an untenable reality, mold it, sing it, reduce it to its manageable transforming essence, which is a knowing so deep it’s like a secret.”
This secret place is the psycho-spiritual manifestation of Gloria Naylor’s “other place” where all that is “dark, ancient, and deep” and “unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling” are guarded from the grasping hands and roving eyes of the uninitiated. When Yejide’s distant mother, Petronella, dies in Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s novel When We Were Birds, the two of them sit in the garden of Yejide’s mind sharing a cigarette and staring into the unending green, and Petronella tries to show Yejide how to step into their family’s ancestral duty to be custodians of the restless dead, both ancient and new, trying to call her attention to this seeing-thinking-knowing-feeling place by pressing hard on her pelvis until she feels:
“And then Yejide see it, or rather feel—how to see when is not your eyes working? When something in you seeing in a way you never see before?—sharp, shallow needle blues, placenta edges of pink and red and gold, flare then flicker and fade, like a bulb in a dark room.”
Even in this moment, with her mother talking to her from the afterlife while they both sit suspended between Petronella’s deathbed, Yejide’s subconscious, and the afterlife, Yejide still tries to see with her eyes and know with her mind as if these are separate experiences:
“Yejide squint past the garden and the mountains, past the figures in the room, try to pull back the colours to her—the blues, the pinks, the dark purples.
“Not with your eyes, child,” Petronella snap. “Some things spirit, and some things flesh. She press low on Yejide belly again, rougher, hurting her now.
“Here. Look with here.”
This “other place” might be inaccessible to Leonie, another complicated, difficult-to-love mother, in the novel Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, because even though she is able to see her deceased brother, she can neither sing to nor hear the natural world the way her children and her mother can, maybe because her grief and her addiction have built a dam blocking the way to her other place that grows more impenetrable the harder she tries to forget. Her inability to access what Lorde describes as “self-connection, as the knowledge of oneself as “capable of feeling,” as the demand that knowledge places on the self to live as though know you know “such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife” sends her deeper into despair and into longing for that connection anywhere else she can find it outside her self, in bad drug trips and in her boyfriend and the father of her children, Michael. I can no longer find the link to the recording, but I remember an interview where Jesmyn Ward described Leonie as “a walking wound” of a person, but I’d like to think that somewhere beyond the end of that story, she is closer to wholeness, because she is able to find her way back to the inner resources she has inherited from Mam’s ancestral veneration and Vodou practice, and also that she is living in a material reality where she is not vilified and shunned for being unwell and unable to care for her children the way they need or at all, but rather the care she needs to be well.
Because I am an artist with an art form and so [hopefully] not a danger to my self or to anyone else—I can pour all my fury and my hurt and my lost and my lonely and my glimmer onto these pages, though I wonder if the pages are enough, and I’m trying to keep the way open between my present and my other place and my “ungloved hand” turned towards all my creative impulses and desires, in the face of daily life that offers only two options: endless work (“stripped of its erotic value, its erotic power, and life appeal and fulfillment”) and self-denial in exchange for a place to lay one’s head, or abjection and death, and the even worse third option which is most common, endless work, self-denial, and abjection and death anyway, because the yield you were promised for all your labor was not enough to make the living you were promised.
Audre Lorde defines the erotic as follows:
“The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects—born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives…In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”
My evocation of Audre Lorde here is not to simply suggest that spending hours with my creative work feels sensual or romantic, though it does to a large extent. This is more an acknowledgment that new perfume; playlists full of songs about longing and lust and love; endless re-watches of Moonlight, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, In the Mood for Love, and specific episodes of Queen Sugar; listening to the When We Were Birds audiobook on an endless loop for the story’s beauty as much as for the Trini accents; and digital moodboards full of lush and lovely imagery are more a means to an end, what I listen to and look at on the way to my my other place, or, more actively, what carries or drives me there, meaning that even when I am completing the “necessary” paid work that sometimes makes my soul crouch low, I know that nothing is more powerful than the creative force of that seeing-thinking-knowing-feeling place, slices of the black femme sublime laying in luxuriant wait for Monday evening or Wednesday at lunch or Saturday morning when I can visit the garden of my mind and tend to all that is green and alive there, pruning all that is not, singing songs I have tried and failed to render in plain words, and cultivating secret knowings I may never tell.
Note added 10/25: I forgot to mention that poet, artist, and scholar Bettina Judd has a book coming out this winter titled Feelin: Creative Practice, Pleasure, and Black Feminist Thought, and just like Wicked Flesh by Jessica Marie Johnson, I’m breathlessly waiting, because I can tell that it will be what I need personally and for my creative and writing practice. A snippet from the blurb: “…feelin, in African American Vernacular English, is how Black women artists approach and produce knowledge as sensation: internal and complex, entangled with pleasure, pain, anger, and joy, and manifesting artistic production itself as the meaning of the work.” December can’t come soon enough.
 I wanted to cite this tweet properly but can no longer find the person’s account.
 Greenidge, Kaitlyn. [@surlybassey]. Twitter, 10 October 2022, https://twitter.com/surlybassey/status/1579646092874240000
 Have you seen the 2001 live-action film adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats?
 Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” pp. 43. Sister Outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press, 2012.
 Morrison, Toni. “A knowing so deep.” Essence 230 (1985)
 This is a reference to Gloria Naylor’s novel Mama Day (1988). The other place is the site of Mama Day’s childhood home where she goes to reclaim memory or actual items she needs for her ritual and care work.
 Lorde, Audre. “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” pp. 25. Sister Outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press, 2012.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. Grafton Books, 1982. This is about to be the longest footnote, because it was only when I went to look up the passage I’m referencing here that I realized that Toni Morrison’s description of Sula’s preoccupation with “her own mood and whim” sounds a lot like Audre Lorde’s erotic, except that maybe she didn’t have anywhere to channel this force that was more fruitful than relationships with men. The passage is long but worth quoting in full:
“They taught her nothing but love tricks, shared nothing but worry, gave nothing but money. She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be—for a woman. And that no one would ever be that version of herself which she sought to reach out and touch with an ungloved hand. There was only her own mood and whim, and if that was all there was, she decided to turn the naked hand towards it, discover it and let others become as intimate with their own selves as she was.
In her way, her strangeness, her naivete, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”
I’m often lonely for meaningful human connection, because besides in-person work, I’m still trying to avoid falling ill with COVID as much as I can, and because pre-2020 [and now when it’s possible to stay outdoors] I’m inclined to choose and enjoy my own company at bars, concerts, cafés until I look up and realize that it’s been weeks and I’d like to share the experience with someone else, especially someone who actually sees more of my humanity than they see the idea of me or the way I can make them feel. Do I sound like an egomaniac lying to themselves and other people by claiming to be an “empath?” I promise I’m not. This would probably make more sense in the context of a conversation I was just having with one of my uncles about a returning ghost who said to me that beyond being aware how upsetting his unceremonious disappearance would be to me, he was devastated at the possibility of “never getting to hear Zoë’s voice again.” Something about that third person…can you tell Casper was also just full of it? I’m not as profoundly lonely as I felt years ago, ironically when I was in grad school and living with roommates, but the line between alone and lonely sometimes seems nonexistent in these eternal pandemic times.