Audre Lorde’s “Outlines” explores the liminal spaces of human relationships – the borders at which people meet each other, the sites of race relations, the intimate association of rage and regeneration, and the continual conflation of the personal and the political. In speaking about an interracial lesbian relationship, Lorde investigates the commonalities between the two women of her poem, but she refuses to synthesize the racial differences between them. Rather, Lorde will speak about the ways in which the women’s commonalities, their love and respect for one another, allow them to confront the history of race relations on an intimate and immediate level; as Lorde writes in the poem, “what we share illuminates what we do not.”
The first stanza is an amazing moment of intimate opposition (or oppositional intimacy) in which color and gender are both immediately fore-grounded and irreducibly woven together. By speaking directly of “a Black woman and a white woman” whose relationship will be explored through the poem, the fifth line emphasizes the sexual and racial tropes of the first stanza, reinforcing the purposiveness of Lorde’s references to “hue” and “color,” as well as to the specifically vaginal images of the “slit of anger” and the “channel/blood comes through.” As a lesbian viewing the female body, the speaker’s vaginal references represent both an extremely sensual moment – based on a specific desire for the other’s body – as well as a moment of self-understanding and an awareness of the terrain of her own body. Therefore, when the speaker asks,
What hue lies in the slit of anger
ample and pure as night
what color the channel
blood comes through?
the answer is neither black nor white, but rather both. Both women have their own histories, their own incitements to anger, and their own relationship to their female bodies, and the ambiguity of the first stanza embraces the commonality of these experiences. The fifth line, in contrast, sharply foregrounds the difference between the two women, making it clear that the opposition between “Black” and “white” will never be erased or forgotten. Significantly, the Black woman’s race is marked by a capital while the white woman’s is not, and this difference in capitalization makes it clear that the opposition between black and white never breaks free from the historical context of racism. Within the framework of radically unbalanced race relations, the “Black woman’s” race becomes a part of her identity in a way in which the “white woman’s” race does not; whiteness carries with it the privilege of neutrality.
As the site of both sexual and racial transgression, the relationship between the two women always represents a struggle against the “burden” of a “history” that would prefer to ignore or invalidate their existence. Because of the weight of history and the tenacity of racist and heterosexist judgments, the women must find their way through a terrain that is continually hostile and resistant; they are “Black woman white woman/ altering course to fit our own journey,” “together embattled by choice/ carving an agenda with tempered lightning.” Moving in such a terrain, every movement is a struggle and a risk, the continual crossing of a “bridge” that is “mined” by “fury/ tuned like a Geiger counter,” and yet the speaker chooses to turn towards that struggle because she realizes that the women “cannot alter history/ by ignoring it.” Even though her decision to enter into a relationship with a white woman “means a gradual sacrifice/ of all that is simple,” the speaker resolves that she will no longer allow the “burden of history” to steer the course of her life:
In this treacherous sea
even the act of turning
is almost fatally difficult
coming around full face
into a driving storm
putting an end to running
before the storm.
Though the speaker realizes the “open fact of [their] loving” cannot in itself change history, her determination to struggle against the weight of that history challenges its strength.
Even as the poem affirms the relationship between the two women, it also continually confronts the rage and violence that constantly threatens this relationship from both within and without. In section IV of the poem, the women rise “after a battle that leaves our night in tatters/ and we two glad to be alive and tender;” there seems to be a violence that is inherent in the relationship, and a rage that is intimately bound up in their love for one another. This violence is both compared to and contrasted with the violence from that comes from without – a violence that is unmitigated by tenderness:
We rise to dogshit dumped on our front porch
the brass windchimes from Sundance stolen
despair offerings of the 8 A.M. News
reminding us we are still at war
and not with each other
The violence from without is perpetrated by people who do not make the effort to confront and struggle with difference or otherness, and as such it remains destructive. The woman’s violence towards each other, on the other hand, grows out of their very commitment to try to understand each other’s differences, and as such it is a productive violence that ends in tenderness and regeneration. Significantly, Lorde does not constitute rage itself as “male” or “other;” rather, rage and tenderness are conflated, written as part of the same struggle against the “burden of history.”
Copyright © 2004 by Christina Scheuer