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Cherrie Moraga and Audre Lorde

Updated on June 12, 2011

“Home is Where the Other is Not Welcome: Self-definition and Inter-racial relationships in Cherríe Moraga and Audre Lorde”

Cherríe Moraga claims the “feminist tenet, the personal is political ” as license to use her own life as evidence in the exploration of the Us-them binary found in many shifting forms throughout society (Moraga, Looking Back: Foreward to the Second Edition iv). She invites the reader to position her ethically when she declares, “I cannot write what I am not willing to live up to” (Moraga, Introduccion to the First Edition xi). This invitation brings the reader to ask, what is it Ms. Moraga is willing to live up to? The answer lies in the closing section of Loving in the War Years in which, through the sacrifice of her white lover, Moraga chooses an essentialist definition of the Chicana/o community and of herself as a Chicana. In contrast, Audre Lorde explores a similar inter-racial lesbian relationship in her poem “Outlines”, but sacrifices neither party while realizing the difficulties inherent in such a connection. By applying Luce Irigaray’s theory of intersubjectivity the personal and political aspects of the choices made by Moraga in Loving in the War Years and Audre Lord’s “Oultines” may be revealed and explored as they position themselves regarding the concept of difference.

Every Dialogue Requires Three

Luce Irigaray attempts to build a sexual ethic keyed on the concept of the transcendent, defined by her as that which is “irreducibly other-but not superior” (Irigaray, Towards a Sharing of Speech 91). The existence of dialogue, and for Irigaray love is a specific dialogue that includes bodies, requires the participation of two transcendent beings who recognize and respect each other’s alterity. Without this mutual recognition and respect, what appears to be a dialogue is in reality a monologue in which the participation of the other party is unnecessary (Irigaray, The Wedding Between Body and Language 15). It is failed communication.

The recognition of alterity is very precise and important in Irigaray’s thought. Recognition of another’s transcendence is recognition of an unbreachable difference and distance. It “means that I cannot know you in thought or in flesh” (Irigaray, You Who Will Never Be Mine 8). This very impossibility is the predicate of true dialogue and love, in which each party approaches the other, creating a third space that is neither of them and within which neither is master, neither is slave, neither assimilates the other in a costly unity (Irigaray, You Who Will Never Be Mine 9-10). This space of approach is the space where two subjectivities, neither resolvable into the other, develop in communication (Irigaray, Preface xii).

Thus, in Irigaray’s theory, there are three spaces in each dialogue: two transcendent subjects and the space of conversation between them. Difference is not lost in communication. Difference is fundamental to the existence of dialogue, and so also fundamental to the dialogue that is love. In fact, according to Irigaray, it is difference that makes fertile dialogue, that allows for the development and self-realization of each party (Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference 27). Although Irigaray fully develops her theory in an address of heterosexual relationships in which the great alterities are male and female subjectivity, the positions she speaks of can be fruitfully applied to racial subjectivities such as those experienced by Cherríe Moraga and Audre Lorde[1].

Moraga’s Ofrenda

“The Dying Road to a Nation: A Prayer Para Un Pueblo” closes Loving in the War Years on a note of loss, fear, and commitment. The losses are those of an aging family and body—father, mother, wisdom teeth. The fear is of death, personal and racial. The solution is a son, the reproduction of the threatened race, and a sacrifice, the rejection of the white woman who has been her lover for eight years (Moraga, The Dying Road to a Nation A Prayer Para un Pueblo 201). Consciousness of death make Moraga think all decisions deferred suddenly urgent, and it was, she writes, the death of an aged uncle that impelled her “to act on a lesbian divorce years in coming” and into the arms of a Mexican woman (Moraga, The Dying Road to a Nation A Prayer Para un Pueblo 200). However, it is not this old man’s death that justifies her action, it is the existence of her son:

“For him I have committed unforgivable acts, denied motherhood to a white woman—for eight years my partner—who saw herself his ‘mother’ because she could not accompany us on the brown road I was to walk. I turned away from her and toward that disappearing Chicano tribe in which, without country or contract, I seek place, for myself and my son”

Moraga’s son and her lover are both racialized tokens in her claims to a Chicano identity. Her son, to whom she maintains the white woman she divorces has no claim, is Chicano in a way she, with her white father, cannot be, and in order to transmit to him an unsullied heritage, and to illustrate her commitment to the Chicano tribe, she offers up her white lover as “a brutal sacrifice for change”. She writes, “The severing of that relationship became my ofrenda” (Moraga, The Dying Road to a Nation A Prayer Para un Pueblo 201). Difference is not fertile, as in Irigaray’s theories of intersubjectivity, but shameful, theatening, and treacherous. The different must be consciously excised and removed.

According to Katherine Sugg, the strategy of sacrificing the white woman as “the new disposable subject” in Chicana feminist narratives is not confined to Moraga. It is one of the ways in which Chicana lesbian feminists are able to position themselves as loyal members of the Chicano community while maintaining their sexual difference (Sugg 142). Moraga herself writes, “sex remains the bottom line on which she proves her commitment to her raza” (Moraga, A Long Line of Vendidas 96). Moraga is addressing the patriarchal abuses of Chicanas in Chicano culture, however, this racialization of sexual choice applies equally well to her abandonment of her white lover. The lover is rejected because to remain with her is to betray la raza; to embrace another Chicana is to embrace la raza. As Cherrie Moraga, quoted by Katherine Sugg, writes, “’[Chicana lesbians] fundamentally find home entre los brazos de la hermana chicana’” (Sugg 148).

Moraga’s white lover is swallowed by the designation ‘white’. She becomes nothing more than that. Certainly her alterity, her transcendence, are neglected as she becomes a sign in a racial discourse. Moraga identifies her lover with her own whiteness, with her fear of not being Chicana enough by a trick of skin color, the heritage of her white father. She rejects this heritage: “I have to choose. There is no place for ambivalence…no place for bi-racialized maybes” (Moraga, The Dying Road to a Nation A Prayer Para un Pueblo 203). Moraga states her position more clearly in “Art in America, Con Acento”: “Chicana is not the mere naming of one’s racial/cultural identity, but it is a politic, a politic that refuses integration” (157). The abandonment of her white lover is a final step in this separatist definition of what it means to be Chicana. It is a political act, in the perpetration of which the other subject, the lover, is turned into an object, a sign of what it means to be Chicana, an offering to the Chicano community and its ancestors. It is, by Irigaray’s theory of intersubjectivity, unethical.

A Sea of Calculated Distance

Audre Lorde’s “Outlines” was published in Our Dead Behind Us in 1981. It is a poem of love between a Black woman and white woman in Mississippi, threatened externally by the violence of society and within their relationship by their separate histories, their difference: “A Black woman and a white woman/charter our courses close/in a sea of calculated distance” (Lorde I, 5-7). The preciousness and difficulty of such a relationship are recognized: “In this treacherous sea/even the act of turning/is almost fatally difficult” (Lorde I, 26-28), and again, “we cannot alter history/by ignoring it/nor the contradictions/who we are” (Lorde I, 39-42).

Lorde does not celebrate the ease of love in this poem. There is no easy identification of one lover with the other. Neither can assimilate the other. However, they can work together, live together, form a space and a way of life that belongs to both of them: “we made a home outside of symbol/learned to drain the expansion tank together/to look beyond the agreed-upon disguises/not to cry each other’s tears” (Lorde II, 36-39). These two women occupy the space of ethical love as expressed in Irigaray’s theory of intersubjectivity, each wholly transcendent, wholly themselves, but together creating the third space of dialogue in which each is invited to become, to grow, and to develop: “what we share illuminates what we do not” (Lorde V, 3).

They are united by love, and by their shared war to defend the possibility of loving, in a world that attacks them with burning crosses, theft, and dogshit (Lorde IV, 6-16). The poem continues: “we have chosen each other/and the edge of each other’s battles/the war is the same” (Lorde V, 29-31). They cannot fully share one another’s battles, for they cannot fully be the other woman, but there is a space of connection and sharing, the edges, where they can act as one. This intersubjective space is lacking in Moraga’s relationship with her white lover, who is to her by their divorce merely a cypher of whiteness and an object to be sacrificed.

Politics of Difference

The distinct approaches of Moraga and Lorde in addressing an inter-racial relationship may find some echo in their individual politics. Each is part of Third Wave Feminism, challenging the control of feminist objectives and definitions by middle-class white women and demanding that alternative voices be given recognition and power. However, Moraga and Lorde address self-identity very differently, and their address of self-identity is tied to their recognition of others as objects or transcendent subjects.

Moraga’s self-identifies as Chicana. It is the identity towards which she strives throughout Loving in the War Years , with some stumbling and hesitation, usually the result of shame at her pallor and fear of rejection. She writes in the “Introducción to the First Edition” that “I write as I do because I am committed to communicating with both sides of myself” (xiii). However, in the end she commits herself to the Chicano community to the exclusion of her white lover and white father, creating a new essential self by an effort of will and a sacrifice. Once this decision has been made, once Loving in the War Years is finished, she tells us “I had finally told my story, for better or for worse, and felt free of it, free for other voices, other stories to enter me” (Moraga, Looking Back: Foreward to the Second Edition vi). She began to work in drama instead of poetry, and, as a dramatist, her voice was no longer the single voice of a woman, but “a much larger community of people could inhabit me and speak through me: La Raza” (Moraga, Art in America, Con Acento 157). Theater is a means by which comunidad, the healed, whole Chicano community she desires, may be realized (Moraga, Art in America, Con Acento 159). Moraga focuses all her concerns, and the substance of her personal identity as a writer and a radical, in the Chicano community, in being a Chicana, to the detriment of other identifications and possibilities.

By way of contrast, Audre Lorde consistently struggled against attempts to define her in single terms.

“There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself…because that’s the piece that they need to key into. They want you to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you’ve lost because then you have been acquired or bought by that particular essence of yourself, and you’ve denied yourself all the energy that it takes to keep all those others in jail. Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat” (Hammond and Lorde 31).

In 1982 she told Claudia Tate that “[T]here are no more single issues”, but the liberation of humankind required collective and individual action in coalitions that recognized, but are not destroyed by, difference (88). As Audre Lorde’s personal identity cannot be confined to the single, homogenous essence of Black, her political loyalties and attention are also capable of a fuller expression and possibilities of action than the essential Chicana identity provides to Cherríe Moraga. Under the essentialist Chicana identity, alliances may follow only where strong similarities are perceived, not where difference creates true alterity.

The Problem of Pain

Cherríe Moraga’s retreat into an essentialist position may be explained by her attitude toward pain, her sense of herself as dismembered and torn, her consicousness of herself as, in part and with revulsion, white (Moraga, What Kind of Lover Have You Made Me, Mother? 2). She compares herself to Coyolxauhqui, “severed into pieces in the war against her brother” (Moraga, Looking Back: Foreward to the Second Edition iii). She identifies her quest as one of return “to my Califas, where I could be all my fragmented parts at once; the re-membered Coyolxauhqui taking up permanent residence in Aztlán” (Moraga, Looking Back: Foreward to the Second Edition iv). She applies this same figure, the dismembered goddess to be re-membered, to the Chicana audience of her theater, the bodiless Mexicana (Moraga, Art in America, Con Acento 159). Moraga seeks wholeness in identification with her india mother, rejecting her white father and the white that is part of her. Her commitment to the Chicana community is an attempt to achieve a perfected family haven from external pressures and internal tensions, but it is a commitment that requires proofs because of her pallor. She proves her commitment to herself and signifies it to the outside world, allying herself to wholeness and purity, through the visible ethnicity of her lovers, abandoning the white lover for the brown.

Audre Lorde, however, is not trying to escape pain. “Pain is important: how we evade it, how we succumb to it, how we deal with it, how we transcend it”. Pain is a temporary condition to Lorde that stops or changes. It cannot be permanent (Winter and Lorde 16). The only intolerable pain is that from which nothing is learned (Evans and Lorde 74). As Moraga is guided by the quest for wholeness, Audre Lorde is guided by her pain: “If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest” (Tate and Lorde 92). The acceptance of pain as fruitful allows painful dialogues to be established and worked through, an exercise not attractive to one fleeing pain towards wholeness.

The dialogue between transcendent subjects is demanding. It does not allow the romance of unity in which one can become lost and devoured by a lover. It demands the attention of both parties, a commitment to self and to the other that realizes one cannot become the other, cannot master the other, cannot, in the end, assimilate the two into one. The presence of difference creates the possibility of pain, misunderstanding, a lack of comprehension, but so long as the differences are recognized and respected these possibilities are diminished by the realization that the words used by one are not always received in the manner they were intended. The recognition of difference creates an awareness of the errors possible in dialogue, and so these difficulties may be worked through as each party to the dialogue actively listens and actively hears the other. Moraga’s essentialist Chicana identity, however, while securing her in the community, constrains her “to the inside of an increasingly bounded world”, what Rafael Perez-Torres calls ‘the self-enclosure of ethnic identification’ (Sugg 144).

Moraga preserves the demonology of the Us-them dyad, changing only who is meant by Us and who is meant by them. This demonology limits the reach of love, for “an ethics of love is viable only to the extent that the radical difference indicated by alterity forms its basis” (Davis 146). In other words, an ethics of love is possible only where the limits of knowledge, in Irigaray’s terms the transcendence of the subject, is confronted. It “is an ethics of the political that grasps the epistemological consequences of singularity…that can neither be expressed in the positive sense of disclosure nor be approriated by knowledge” (Davis 146). Moraga is seeking knowledge, and acting upon the knowledge she believes she has secured, but it is a knowledge limited by her self-identification as Chicana, in which the only important subject is the race and her role as an artist of the tribe.

Limited Love

Cherríe Moraga chooses to be Chicana, and to her to be Chicana is importantly and decisively not to be white. Her identity as a Chicana is one she had to forge for her bloodline was compromised by her white father, and so her claims are also compromised. She wills herself to be Chicana through acts of exclusion and sacrifice, culminating in her abandonment of her white lover, and in that lover the white community which remained an option for her by virtue of her pallor (Moraga, The Dying Road to a Nation A Prayer Para un Pueblo 202). She gives her son to the Chicano community, although she retains the right to transform that community from within, as one who belongs to it and thereby through identification with the community has the right to criticize it and as an artist the power to transform it.

This positioning may give her a sense of belonging she lacked before. It finalizes her retreat from the complications of identity into a singular identity, that of the Chicana on the “brown road”. However, it limits her ethical considerations to tribal considerations, to an intensive focus on those who are like her without consideration for those who are dissimilar. There is a danger to such a restricted sense of responsibility, both politically and personally. It eliminates the possibilities of a fruitful dialogue between those different from one another, and denies a power to communication that in a world of almost limitless variety seems necessary. It denies the possibilities for creative dialogue, for the development of alternatives to the mutual self-destruction of ethnicities and cultures that continually threaten to undermine existence as humans on this earth. In her writing, Audre Lorde is as militant as Moraga, but she upholds the possibilities of dialogue, the importance of continuing exchange, and the possibility of fruitful alliances among the different.


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[1] For a history of the development of Luce Irigaray’s intersubjectivity theory as it deals with lesbianism, maternity, and the heterosexual couple, see Holmlund, Christine, “The Lesbian, the Mother, the Heterosexual Lover: Irigaray’s Recordings of Difference”, Feminist Studies 17.2 (Summer 1991). 283-308.


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