What toys did Audre Lorde Play with?

Dr.Gloria Joseph (Audre Lorde’s partner before she passed) opened her presentation on the “Wind is Spirit: The Life, Love and Legacy of Audre Lorde” to a group of women at the 4th Annual Caribbean Women and Sexual Diversity Conference in St.Croix, by noting that Audre Lorde told her was that one of the things she wanted her biography to say was that she played with toys in the bathtub. Me and Isabel listened and smiled when she said it. All week long we were playing and exploring play with activists at the conference. We were looking through kaleidoscopes, colouring and writing notes from sessions with markers on napkins. So when Dr. Gloria Joseph said that that was one of the things Audre wanted us to know about her, we wanted to know what kinds of toys.

Isabel put up her hand to ask the first question and had whispered excitedly what she was going to ask.  I was so eager to hear the response. “First of all Thank you” she said. “I just wanted to know what toys Audre Lorde played with? You said she played with toys in the bathtub”. Dr. Joseph erupted, “What toys? Toys? Who said anything about toys? What toys are you talking about? Is this a question? Toys? I need someone to come and interpret these…these questions for me. You over there yes you come.”

By this time the room of women was filled with laughter,  probably surprised at Isabel’s usual excitement at such an unusual topic – toys – as well as embarrassed by the very dismissive response from Dr. Joseph.  It seemed like there was not a full understanding of Isabel’s question or the importance of discussing the things that Audre wanted people to know about her – that she played with toys in the bathtub.

Isabel was used to this response to her playfulness and refusal to “adult”. Not wanting her to feel too much embarrassment or whatever emotional response came from responses like Dr. Joseph, I reasoned with her about the significance of the non-response while another question was being directed at Dr. Joesph.

I was disappointed by Dr. Gloria Joseph response but I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t surprised because hero worship always misses the point. It is quite common to hear the great works of Audre Lorde repeated like mantras and gospels at gatherings such as these. Repeated until they feel empty. They feel empty because they were not meant to be words repeated but be words to be lived. To be the things that we believe, truly understand, and do from a place that we fundamentally know, because we listen to ourselves.

What I think Dr. Joseph missed is that in order to be free we have to trust ourselves. We have to believe that what we think is creative, has creative power, has transformative power, is representative of us, meets our needs and serves our best interest. When we listen to ourselves we can create for ourselves. Isn’t this what we want as activist and feminist? A better world that meets the needs of male and females equally, that privileges none? That sees that love is food for the soul from the soul? Where women can love each other and grow and feel nurtured and whole?  Where men can love each other and grow feel nurtured and whole? Where the riddim of life or social structure does not need to be imposed from inorganic controlling or dominating ideologies but an understanding about the conditions that are essential for our being in harmony?

Some people like Dr. Joseph want us to believe that insight from humans which help other humans entitles them to be heroes. That day she wanted us to recognize that Audre Lorde as being as important and significant as Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Malcom X. What me and Isabel understood more clearly was that Audre Lorde was who she was because she was in touch with a very important part of herself and arguably the most important part of herself, her child. Her child allowed her to stay curious and questioning and committed to listening to herself, trusting herself and letting herself guide her; and she did this by playing.

Me and Isabel knew that we hadn’t heard incorrectly but I was still willing to give Dr. Joesph the benefit of the doubt and I decided to ask a question.  “How did Audre Lorde practice self-care?” I asked.  She began, “What do you mean self-care? You mean how Audre conducted her life?….that is a philosophical question….,” and as her response continued to fade into the background of my mind she had answered the question Isabel had asked and my question in one.  She did not know. She did not understand what Audre Lorde said and did but we did. We knew that Audre played with toys as a part of practice of self-care and we knew that play was a very important part of Audre’s ability to be so profound.

That day we learned a very important lesson from Dr. Joseph. We learned that hero worship comes at a cost of losing touch with the message of the ‘hero’. We also were reminded from a little known detail of Audre’s life that we find our way back to ourselves, listening to ourselves, trusting ourselves, creating, resonating and playing.

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About afifa

dj. artist. creative director and co-founder of the SO((U))L HQ and DI Institute for Social Leadership. I make ritual spaces.

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