Adrienne Rich: Visionary (1929-2012)

Several months ago I drafted a post on Occupy Wall Street suggesting that people interested in thinking through issues of race and gender (re)turn to Adrienne Rich as a wise source. We so often forget those who have gone before us, outside a fairly limited range, and I thought posting a few quotations from one of Rich’s essays might provoke thought and also encourage folks to dig out college anthologies, hunt down books in the library, or do a little web-searching.

I didn’t post the little piece because I wanted it to be Just Right. Then I got busy.

And now Adrienne Rich has died, and I am reminded again of how much she has to teach us.

Obituaries for Rich abound, and most of the ones I’ve read so far emphasize her radical feminism, which at a point in the 1970s extended even to lesbian separatism. But what these obituaries often occlude is the fact that Rich quickly moved beyond her analysis of gender as a primary source of suffering and extended her vision to a much broader web of oppressions. Learning from her Black sisters, especially, but also increasingly concerned with global markets, the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, and the tangled web of injustices, Rich expanded her ethical vision so that the often overlooked writings of her last 30 years–both essays and poetry–are as powerful for the feminism she so importantly helped write into being. As we struggle to think through healthcare reform, the hinging of a presidential race on women’s bodies, the uncomfortable reality of embedded violence and racism in the Trayvon Martin case, and our responsibility to attend and reflect and resist cynicism as we imagine and work together for some better future, I believe Adrienne Rich to be an important resource for anyone claiming to be young, or anabaptist, or radical. Let us not forget the wisdom of our elders.

Here is the piece I ought to have posted months ago.

Race, Gender, Occupy: Some Quotes from a Wise Source

I’ve been reading Adrienne Rich (again) as I’ve been thinking about race, gender, and other forms of difference in relation to Occupy Wall Street. Her essay “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” (1984) challenges the tendencies of the white, heterosexist makers of theory and policy who assume their experiences are universal, shared across the globe. I believe that in our analyses of injustices, of economies, we must take responsibility for our own situations–Rich calls this a “politics of location”–and the differences that characterize human experiences.

I’ve been thinking about this both in terms of the Occupy movement and in terms of anti-Occupy rhetoric, like the “Letter from a College Student” that has been circulating on political blogs and social networking sites. The paradoxical need for us to speak from our own experiences but also to resist generalizing from them, assuming that everyone else should be judged by the same standards is especially striking. So is the danger of one form of injustice taking precedence in a heirarchy of oppressions that de-emphasizes inextricably linked issues. Theologian Elizabeth SchüsslerFiorenza helpfully offers the term kyriarchy, meaning a structure of connected and mutually-sustaining forms of power based on gender, race, sexuality, class, capitalism, religion, etc. In the face of kyraiarchy, we need multiple stories–we need to practice attentive listening across differences. Only with such sensitive, hospitable openness to others will we see our collective energy renewed in the long-haul struggle for justice and beauty.

I would strongly suggest getting your hands on Rich’s essay (printed in her book Blood, Bread, and Poetry and widely anthologized). Too often we forget our earlier sources and inspirations. Here is Rich:

“A movement for change lives in feelings, actions, and words. Whatever circumscribes or mutilates our feelings makes it more difficult to act, keeps our actions reactive, repetitive: abstract thinking, narrow tribal loyalties, every kind of self-righteousness, the arrogance of believing ourselves at the center. [....] A politicized life ought to sharpen both the senses and the memory.”

The difficulty of saying I–a phrase from the East German novelist Christa Wolf. But once having said it, as we realize the necessity to go further, isn’t there a difficulty of saying ‘we’? You cannot speak for me. I cannot speak for you. Two thoughts: there is no liberation that only knows how to say ‘I'; there is no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through.”

“The movement for change is a changing movement, changing itself, demasculinizing itself, de-Westernizing itself, becoming a critical mass that is saying in so many different voices, languages, gestures, actions: It must change; we ourselves can change it.
We who are not the same. Who who are many and do not want to be the same.”

Comments (2)

  1. TimN

    Cindy,

    Thanks for this pithy window into Rich’s thoughts. I’ll admit I’ve never read her myself. Thanks for the nudge in that direction.

    Are any of her essays on-line?

    Sincerely,
    Tim

    Reply
  2. CindyW (Post author)

    Tim, thanks for the comment. With a quick search, I found this fairly recent article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/nov/18/featuresreviews.guardianreview15) by Rich on the political importance of poetry.

    There are also plenty of her poems available for a quick read on various websites, including at poetryfoundation.org.

    Reply

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