Sex and the Community in the Writings of Lourde, Shange, and Diaz
The works of Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, and Junot Diaz have featured communities that are formed around a shared sexual identity: one that is either chosen to be empowering or one that is forced upon the community members. In some cases, these sexually-defined communities are able to deepen the emotional connection between their members. In others, it limits or completely cuts off this connection.
Audre Lorde writes about the power that eroticism has to restore the common history and heritage of women of color in her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In it, she discusses the origin of the word “erotic” and defines it as such: “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” (Lorde 55). The erotic encompasses every aspect of life, from pure sexuality to the idea of being intellectually aroused by and passionate about one’s work. It allows women of color to reclaim the pride they have in every aspect of their lives. They can hold onto their shared language of womanhood and feel strengthened by it. Women unify by embracing the erotic power and using it to enrich their lives as a whole; they do not have to rely on anyone but themselves. It is a personal empowerment that becomes a shared empowerment as women adopt and implement the erotic in their lives.
As the erotic unites women through passion, it also deepens the individual relationships between women as they begin to acknowledge the differences between their stories and bridge those gaps. Through sharing the erotic, Lorde states that it “forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference” (Shange 56). By understanding that each woman’s life and struggles are different, but of equal importance, is the key to deepening the emotional relationships between them. At the same time, it prevents those differences from creating a rift that is uncrossable. It serves as a glue that seeps in and bonds women to the core.
Similarly, throughout Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” women of color are brought together as a single community through their shared, but largely negative, sexual experiences with men. The introductory poem, “Dark Phrases,” writes about the “dark phrases of womanhood / of never having been a girl” and addresses the subject head-on; verbal harassment, specifically sexual, is a guaranteed occurrence in the lives of women of color (Shange 3). Dark phrases consist of harassment such as catcalls, threats, and other sexual assertions by men. They are the unspeakable, hidden, harmful sentiments that have cast female sexuality into the shadows. This universal experience of being a target for “dark phrases” is what creates a collective womanhood in which all women of color unite to protect themselves. They have all lost their childhood to their sexual exploitation, and now they must protect their adulthood. By having each lady in the choreopoem participate, the poem invites women from across the country to feel welcome within this community. They are women from coast to coast and they all stand united in their shared female experience.
While women form a community around their shared sexual experience, they are severely hindered in achieving emotional human connection with the men who have fostered these experiences. In the poem, “One,” the lady in red acts as a seductress to get revenge on the men that took advantage of her. As she is luring men in, she says “she wanted to be unforgettable / she wanted to be a memory / a wound to every man / arrogant enough to want her” (Shange 32). She scars these men through sexual manipulation in the same way that men as a whole have scarred women of color using the same method. She asserts that men are not entitled to women, and they should not be “arrogant” to expect it at all. By inflicting a wound on these men, she is able to, if only momentarily, resurrect the independent and sexually empowered self that she has lost. However, she cannot resurrect any of the pure emotional compatibility with men that might have existed before being sexually harassed or assaulted. That relationship is forever tarnished.
On the reverse side, male sexuality in Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” does engender a community, but one that is saturated with toxic hyper masculine expectations that alienate those who don’t conform. More specifically, it is the sexual expectations imposed by the Dominican community on its children that are an alienating force. As a young boy, Oscar is described as a “‘normal’ Dominican boy raised in a ‘typical’ Dominican family, his nascent pimp-liness was encouraged by blood and friends alike” (Diaz 11). From early on in his life, Oscar is pressured to be a casanova that charms women through his sexual prowess. In fact, the phrase “nascent pimp-liness” imposes the expectation that as a Dominican male, he should be born with such a charm. If he isn’t, then he isn’t Dominican. Since Oscar is characterized as less than charming, his masculinity is called into question and he is isolated from the Dominican community that he has every right to be apart of.
Unfortunately, the way that Dominican culture perpetuates sexual dominance creates unnecessary competition between Dominican men. In some cases, it makes their emotional interactions borderline violent and sadistic. In Oscar’s fantasy about stealing a girl away from the extremely-masculine Manny, he says “when he was in a better mood he would let Ana find Manny hanging from a light fixture in his apartment, his tongue a swollen purple bladder in his mouth, his pants around his ankles” (Diaz 42). Oscar is so threatened by this other male that he wishes an extremely emasculating death upon him. By fantasizing about Manny’s suicide, Oscar suggests emotional weakness that reduces Manny’s rigid masculinity. By having his “pants around his ankles,” Oscar belittles Manny’s sense of sexual superiority. If Oscar had been raised in a community where hypermasculinity was of little importance, then maybe Oscar’s human connection to other men would be pleasant instead of tense and aggressive.
While Audre Lorde advocates for the erotic as a way to both form and strengthen communities, not everyone in the texts we’ve read were able to embrace its power in the way she intended. For the women of Shange’s choreopoem, it strengthens human connection between women but limits it between the two genders. For Oscar, never having known sexuality and passion as a morally-empowering tool, it leaves his connection to other men hostile. While sexuality impacts the characters of these stories differently, it impacts them completely.
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The works of Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, and Junot Diaz have featured communities that are formed around a shared sexual identity: one that is either chosen to be empowering or […]