The Master’s Tools – Audre Lorde

Mayowa Omogbenigun

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Art by Zoë Guthrie http://zoeguthrie.com/

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never allow us to bring about genuine change’. – Audre Lorde (‘The Master’s Tools’ 19)

My four years at university have led me to a simple conclusion: universities are bastions of white supremacy. From my first-year at university, it was clear that I would not belong in the proverbial ‘Master’s House’ (Lorde, ‘The Master’s Tools’ 19). It was micro-aggressions by students and academics alike. It was ignorant comments about the ‘Third World’ and the backward people living in it. It was learning everything from a Eurocentric and Western point of view and as postcolonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty explains, Europe was the silent referent in everything I was taught (42). The imbalance of power was clear by the content of what I was taught and by the language used to teach. Throughout my first two years at university, I struggled to find language to express how I felt and was deprived of any courses that discussed people of colour. In my second-year, I remember an ill-conceived course simply called ‘Asia and Africa 2a: Societies, Cultures, and Empires, c.1600-1880’ and ‘Asia and Africa 2b: Nationalisms, Liberation Movements and the Legacies of Colonialism, c. 1880-Present Day’. As you can imagine, the course lacked nuance and was far too vague to offer any real insight into either ‘Asia’ or ‘Africa’.

In my third year, I came across Postcolonial Theory and was exposed to Chakrabarty’s idea of provincializing Europe (42). Chakrabarty challenges scholars to explore the ways in which Enlightenment ideals became self-evident and obvious. Fundamentally, Chakrabarty argues that Europe is Europe and not the world and should be treated as such. This idea radically changed the way I approached academia and, more specifically, my personal interest which can be found within broader ‘African Studies’. The idea of provincializing Europe inspired a re-reading of Audre Lorde whom I came across in my second-year. Her simple words ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ assumed a new and radical meaning for me (‘The Master’s Tools’ 19). Lorde originally used this phrase in the context of feminism and activism. She argues that difference must be celebrated and acknowledged in order for any meaningful critique and analysis to exist. She rightly states that women on the peripheries of white middle-class feminism know that ‘survival is not an academic skill’ (‘The Master’s Tools’ 18). Survival is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. (‘The Master’s Tools’ 19)

Lorde later warns that in the quest to ‘define and seek a world in which we can all flourish’, we need to beware of being called upon ‘to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs’ (‘The Master’s Tools’ 20). Furthermore, feeding into ‘this old and primary tool of all oppressors’ keeps the ‘oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns’ (‘The Master’s Tools’ 20). ‘This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought’ (‘The Master’s Tools’ 20). Lorde’s words perfectly encapsulated my experience at university. To truly survive at the University of Edinburgh as a black woman meant learning that sometimes I would be alone. I would have to take a stand against micro-aggressions, ignorance and outright racism. I needed to search outside white academic structures and find knowledge that reflected my experiences and history. I would also have to be unapologetic in my stance and stop fooling myself into believing all I had to do was explain my point of view to my oppressors.

In my view, Lorde’s essay, while short, suggests a deviance from white hegemony within academic spaces. I came to view my learning as the master’s tools and the university as the master’s house. Reading Lorde’s work quite literally, I came to question the value of learning from a fundamentally Eurocentric point-of-view and how this could ever redress the imbalance of power within academia. When I, as a woman of colour, attempt to deviate from the master’s house, I am forced to do so using discourse provided and fashioned by the master. Postcolonial Theory attempts to dissemble and transform the master’s tools in order not simply to destroy the master’s house, but allow the oppressed create their own houses and break free from the master. Of course, Europe has not been provincialized and I will not claim to know how this can be done. A re-reading of Lorde’s essay ‘The Uses of the Erotic’, points to a way to supplement the long-term process of provincializing Europe (‘The Use of the Erotic’ 6). Although the essay speaks explicitly to women, I argue that using the ‘erotic’ – ‘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’ – allows marginalised groups to re-assert our ‘deepest and non-rational knowledge’ into academic spaces (‘The Uses of the Erotic’ 9). Ignoring the constraints of reason and rationality allows marginalised groups to act. Too often have women, especially women of colour, been told that they are too close to their area of study to be ‘objective’. Personally, I have found that my ‘creative knowledge’ often leads me to under-developed areas of studies ignored or dominated by white academia. My deep and non-rational knowledge of my country and my culture forces me to seek knowledge outside white-dominated academic literature.

Lorde’s work should not solely feature in a course. This would not do her justice. Her work should also not be limited to courses about women, queer women, racism and blackness. In my view, Audre Lorde’s writing needs to be understood as an approach. This approach allows us to actively work towards discarding the master’s tools and trust knowledge emanating from our identities and experiences. Surely, this will not be done easily. In many courses offered at ‘world-leading’ universities, knowledge generated by academics in marginalised groups does not feature. Access to this knowledge is limited and has to be sought after. It is not enough to have ‘diverse’ courses. Students from marginalised groups need to be given the tools to question the master. Critical discussions need to be encouraged and students need the discourse to have these discussions. We must not allow ourselves to be preoccupied with explaining our perspectives to the master, we must dismantle his house from under him and build our own. Universities need to understand and accept that the oppressed will no longer use the master’s tools.

Works cited

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Oxford UP, 2001.

Lorde, Audre. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Penguin Modern: 23, Penguin, 2018.

Lorde, Audre. ‘The Uses in the Erotic’. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde, Penguin Modern: 23, Penguin, 2018.

About the author

Mayowa Omogbenigun is a self-described phenomenal Nigerian woman. She is a fourth-year History and Politics student at the University of Edinburgh and will graduate in July. Her interests fall within ‘African Studies’ and she recently completed a dissertation exploring Biafran nationalism and nation-building. Mayowa is passionate about literature, but sadly poetry evades her. Mayowa recently got a conditional offer from Oxford for MSc African Studies. If everything goes to plan (and if she gets the grades!), she will continue her studies on Biafra in October.

One response to The Master’s Tools – Audre Lorde

  1. Andrew Nguyen

    Wonderful article! Beautifully written and I couldn’t agree more. Something I always think about in academia is how queer theory creates new spaces of thinking as well. Jose Munoz writes about new social realignments and considerations that haven’t even been considered, that haven’t appeared yet. His idea is that there are occupations, social dynamics, and ways of being that we’ve yet to even imagine. I think it’s hopeful theory and I think the idea of constructing new and radical tools for dismantling old white, heteronormative structures is important and what you say about Audre Lorde in your article really speaks to that idea.

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