(1984), a collection of fifteen essays written between 1976 and 1984, gives clear voice to Audre Lorde's literary and philosophical personae. These essays explore and illuminate the roots of Lorde's intellectual development and her deep-seated and longstanding concerns about ways of increasing empowerment among minority women writers and the absolute necessity to explicate the concept of difference—difference according to sex, race, and economic status. The title Sister Outsider finds its source in her poetry collection The Black Unicorn (1978). These poems and the essays in Sister Outsider stress Lorde's oft-stated theme of continuity, particularly of the geographical and intellectual link between Dahomey, Africa, and her emerging self.
The subject matter of these essays is remarkably varied, yet homogeneous. The quality of these essays is consistently high and the unity is made possible by Lorde's emphasis on differences as a source of strength rather than divisiveness. In essay after essay, Lorde promotes the unity of difference. In lieu of remaining an isolato, she stresses the necessity of every individual, group, sect, cult, and movement to strive for unity in such diversity. Nowhere is this more clearly articulated than in “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House,”“Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” and in “Scratching the Surface, Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving.” In a powerful and persuasive manner, Lorde stresses the strengths of empowerment and acceptance as necessary acquisitions.
Perhaps the most well-known essay in Sister Outsider is “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” an emotional and powerful study of the erotic explicated by Lorde's famous analogy between the World War II practice of mixing yellow food coloring with colorless margarine at home to give the margarine the “proper” popular appearance. Lorde makes this communal experience erotic and, by extension, makes other mundane tasks become erotic and, therefore, highly pleasurable. Moreover, differences are also homogenized.
Another major emphasis of Sister Outsider is poetic theory, explored primarily in “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich” and “Poetry is not a Luxury.” The interview with Rich becomes a proving ground for unity in diversity as both women explore their common ground as lesbian poets struggling with voicing their most private concerns while not yet being able to totally trust individuals of other color, political persuasion, or economic status. Conversely, “Poetry is not a Luxury,” originally published in 1977, emphatically places poetry in the front ranks as “a vital necessity of an existence.” Why? Because poetry gives us access to our dreams, which cause us to keep on keeping on.
One of the most moving essays here is also one of the shortest, namely “An Open Letter to Mary Daly,” who is the author of Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978). In the letter Lorde challenges Daly to reexamine some of her statements regarding methods of achieving feminist unity. The last essay in Sister Outsider is “Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report,” which brings full circle the theme of diversity complementing solidarity. Highly politicized, “Grenada Revisited” allows Lorde to make peace with her mother while simultaneously revealing her views concerning racism/colonialism, noting that the slogan of the Grenadian Revolution was “Forward Ever, Back Never,” a spirit evoked by Sister Outsider.