Decolonization and Central Asia through the lens of Black feminist scholar Audre Lorde

By Alexa Kurmanov for CESS

Audre Lorde. Photo: K. Kendall. Illustration: Inge Snip

Dialogues between Blackness and Central Asia are not new but have been deemed unimportant in academia – it exposes whose and what type of work is privileged

We’re finding ourselves in a chaotic moment amidst recent calls by scholars of Eurasia to decolonize. As a Black scholar whose disciplinary home is both  Black Studies and anthropology, I am often pessimistic when terms like “decolonization” become mainstream. My research on Black feminist theorizations of intersectionality as a lens for critical examination of the category of “woman” in (post)socialist/(post)colonial Kyrgyzstan only adds to my anxiety.

In short, I am anxious about the lack of consideration for the historical baggage of a term like “decolonization.” Moreover, I worry about how mainstream western liberal or “politically correct” discourses deflate its meaning.  Are people ready to open themselves up to the discomfort of decolonization’s active undoing? Furthermore, who are they willing to be in conversation with to undo?

Although I often return to Audre Lorde’s essay, “Notes from a Trip to Russia,” after revisiting this essay this past year and particularly during my summer fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan, the ongoing discourse on decolonization has finally pushed me to speak on what continues to be overlooked. Mainly the importance of the Black critique and thought on Soviet Central Asia. What possibilities can we find in critical dialogues between Central Asian and Black Studies? What coalitions could we build in academic and activist circles?

There are two issues within current discourses of decolonization: the emphasis on differences and our inability to lean into commonality, and the lack of conversation with Black Studies

Instead of merely reciting who Audre Lorde is and why her work is critical to the discourse of decolonization in Central Asia and the broader (post)socialist world, I urge readers to get to know her intimately by reading her work, in particular, her theorizations about the erotic– a word that brings a lot of discomforts.

In Lorde’s essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” erotic refers to a subversive mode of power that can challenge, critique, and “scrutinizes all aspects of our existence. However, few know Lorde visited Russia and Central Asia during the late socialist period – about which she wrote in her essay collection Sister Outsider“Notes from a Trip to Russia.”

Reading the erotic in conversation with the essay about her time in Russia and Central Asia has helped me pinpoint two issues within current discourses on decolonization: the emphasis on differences and our inability to lean into commonality, as well as the lack of conversation with Black Studies. 

The erotic—and its many uses—are pertinent in this moment of reckoning of what has been unspoken for decades in (post)socialist spaces and scholarship. I see Lorde’s invitation as an “American Observer” to the Soviet Union in 1976 as a space in which she uses the erotic as a tool of critique and a means to make connections across cultural boundaries. 

Lorde’s texts also speak to the rigid boundaries drawn around proper theory and academic work and, more broadly, the obfuscation of previous dialogues between Black feminist theorizations and Central Asia.  

Lorde defines the erotic in various ways because it has many functions. The erotic is a feeling, an epistemology, and a tool. It is not only about what we do, “it is a question of how acutely and fully we feel in the doing.” 

The erotic is also about a shared connection during fleeting moments of contact. This contact between others is not relegated to the bedroom, as patriarchy would sell it; rather, the erotic appears in everyday life. Lorde points to a particular knowledge created in the ability to recognize erotic feelings through our capacity to share deeply and make connections in our similarities and differences. 

Felt connections and unspoken norms

Prevalent throughout Lorde’s “Notes” is this function of the erotic, the deeply felt connection across commonality and difference. These felt moments within various landscapes, spaces, conversations, and sensory experiences show how the erotic rigorously exposes unspoken norms

In the scope of her essay, norms manifest themselves in conversations about blackness, race, gender, sexuality, and class within existing Socialism—that is, socialism in practice. The deeply felt or affective moments throughout Lorde’s “Notes” make it more than just a travelogue but a decolonial text from which to theorize and practice in this contemporary moment. 

As an instrument of critique, the erotic uncovers many things. At times it reveals the ills of capitalism in the west while destabilizing the illusion of multiethnic harmony in the Soviet Union. 

For instance, at the beginning of her essay, she recounts her dream about making love to a woman behind a stack of clothing at ГУМ (GUM ) in Moscow, who suddenly falls ill. After seeking help from a matron, it is advised that Lorde’s lover gets a kidney scan, to which Lorde replies, “no, they’re not going to do that for me,” but realizes she is in the Soviet Union, where there is socialized medicine. 

In the same anecdote, she admits that her dreams about the Soviet Union tended to appear as a mythic representation of socialism that has not been achieved anywhere. The erotic’s undoing of the mythical representation is a constant throughout her banal interactions with various people at the conference she attends. This list goes on at the restaurant, the hotel, the plane, at a table, on a visit to a woman’s house, at the market, and a museum in Samarkand. In her encounters with people, she does not push or analyze but observes, letting them reveal their unspoken thoughts.

“There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us…firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.”

Audre Lorde

For example, in an interview with Oleg, who she refers to as an “official of the Union of the Soviet Writers,” he apologizes that the hotel is not “civilized.” This conversation leads her to try to understand why he used the word civilized. Was it because she was an American, or whether the idea of American standards was an “unspoken norm” that was both resisted and accepted? 

During the same conversation, Lorde mentions the struggles of oppressed people, including the Apartheid in South Africa. In response, Oleg says he knows South Africa is “very bad…like a sore upon the body that will not heal.” This reveals another “unspoken” about Soviet multiracial/multi-ethnic harmony and (mis)conceptualizations about blackness.

Her skepticism about the absence of race and racial harmony only heightens when she reaches Tashkent, where she perceives racial and national tensions between “north Russians” and Uzbeks. The trip from Moscow to Central Asia is a pivotal moment in “Notes” because Lorde begins to intensely interrogate the space in which she finds herself through the erotic. 

The erotic, as a critique, reveals the tension between people’s “internal desires” and “outside controls.” Examples are those of Lorde’s Russian interpreter Helen who evasively responds to a question about Jewish people in the USSR, or the answer of a woman referred to as Madam Izbalkhan to Lorde’s question about the Soviet attitude toward the treatment of Black Americans. It also includes the reaction of a university student called Fikre, saying that homosexuality was a non “public matter.” In short, the erotic for Lorde is a subversive mode of power that can challenge, critique, and “scrutinizes all aspects of our existence.

“Notes” is embedded with sensory experiences, like touch, smell, warmth, cold, rain, dark, hot, conversation, and various modes of lovemaking that enable Lorde to open herself up and make deep connections across language and cultural barriers. While the erotic functions as a critique, it is a mode of deep connection where one can find commonality through difference. The erotic as felt can be located whether it is the smell of the “earth” in Tashkent or the “warmth” of Uzbeks, which reminds her of Ghana, Dahomey, Kusmai, or Cotonou. In this instance, erotic is a radical practice of leaning into one’s internal feelings and sharing these feelings with others. 

As Lorde’s “Notes” shows, through the lens of the erotic, we can engage in moments of open (sometimes uncomfortable) dialogues across various experiences of Being

Although “Notes,” if considered at all,  is primarily written about as a travelogue,  when read critically in dialogue with her theorizations of the erotic, it could be a foundation for a radical opening in future conversations between Black Studies and Central Asian Studies

My use of the word future is an intentional choice. For me, future (re)inserts Lorde into conversations about blackness in the Soviet Space. Not as an object that is proof of it as a raceless society, but as a Black lesbian scholar who engages in a critical and rigorous analysis of what she observes and feels in particular moments and spaces. Future also connotes that dialogues between Blackness and Central Asia are nothing new but reveals how the dialogue between the two has been deemed unimportant in academia. Furthermore, it exposes whose and what type of work is privileged. 

As Lorde’s “Notes” show, through the lens of the erotic,  we can engage in moments of open (sometimes uncomfortable) dialogues across various experiences of Being. 

While the scope and context of this essay do not allow me to give Lorde the critical engagement she deserves, I hope it serves as a departure for thinking about decolonization in conversation with Black Studies methods and theorizations.

Audre Lorde