A tool, in the meaning we Yale students commonly give the word, is a pathological and pretentious social climber. Writing pretentious editorials and generally being pretentious are signs one is a tool.
A tool is also one who does not realize he or she is being used. And in a third meaning, tools are the objects the oppressor uses to assert his authority.
When Audre Lorde spoke of “tools” in a speech she titled “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House,” she seems to say the oppressed classes (namely, African-Americans, gays and the poor) will not produce any lasting social change — dismantling the master’s house — by imitating the behavior of their white heterosexual superiors.
The speech has commonly been understood as Lorde’s rejection of all things Western, including the English language. Historically, a mastery of English has only been accessible to the wealthy, white elite. All other individuals who attempt to improve the quality of their lives and expand their minds are regarded as impostors. Ethnic minorities that attempt to educate themselves are often accused of imitating a language (and the ideas conveyed through that language) that oppresses them.
In turn, mastery of language has led to effective political communication and acquisition of power. Ronald Reagan was the “Great Communicator,” and Barack Obama’s message of change has given him the presidency. Reagan was and Obama is a master of communication, but they, like all movers and shakers of the world, are bound to the tool of language. Language is not necessarily a tool of oppression, and those who use it well are not necessarily tools.
When I think of Lorde’s “tools,” I think of Ma Rainey’s “black bottom.” Is Ma Rainey a complex historical figure, or just a “tool,” an object manipulated by more powerful forces? Is she defined by her “black bottom” or her voice?
She is defined by both.
Ma, despite her musical talent, knows that she is a subordinate. Her manager, Irvin, and his white peers only “wanna take [her] voice and trap it in them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials.” Irvin will only continue to appease her as long as she is of use to him (as long as her “trapped” voice is profitable), and Irvin will not want her voice forever. Ma knows that she will not be able to receive respect through traditional channels. As a result, she steps on all others who get in her way. She demands respect. And thus she is exercising her voice in a way that will take her beyond the limits of her career. She is both a traditionalist, exercising her voice within the confines of the white man’s “box,” and a restless rebel, creating her own “box.”
Though Ma creates her own autonomy, her “black bottom” is not always under her control. Before Ma’s entrance, her trumpet player Levee attempts to change the arrangement of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The authority of Levee’s arrangement is derived from the approval of Sturdyvant, Ma’s white producer. Cutler, the guitarist, defends the integrity of Ma’s music, but Ma is not present in the debate. She is present in the lyrics of the song, but reduced to an object. All the “boys in the neighborhood” want to learn “that dance.” However, “that dance” is the black bottom, and in the end, it seems as though Ma is still defined by her black bottom. Though she tries to create her own autonomy, Ma’s black bottom will be packaged and sold around the country.
Lorde’s speech was inspired by a conference on feminism at NYU that largely neglected the viewpoints of poor, African-American and lesbian women. She argued that the white feminists in attendance had neglected the women who “clean [their] houses” and “tend to [their] children.” White men had and have not allowed white women to participate in public discourse, but, in turn, Lorde noted, white women were not allowing minority women to do the same.
Lorde did not advocate the destruction of everything associated with Western culture. She argued that education and clear communication are not owned by white men. Her goal was for ethnic minorities and women to add to the master’s house, not destroy it.
By immersing themselves in knowledge, the marginalized have a greater capacity to participate in the public discourse. Marginalized groups gain agency by contributing to the collective pot of ideas.
As Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” Ignorance is not cool. Don’t be a tool.
Kristen Wright is a freshman in Davenport College.