“Black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, poet, mother,” was how Audre Lorde often introduced herself. Her books The Cancer Journals (1980) and A Burst of Light (1988) pioneered a feminist perspective on body “norms” and illness. The books document not only her life with cancer, diagnosed in 1978, but also her fight for self-determination and against pathologization: “The struggle with cancer now informs all my days, but it is only another face of that continuing battle for self-determination and survival that Black women fight daily, often in triumph.”
In political and personal choices that directly parallel those Spence made at almost the same time, Lorde resisted both external pressure from the medical industry and internal self-silencing. Despite the urging of medical staff, she refused to wear a prosthesis because doing so would hide her mastectomy. Describing her choices, Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals, “If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other. For silence and invisibility go hand in hand with powerlessness.”
In 2018, Lana Lin released her documentary The Cancer Journals Revisited. Women Make Movies described the film as follows: “A chorus of voices recite Black feminist poet Audre Lorde’s 1980 memoir of her cancer experience, and reflect upon its personal and political impact in the present moment.” The film is one of numerous testaments to Lorde’s crucial legacy.
Lana Lin, The Cancer Journals Revisited, film trailer.
About This Site
A Picture of Health: Jo Spence, a Politics of Disability and Illness is a multi-pronged project curated by Kenny Fries and Elisabeth Frost.
In 1986 the British artist, educator, and activist Jo Spence (1934-1992) described the question fundamental to her work: “how to represent a body in crisis.” Spence’s work reveals powerful political and artistic responses to the experience of inhabiting such a body and is as timely as ever. This website places her work in the context of the lived experience of chronic illness and of contemporary Disability Arts.