The master’s tools

or this is what democracy looks like?

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Building with the tools we have; creating with the structures available to us. Public art in West Philly, photo by Joby Gelbspan. Image description: Several flowers in red and purple knitted or crocheted onto a chain link fence on a bridge above a river. Green trees and a skyline are visible through the fence and the art.

I’d been thinking about tools. The tools we need to create the change we need right now.

And Audre Lorde’s quote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” kept coming into my head. So did Ani DiFranco’s line: “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” (A strange pairing? Maybe, but Lorde and DiFranco were both pretty central in my development as a feminist, writer, and radical queer in the 90s, so I’m going for it. Let’s see what happens.)

Then I had a dream that prominently featured the Ace of Pentacles card from Next World Tarot. I don’t remember what the dream was about. I only know I woke up with the card’s image in my mind’s eye—and the image returned to me throughout the day.

I’m still a tarot novice, but I know the Aces are about the potential of the suite—they indicate the incipient power rooted in the suite’s element. Which, for Pentacles, is the earth, associated with materiality, manifestation, abundance. Cristy C. Road, the creator of this deck, writes, “The Ace [of Pentacles] asks you to see the work you do as your magic. In order to find stability, your work can be a bridge between logical commitments and whimsical dreams.” Ace of Pentacles is also about “accepting the tools at hand.”

The message was clear: building the next world requires using the tools at hand. It was an invitation to trust that such day-to-day work can be the bridge toward manifesting profoundly different ways of living on this planet, with each other, and with all the beings than the ways of the dominant society.

The Ace of Pentacles, Next World Tarot deck. Image description: Tarot card with text, “The Ace of Pentacles,” at the top. A jagged cluster of crystals—gray, purple, green, and orange—emerge from the earth, against a yellow background. A row of orange crystals is in the foreground.

I write this on the morning after the Iowa Caucus fiasco, as the Senate prepares to acquit Trump and he prepares his State of the Union address.

It looks like AmericanDemocracy™ is falling apart. Failing miserably.

It’s not, of course. Failing, I mean. I know, and I keep learning more, how AmericanDemocracy™  is simply living up to its founding.

My latest discovery on this topic came from the podcast Scene on Radio’s new series, “The land that never has been yet—.” In the second episode, they explore how the Constitution was drafted as a document that would help attract European capital to the U.S.—so the wealthy white men who were writing it could get even richer. In other words, brutal, racist, extractive capitalism was, from the start, deeply baked into the document we’ve been taught to revere as the shining light of truth and freedom.

But. Even knowing this, I feel deep in my bones that the ideals, which I was taught were the underlying principles of American society—which turns out were actually not what the “founding fathers” were actually going for—are still actually pretty good.

I mean, I’d like to live in a society where everyone is actually guaranteed the right to life and liberty, no matter who they are or where they come from. I’d like to be part of a wildly diverse society where we have the tools to govern ourselves in equitable, transparent, truly democratic ways. A society that is constantly seeking ways to make itself better, more just, more liberatory for all. 

I’m under no illusion that the U.S. could ever be described this way, founded as it was on genocide and slavery.

And yet—. I wonder if we can use the ideals and inspiration generated by the myth behind the Constitution and the founding of the U.S. to actually create this society? Can we use the tools at hand in the struggle for freedom and democracy?

In her piece for The New York Times’ 1619 project, the brilliant Nikole Hannah-Jones describes how Black folks in the U.S. have done just that from the beginning:

More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.

And she goes on to give many examples, including the plethora of progressive legislation Black leaders enacted during Reconstruction and the gains made by the Civil Rights movement. She recounts how Black people in the U.S. have consistently risked their lives in the struggle to realize a version of American Democracy that would have been anathema to the men who drafted the Constitution. And while many of the victories rising from these struggles were rolled back or are currently under attack, nevertheless they provide concrete, material examples of what a just society based on democratic principles could actually look like.


Getting back to Audre Lorde’s quote about the master's tools. I believe this quote is often invoked, and often out of context, in a way that I think limits our imagination and shuts down possibility for radical change. And I don’t think that was her intention. (Here’s the essay in full if you haven’t read it yet or need a refresher. Or better yet, go get yourself a copy of Sister Outsider by Lorde, which includes this essay.)

I understand her essay to mean that the master’s tools, wielded in the way that the master wielded it, using the logic of the master, will never lead to true liberation. But I think Lorde would agree with DiFranco that any tool can be a weapon.

That’s certainly how Lorde wielded the tool of the English language, which, for centuries, has been used to oppress, harm, and threaten all sorts of people other than white cisgender men, but especially Black people, women, and queer folks. (For example, both Scene on Radio and Nikole-Jones discuss the ways the drafters of the Constitution carefully crafted its language so as not to mention the word “slavery,” but to nevertheless protect the practice.)

Lorde used this master’s tool deftly, as a weapon, with precision and passion to dismantle so many rooms in the master’s house—namely racism and homophobia. Her poems and essays demonstrate that it’s how you hold the tool and what you are doing with it that matters.

I’m also wondering if anyone can claim complete ownership over the tools we humans have created. Where did the master get those tools? Are they really his? Maybe not so much. As writer and artist Sangeetha Thanapal says in a post about Lorde’s essay on this topic, “Let’s reclaim some of our stolen tools.”

For example, there’s a lot of evidence that the U.S. Constitution was modeled on the constitution of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—six indigenous nations located on the land now known as the U.S. northeast.

The wealthy white men stole the tools of democracy and warped and wrecked them. It’s time their descendants hand them back. 

And for those of us who are searching for how to use the tools available to us to build a just and liberatory society, it’s important to understand the lineage of these tools. To consider how they were developed and appropriated. To recognize where and how they were wielded to oppress. To learn from those from whom they were stolen. To try and see as clearly as possible their true potential in building the next world.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for incremental changes and small tweaks to our current system. What I am interested in is how we might actually live up to the ideals of representative democracy, which gerrymandering, the electoral college, the Senate, dark money, and more have made a complete mockery of.

There’s a tendency to tear things down as a way to start anew. To discard and disregard everything that came before because it’s all part of an oppressive system. And sometimes, that’s exactly what needs to happen. But I’m interested these days in whether we can recover root systems that work and have been stolen and hidden from some of us. Whether we can build, layer, and add. Not just smash and destroy.

I would rather my hands be not empty or grasping at splinters, but full of dirt and calloused from hammering. Or at the very least, that’s what the Ace of Pentacles wants for me right now. And maybe for you?



Here are some of the questions I’m thinking are useful to ask ourselves as we organize ourselves, as we start projects or lead organizations or put on shows or plan a reading tour or start a union, or run for office, etc., etc.:

  • What are the tools and technologies we have access to?

  • Where did they come from?

  • Who claims ownership of them now?

  • What have they been used for?

  • How can we acknowledge and honor their history and those who first developed them?

  • How do we want to use them differently or the same?


What else I’m reading/listening to/thinking about:
  • Parable Read. People and community groups around Boston are reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower right now. So amazing! I read it many years ago, and am excited to re-read it so I can discuss it with folks in my neighborhood later this month.

  • I’m only a few poems in, but Shira Erlichman’s Odes to Lithium is captivating, gritty, and profound.


Writers: I’ll be at AWP—will you?

I'll be presenting on “Poetry as Spell Casting” with four amazing and magical poets on Friday, March 6, at 9 am. Come by and say hi, and/or email me with your panels and readings.

Let’s hang out by the river, shall we?

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