Poetic Justice: Reflections on Black Feminist Lesbian Mother Poet Audre Lorde

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When author Edwidge Danticat joined protesters at Miami International Airport to rally against the president’s Muslim-targeted travel ban, she evoked the words and fighting spirit of late poet-activist Audre Lorde:

“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence,” quoted Danticat, in her remembrance of Lorde. “Poetry, she said, is how we name the nameless. ‘It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.’”

And as Danticat observed, it was — and is — as if Lorde’s fearless quest for truth and transformation has infused the fighting soul of women who – in this very moment — are rallying against injustice, and all of the intersections of discrimination. In Lorde’s era of 1960s and 70’s civil rights activism, she refused to be labeled or boxed into any one identity or cause. Instead, Lorde described herself as “a black feminist lesbian mother poet” and never one or the other.

audre-lorde-portrait

For Lorde, any narrow or single categorization allowed the reader to inflict  pre-conceived prejudices. Lorde not only refused to submit to the manipulation of words, but she found a way to turn any perceived marginalization into a position of strength.

In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, she wrote,

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Lorde, who was born in New York City to West Indies parents, embraced poetry from early childhood and published her first poem in Seventeen magazine in her teens. And it was through poetic form — which, by its very nature, induces freedom of expression and discovery, that she liberated unspoken truths. “Words had an energy and power and I came to respect that power early. Pronouns, nouns, and verbs were citizens of different countries, who really got together to make a new world,” she wrote.

Lorde’s poetry explored racism, sexism, feminism, and homophobia. Earlier works were courageously centered in her lesbianism, but themes of love, and its encompassing pains and passions, are universally understood. These intersections were vastly explored in her most famous book of poetry, The Black Unicorn, published in 1978.

“Those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.”

In an interview with American Poetry Review in 1980, Lorde underscored her definition of lesbian, and its intersection with love and feminism:

Strongly woman-identified women where love between women is open and possible, beyond physical in every way. There are lesbians, God knows . . . if you came up through lesbian circles in the forties and fifties in New York . . . who were not feminist and would not call themselves feminists. But the true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women. I can’t really define it in sexual terms alone although our sexuality is so energizing why not enjoy it too? But that comes back to the whole issue of what the erotic is. There are so many ways of describing “lesbian.” Part of the lesbian consciousness is an absolute recognition of the erotic within our lives and, taking that a step further, dealing with the erotic not only in sexual terms. . . .”

“The true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women. I can’t really define it in sexual terms alone although our sexuality is so energizing why not enjoy it too?”

Lorde’s later works expanding its themes to take on politics and civil rights. Her tone turned angry as she took on oppressions in all forms. Her poem, “Power,” was evoked in response to a police officer’s acquittal for shooting a ten-year-old child.

Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

She was also the author of powerful prose. In The Cancer Journals, Lorde is unflinching as she confronts death and her struggle with breast cancer and mastectomy. Of note, she chose not to have reconstructive surgery. In her quest to confront hardship, to reveal the brass-tacks truth of things, she was not one to cosmetically cover up or conceal in any facet of life. It was the antithesis of her life work.

Though she died in 1992 at only 58 years of age, her work resounds today, albeit in the ironic ways we might not have anticipated. We raise our protest signs across the country, persevering and penetrating the poetic and political consciousness of America. They are one in the same.

A Woman Speaks (from Black Unicorn)

By Audre Lorde

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did
mourning.

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
promised
I am
woman
and not white.

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