What relationships are described—albeit indirectly—in "Coal"? What are the positive sources of identity that Lorde describes? What are the negative ones?  

In “Coal,” black and lesbian poet Audre Lorde describes relationships with others in society that are positive and negative sources of identity. The positive sources are people accepting of sexual and racial differences. The negative sources are bigoted people with whom Lorde interacts.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Self-described black and lesbian poet Audre Lorde characterizes diverse relationships with other people in “Coal.” The source of her identity is positive or negative depending on the other person and the quality of their relationship. Racial and sexual prejudice and homophobia color these connections with others in society.

Lorde illustrates her interaction or act of being “open” with others through “words.” On her own, she holds a positive self-identity: “the total black” that is unearthed from the deep like “a diamond [that] comes into a knot of flame.” Although scientifically false, the myth that coals can be compressed into diamonds expresses the idea that something mundane and ugly can be seen as and transformed into something valuable and beautiful. Both coal and diamonds are composed of carbon but have different molecular structures. Even though Lorde appears like coal, “total black, being spoken/From the earth's inside,” volcanic activity or “a knot of flame” brings her up to the Earth’s surface like a diamond. The result—coal or diamond—just depends on “who pays what for speaking.”

If Lorde connects interacts with someone who is free of bigotry, their relationship becomes a positive source. She and her words are “open/Like a diamond on glass windows/Singing out” and shining in the sun. She can be “open” and free about her sexual and racial identities. If their relationship is neutral or mediocre, their interactions become merely transactional like “stapled wagers/In a perforated book—buy and sign and tear apart—.” She cannot predict how the person she meets will be; she portends “come whatever wills all chances” are that their interactions will not be smooth but resemble “an ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.” As a lesbian black poet in the 1970s, Lorde more likely encountered racially prejudiced and homophobic people. A difficult and suppressive relationship yields a negative source of identity—“Some words live in my throat/Breeding like adders.” She cannot speak freely and express herself; instead, venomous thoughts, feelings, and unspoken words build up inside.

If Lorde connects with a particularly inspiring person to form a supportive and positive relationship, though, she feels liberated and comfortably transparent. Her words

know sun

Seeking like gypsies over my tongue

To explode through my lips

Like young sparrows bursting from shell.

She personifies her speech as unrestrained “gypsies” that burst through her mouth forcefully (“explode”) with innocent energy and enthusiasm like baby birds hatching from eggs into the world. Her actions may not always be positive (“Some words/Bedevil me”) but sometimes puzzling and troubling.

A relationship of love is the most positive source of identity. In the final stanza, Lorde returns to the coal-to-diamond imagery with

As a diamond comes into a knot of flame

I am black because I come from the earth's inside

Take my word for jewel in your open light.

She may look like black coal but love illuminates her as if she were a diamond. She freely gives herself (“take my word”) to the other person like a jewel.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team