"Black Mother Woman" by Audre Lorde

Black Mother Woman” is a 1971 poem by Audre Lorde in which the speaker addresses her mother and grapples with their complicated relationship.

  • Remembering her mother’s “heavy love” and lack of gentleness, the speaker says she has grown into a version of her mother, but one divided by “deceitful longings.”
  • While the speaker’s mother takes pride in her daughter’s beauty, she used to hide that pride beneath anger and internalized “myths of little worth.”
  • Now, the speaker sees the love and strength beneath her mother’s harshness, becoming a “dark temple” that honors both her mother’s spirit and her own complexities.

Summary

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Last Updated on December 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646

Introduction

"Black Mother Woman," first published in 1971, is a free verse poem by American poet and essayist Audre Lorde. Written relatively early in Lorde's career, which spanned from the 1960s until Lorde’s death in 1992, the poem confronts themes of motherhood, anger, love, femininity, race, and identity. Lorde—a self-described "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet"—centered these themes in much of her subsequent work and is considered a seminal figure in American feminist, racial, queer, and cultural theory.

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Summary

Lorde writes the poem in the vocative, with the speaker addressing her mother directly and assertively. She opens the first stanza by declaring "I cannot recall you gentle," defining the relationship between the two as one of complexity and intensity—the speaker cannot remember her mother as tender, or soft, the way society tends to see mothers. Yet through (and despite) her mother's "heavy love," the speaker tells her mother that she herself has grown to embody a version of her—one, she admits, that is divided by "deceitful longings."

In the second stanza, the speaker explains what makes her longings deceitful—she refuses to share her mother's shame over their Black beauty. Her own body is a version of her mother's body, and when she receives compliments on it from strangers, she tells her mother, "your aged spirit takes a bow." While the speaker can feel her mother's pride "jingling" within her when this happens, she feels something else, too—the difficult legacy of her mother's attempts to conform them to mainstream conceptions of beauty that exclude their Blackness.

The speaker laments that her mother's pride over their beauty remained hidden for too long. "Once you hid that secret," she remembers, their "wiry hair" and "deep breasts" were deviations, and in her mother's behavior, the speaker feels generations of social conditioning telling her that they are worth less because of it.

In the third stanza, the speaker has finally made peace with their difficult relationship. She has "peeled away" her mother's anger, she tells her, all the way down to its "core of love." With the benefit of hindsight, the speaker has learned to recognize the deep, underlying love motivating her mother's harsh behavior.

The speaker's pride in her own beauty eventually eclipses the shame her mother instills in her. With excitement, she commands her mother to pay attention—"look, mother"—and see this change in her, a change she has undertaken for the both of them: she is "a dark temple," where her mother's "true spirit rises"—the speaker has come to see herself as a holy place that embodies her mother's spirit in its truest form, without the shame and internalized racism that motivated her mother's desire to conform throughout the speaker's childhood.

This spirit is "beautiful," she asserts, but also "tough as chestnut": dark and strong, and formidable in the face of any obstacles that may threaten it. She likens it to a stanchion—a sturdy, upright post—unyielding in the elements, structural, and designed to bear weight. Her mother's "nightmares of weakness" are no match for that spirit—nightmares, crucially, are only haunting visions that stem from one's own internal anxieties, not tangible limitations.

In the third stanza's final five lines, the poem's tone is once again harsh and direct as the speaker contends that this evolution of perspective can be seen as both a rebellion against and a manifestation of her mother. Even within herself, she concedes, there is uncertainty—she describes herself as harboring "conflicting rebellions," even as she stands firm in her dissent. But this uncertainty is easier to accommodate with what she has learned as her mother's daughter: by simultaneously holding space for shame and pride, which should be mutually exclusive, the speaker has become comfortable enough with this disparity to consider it a defining characteristic. "I learned from you," she finishes, "to define myself / through your denials."

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Themes