The House Of Yemanjá Themes

The main themes in “From the House of Yemanjá” are mothers and daughters, identity and duality, and celebrating blackness.

  • Mothers and daughters: The poem explores the tensions and expectations that exist between mothers and daughters.
  • Identity and duality: Lorde figuratively portrays the challenge of gathering the many aspects of one’s identity into a coherent whole.
  • Celebrating blackness: The poem searches for an affirming model of Black womanhood and finds it in the figure of Yemanjá, a life-giving goddess.

Themes

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Last Updated on February 18, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953

Mothers and Daughters

“From The House Of Yemanjá” examines the complex relationships between mothers and daughters, including the ways in which the beliefs and attitudes of mothers can shape and influence their children. The mother in the poem is an aloof figure in the speaker’s life, and a source of both “bread and terror.” While apparently capable of nourishing the speaker’s body with dinner from her frying pot, the mother’s “ivory hungers” prevent her from nourishing the speaker spiritually and emotionally. The speaker pleads,

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Mother I need
mother I need
mother I need your blackness now
as the august earth needs rain.

The speaker believes that her mother’s inability to properly nourish her daughters comes from her obsession with whiteness. This has autobiographical resonance with Lorde’s own life, as her mother also expressed pride in her own light skin and disappointment in Lorde’s darker complexion. The speaker’s pleas are urgent and desperate as she calls upon her mother to recognize the Blackness within herself and celebrate it rather than shun it. The “ivory” that her mother hungers for is depicted in a negative light, as suggested by the phrase “pale as a witch.” The mother treats her “frying pot” like a cauldron in which she can cook her daughters into a more pleasing form, perverting the traditional notions of domesticity and maternal instincts. By contrast, Blackness is “dark and rich,” capable of providing nourishment, just as the rain is capable of nourishing the earth. The speaker notes that her mother “has two faces,” and that both Blackness and internalized whiteness can exist within the same person. Yet it is the speaker’s burden to carry both versions of her mother “upon [her] back,” emphasizing the ways in which beliefs, insecurities, and conflicts can be inherited from previous generations.

The invocation of Yemanjá in the poem’s title alludes to the speaker’s search for a mother of a different sort. Whereas her own mother has rejected Blackness in lieu of pursuing her “ivory hungers,” Yemanjá is an explicitly Black goddess, with roots in the West African Yoruba tradition. Lorde draws from the Afro-Caribbean vision of Yemanjá as a mother goddess who gave birth to all life and who protects and governs all things feminine. Whereas the speaker’s own mother “cooked up her daughters,” Yemanjá is a calm and protective figure who celebrates the beauty of Black womanhood in all its forms.

Identity and Duality

Much of the poem’s language is formed by dualities and juxtapositions, with the central contrast being the one between whiteness and Blackness. Lorde took pride in her Black identity, and she incorporated Afro-Caribbean mythology into much of her work in order to draw strength from and emphasize the cultural richness of the African diaspora. However, her family did not always share her sentiments regarding race, and the mainstream feminist movement to which Lorde contributed often had little room for women of color and of non-heterosexual identities. “From The House Of Yemanjá” seems to represent an impassioned plea for recognition of the multifaceted identities that comprise a person.

I am the sun and moon and forever hungry

This phrase is repeated twice within the poem, and it can be read as an expression of the speaker’s desire to be recognized for what she is. The first time it appears, the speaker is “forever hungry” for her mother’s eyes, searching for love and understanding in spite of her perceived imperfections. The second time it appears, it follows her pleas for her mother’s “blackness” to nourish her, another plea for connection and commiseration.

On a literal level, the sun and the moon are celestial bodies. Though different in size, scope, and material, they are both important to life on Earth. On a metaphorical level, the sun and the moon are often used to symbolize opposing forces or polarities. Essentially, the speaker is stating that she contains more than a single identity or label of importance, while also embracing the complex and sometimes conflicting natures of those identities. She embraces the vast and overwhelming parts of herself, all the while hungering for a space in which one facet of her identity does not alienate her from the others—in which “day and night shall meet” and perhaps finally become one.

Celebrating Blackness

The speaker’s quest in “From the House of Yemanjá” is to connect with the Blackness hidden within her mother, figuring Blackness and Black culture as sources of vitality and nourishment. The speaker’s mother is afflicted with “ivory hungers,” suggesting that she is trying to conform to mainstream white society. However, this obsession has rendered her “pale as a witch,” conjuring connotations of sickliness or even malevolence. By contrast, the speaker craves for the “dark and rich” version of her mother that resides beneath the ivory hungers. This woman is not as familiar to the speaker, but the speaker seems to believe that if the mother can reconnect with her own Blackness, she may also be able to connect with the speaker again.

Blackness is also celebrated through the inclusion of African mythology. Yemanjá is a mother goddess, and in many Yoruba and Afro-Caribbean traditions, she gave birth to all other life. Many of Lorde’s Black, male contemporaries turned to mythology in order to add a sense of mythic importance to the experiences of modern Black life. Lorde decided to do the same but with an explicit emphasis on Black, female empowerment. Yemanjá is many things: Black, a woman, a mother, a warrior, a protector, and much more. Through her, the speaker may find the pillar of Black strength, wisdom, and pride that her mother was never able to provide.

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