Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

The ultimate anxiety of the petitioners is based on their awareness that the condition of their lives offers no provision for a better future for their children. The petitioners know that the future already exists in the present and that the future must be nourished in the present so that their children’s existence will not be similarly distressed. Reviewing their own situation as a group and contemplating what the future holds for their children has brought the petitioners to discover the elaborate scheme perpetrated by the powerful. They realize and articulate in their prayer how daily events (the sun rising and setting, eating, indigestion) have become unexpected sites of stifling silence and unrelieved insecurity, a legacy of ruin for their children. As the ceremony continues, the petitioners recognize and echo the leader’s belief that they “were never meant to survive.” Through their collective ceremonial recitation, they are emerging from their silence, speaking their new understanding, dispelling the deception that has silenced them for so long, and restoring and empowering themselves.

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In “A Litany for Survival” as in many of her other works, Lorde is concerned with the politics of marginalization. Knowing the devastating effects of being devalued and discarded, Lorde asks bold questions about who is chosen for such treatment and why. As an African American, feminist, and lesbian thinker, Lorde often experienced life from the position of the outsider. Much of her work is an exploration of the alienation one feels as an outsider, but Lorde does not stop there. She is also concerned with the process of reversing marginalization and restoring self-worth and belonging. To unmake systematic marginalization, Lorde concentrates on understanding how the system was made. In “A Litany for Survival,” she carefully exposes the elaborate scheme that powerful and esteemed members of society use so successfully to subdue and disempower those they designate as “other.” Lorde does not, in this poem, name the “others,” and this opening allows all marginalized people and groups to join the ceremony and identify with the poem’s petitioners. With a masterstroke, Lorde identifies the fulcrum of the devious scheme. This scheme does not rest solely on what the powerful do but on the way they enlist the “others” to carry it out: The scheme requires the complicity of the marginalized members of society; therefore, the “others” are implicated in their own marginalization. The consequences of all this for the marginalized are self-reproach and silence. Such silence seals their destiny, but it also conceals the culpability of the powerful. For the marginalized, silence leads to social death. However, Lorde’s message to the marginalized is always one of hope and life. She points the way in the poem: To invigorate and preserve life, one must speak, share one’s experience, name one’s fear, and seek communion.

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