The Importance of Names

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

At readings or interviews, Audre Lorde often introduced herself by naming the qualities that defined her: black, feminist, lesbian, poet. After her operation for breast cancer, she frequently added, “post-mastectomy woman.” By naming, she brought into the light of day subjects that are often hidden. Lorde insisted on candor, on examining issues that are often viewed as divisive, and, moreover, throughout her work she calls for honesty, justice, and bringing together divergent human perspectives that seem to divide but that Lorde insisted need not.

Her insistence on naming began early. When she was still a child first learning to write, she changed the spelling of her name from Audrey to Audre, a symbolic gesture indicating that she would be her own self. Her direction was thus clearly set while she was still in grade school. She recounts this incident in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), a volume she calls a “biomythography.” Naming imparts immense power, and it is therefore no surprise that Lorde seems to have instinctively realized this early in life. She uses naming also when she writes of her recognition of her lesbianism, saying in “Artisan,” from The Black Unicorn, “I did not recognize/ the shape/ of my own name.” In “Between Ourselves,” she pleads for tolerance through the use of names: “Do not mistake my flesh for the enemy/ do not write my name in the dust.”

Claiming the Margins

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

When Lorde names herself black, lesbian, feminist, she is clearly and emphatically putting herself with people who have traditionally been excluded or kept on the fringes of society, with the despised and the powerless. It is with these people that she takes her stand. To be black is the first marginalization that she names. She remembers being spit upon as a child and remembers her strong mother insisting that the perpetrators were rude and ignorant. Her mother, however, did not discuss the obvious factor of racial hatred. In “Story Books on a Kitchen Table,” she says her mother “spat me/ into her ill-fitting harness of despair/ into her deceits.” Such self-deception may also have contributed to her feelings of marginalization. How could one fight or even oppose something if one could not admit its existence? Moreover, growing up, Lorde did not belong to the majority black society in Harlem. Her parents were immigrants from the West Indies who dreamed of returning home to their island of Carriacou. They spoke the island dialect and used it when they did not want their children to know the gist of their conversation. It is not surprising, then, that in high school Lorde found friends among others who were viewed as outcasts.

In “Coal,” however, she names herself black, “because I come from the earth’s inside/ now take my word for jewel in the open light.” This is a celebration of blackness, a celebration that she maintains throughout her work. Her self-assertion continues despite the fact that she knows that strangers who do not want to see her blackness look through her, “cancelling me out/ like an unpleasant appointment.” Or they see her...

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Building Connections

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

This knowledge leads Lorde to strong pleas for working together, for sisterhood. Her thesis is that the first step toward cooperation is complete honesty, hence her insistence on her blackness, on her lesbianism, on her feminism. Then she says that matters of color, sexual preference, and politics should not separate communities, especially communities that have been exploited. Nevertheless, there are enormous rifts between the groups whom Lorde addresses. She names the ways people of lighter skin look down on darker African Americans. Moreover, she notes that there is enormous pressure from within the black community against lesbians: Many African Americans view lesbianism as a form of racial suicide, and others, especially black men, see it as an attack on and insult to them. Lorde insists that it is neither. In a speech, she put her case emphatically and clearly: “When I say I am a Black Lesbian, I mean I am a woman whose primary focus of loving, physical as well as emotional, is directed to women. It does not mean I hate men.”

Throughout her work, there is a major concern for children, a fact that has been little noted. The beginnings of this concern occur in her early collections and continue in Coal in “The Woman Thing,” in which she begins to develop a point of view that is vastly expanded and deepened in subsequent work. In this poem, she says, “All this day I have craved/ food for my child’s hunger/ Emptyhanded the hunters come shouting/ injustices drip from their mouths/ like stale snow melted in sunlight.” Her concern grows more intense and immediate in succeeding volumes. In particular, Lorde focuses on the case of a black ten-year-old named Clifford, who was shot by a white policeman; the policeman was declared not guilty in the subsequent trial. Two poems, “A Woman/Dirge for Wasted Children” and “Power,” concern this incident. The former poem ends “I am bent/ forever/ wiping up blood/ that should be/ you.” In the latter poem, which carries a powerful burden of anger, Lorde insists that the policeman after the shooting stood over the body saying “Die you little motherf*cker” and that he testified that “I didn’t notice the size or nothing else/ only the color.”

In Chosen Poems, she turns her grief and anger to the case of Emmett Till, a fifteen-year-old black from the North who was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he whistled at a white girl. Some of the local white men saw this as an insult to white womanhood, and Till was taken away, murdered, and mutilated. In “After-images,” collected in Chosen Poems, she focuses on both Emmett Till and a lower-class white woman who has been caught in a flood and lost everything; Lorde exhibits sympathy for both of them, even though the woman belongs to the oppressor race. The major focus, however, is the tragedy of the murdered child. She compares the newspaper photographs...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Annas, Pamela. “A Poetry of Survival: Unnaming and Renaming in the Poetry of Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich.” Colby Library Quarterly 18 (March, 1982): 9-25. An analysis of four women poets exploring the ways they deal with a language that is patriarchal. Annas posits the theory that each poet goes through a process of recognizing the problem, casting off old names, and then renaming themselves so that they can then rename the world. The material on Lorde relies heavily on her volume The Black Unicorn.

Brooks, Jerome. “In the Name of the Father: The Poetry of Audre Lorde.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Contends that although the feminist interests in Lorde’s poetry have been well documented, her work also expresses a strong attachment for her father and his values. Also notes the lyric quality and tenderness of her love poetry.

Burr, Zofia. Of Women, Poetry, and Power: Strategies of Address in Dickinson, Miles, Brooks, Lorde, and Angelou. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Discusses the engagement of Lorde with her readership and her use of poetic power to invoke readerly responsibility.

Carruthers, Mary. “The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas.” The Hudson Review, Summer, 1983, 293-322. Carruthers sees these lesbian poets as having used the powers of the muse in familiar, maternal, and sororal ways. Uses Lorde’s The Black Unicorn to demonstrate these qualities.

De Veaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Biography focusing on the relationship between Lorde’s public, political persona and her private, intimate persona.

Lorde, Audre. Conversations with Audre Lorde. Edited by Joan Wylie Hall. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Collection of significant interviews with Lorde in which she discusses race, feminism, sexual orientation, and poetic practice.

Martin, Joan. “The Unicorn Is Black: Audre Lorde in Retrospect.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Martin finds that Lorde’s chief poetic characteristic is honesty and that her poems are intensely personal. Martin also commends Lorde for bringing African female deities into her poetry and hence into the American consciousness.