Lorde, Audre 1934-1992
Audre Lorde 1934-1992
(Full name Audre Geraldine Lorde) American poet, novelist, memoirist, and essayist.
For additional information on Lorde's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.
Lorde is admired for her passionate, candid, often confrontational poetry and prose. Deeply influenced by the marginalization she experienced as a black lesbian, Lorde wrote in order to give a voice to those disenfranchised by racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her writing is largely autobiographical in content and frankly addresses accepted notions of race, femininity, and personal identity in late-twentieth-century America.
Lorde was born in New York City in 1934. Her parents, Frederic Byron Lorde and Linda Belmar Lorde, were immigrants from the Caribbean country of Grenada; Lorde was educated at Catholic schools. In high school Lorde was literary editor of the school's arts magazine and published one of her poems in Seventeen. She attended Hunter College, graduating in 1959 with a bachelor's degree. She went on to study library science at Columbia University and graduated with a master's degree in 1961. Lorde worked as a young adult librarian at the public library in Mount Vernon, New York, until 1963. In 1962 she married attorney Edward Ashley Rollins, with whom she had two children. The couple divorced in 1970. Throughout the 1960s Lorde published her poetry in various black literary magazines, and from 1966 to 1968 she was the head librarian at Town School Library in New York City. In 1968 Lorde's life changed dramatically when she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and became writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. That year she also published her first volume of poetry, The First Cities. Her experiences as an African American teacher and writer amid the racial turmoil of the American South fueled her sense of urgency and political activism. Her poetry from this period reflects her outrage at the prevalence of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the United States. Lorde supplemented her income by teaching at Hunter College and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. With the publication of Coal in 1976 by W. W. Norton, a major publishing company, Lorde's poetry became more widely available to the reading public and her reputation for being an outspoken activist-poet was set. In the late 1970s Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. The Cancer Journals (1980) chronicles her struggle during this difficult period. In 1982 Lorde published Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, her self-proclaimed "biomythography," which openly explores lesbianism and the essential role of the erotic in human life. Six years after her cancer surgery, Lorde was diagnosed with liver cancer. Despite her declining health, she continued to write and co-founded a publishing company, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, to promote the writings of black feminists. In 1991 Lorde became the first female poet laureate of New York. Shortly before she died in 1992, Lorde changed her name to Gamda Adisa, which translated means "Warrior—She Who Makes Her Meaning Known." Her last volume of poetry, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, was published posthumously in 1993.
Of Lorde's numerous publications, critics generally regard Coal, The Black Unicorn (1978), and Zami as her most influential and artistically accomplished works. Essentially a compilation of poems from her first two volumes, Coal explores a number of recurring themes in Lorde's oeuvre—social exclusion, self-definition, love, birth, death, and the nature of human betrayal. Within these themes, the book foregrounds the matter of worldwide injustice against women and the need for women of all races and social backgrounds to establish solidarity against the exclusionary power of Western patriarchal society. The Black Unicorn is widely considered Lorde's masterpiece. The collection of poems explores African history and mythology, using these materials to establish a foundation and context for the poet's own work. Departing from the free verse in which most of her previous poems were composed, Lorde wrote the poems of The Black Unicorn in rhythmic forms that imitate elements of African oral tradition in some places and the structure of blues music in others. Against this backdrop of tradition and mythology, the poet sets stories of a re-envisioned African past, including well-known figures from African American history and the Civil Rights movement. In Zami, a work of prose fiction that is considered a novel by some critics, she treats central issues of discrimination, womanhood, lesbianism, the power of language to create and exclude, and the struggle to overcome hardships and ailments, whether cultural, historical, or physical. Although both Zami and The Cancer Journals are considered substantial contributions to Lorde's body of work, Zami has attracted more attention for its broader themes and unique structure. Lorde herself described the book as a combination of biography, mythology, and history. While The Black Unicorn is devoted to recovering or reinventing a history of Africans, Zami enacts the same type of transformation upon the author's own life. In her monograph The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (1978), Lorde urged women to rediscover their own eroticism in order to harness their power, arguing that patriarchal ownership of the erotic has robbed women of their self-worth and even their rational abilities. The essays and lectures in Sister Outsider (1984) delve into the problem of hatred and misunderstanding among black women, as well as between black women and white women. Lorde appeals to women—both straight and gay—to find common ground and support each other rather than fall into the trap of tearing each other down. In 1984 Lorde learned that her cancer had metastasized to her liver. Out of this terrifying news came the essays in the collection A Burst of Light (1988). Covering subjects as diverse as Lorde's decision to forego traditional cancer treatments in favor of homeopathic treatment in Switzerland, police brutality in apartheid-era South Africa, and the challenges of being a lesbian mother, the essays generally revolve around the unifying theme of injustice. In her final volume of poetry, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems 1987-1992 (1993), Lorde further examined her struggle with cancer and fears about the end of her life, as well as the destruction wrought in the Caribbean and southeastern United States by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, in which Lorde lost her home in St. Croix.
Lorde's poetry was frequently overlooked by critics during her lifetime, even meeting with resistance in some cases. Because she wrote with such candor from a perspective so vastly different from that of mainstream American verse, and because she refused to allow issues of identity to fade into the background of her subject matter, her work appealed to a relatively small audience. While white feminist and lesbian poets such as Adrienne Rich were receiving significant attention, and other black American poets were reaching new and larger audiences, Lorde was often ignored or simply dismissed as an activist poet. The anger present in her verse also alienated some critics and readers. But Lorde's work gradually became better received as her career developed. The publication of Coal marked a turning point in her critical reception and The Black Unicorn received more praise than any of her other works up to that point. More recently, critical attention to Lorde's works has increased. Her contributions to feminism, race and gender studies, and gay rights have been evaluated, and her skillful, nuanced style has earned her great acclaim. In general, her later volumes of poetry are highly admired as mature, introspective works that explore universal issues in the context of Lorde's personal struggles. Additionally, her political-philosophical exploration of women's eroticism in The Uses of the Erotic has become a standard text of women's studies and lesbian scholarship.
The First Cities (poetry) 1968
Cables to Rage (poetry) 1970
From a Land Where Other People Live (poetry) 1973
New York Head Shop and Museum (poetry) 1974
Between Our Selves (poetry) 1976
Coal (poetry) 1976
The Black Unicorn (poetry) 1978
Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (nonfiction) 1978
The Cancer Journals (memoir) 1980
Chosen Poems: Old and New (poetry) 1982
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (prose fiction) 1982
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (essays and speeches) 1984
Our Dead behind Us (poetry) 1986
A Burst of Light (essays) 1988
Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices (poetry) 1990
Undersong: Chosen Poems, Old and New (poetry) 1992
The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems 1987-1992 (poetry) 1993
Michele Valerie Ronnick (essay date fall 2004)
SOURCE: Ronnick, Michele Valerie. "A Lesson in Biomythography: The Classical Origin of Audre Lorde's Nom de Plume ‘Rey Domini.’" Classical and Modern Literature 24, no. 2 (fall 2004): 149-51.
[In the following essay, Ronnick traces Lorde's pen name—which she used occasionally for her nonpoetry publications—to Lorde's childhood study of Latin.]
At her death in 1992 the writer Audre Lorde was renown for her stance on the rights of feminists, lesbians and African Americans. Much of her work was revisionist mythmaking and storytelling that moved between the polarities of delineation and transgression in matters of race, gender, and sexuality. Lest the reader by some chance miss the importance Lorde placed on her personal mythmaking, she announced on the cover of her 1982 autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, that the book was a "biomythography."
Scholarly studies since then have dwelt typically and topically on the function of naming in her autobiographical writing.1 Two names Lorde selected for herself are repeatedly mentioned in secondary studies about her life. The first episode of naming occurred during her youth. Following a personal aesthetic, she removed the letter ‘y’ from her given name "Audrey," and fashioned "Audre Lorde," the symmetrical, five-lettered pairing so familiar to us today. Later in her maturity she identified herself as "Afrekete," who is an Afro-Caribbean trickster goddess. Lorde has a third name for herself, however, which scholars have overlooked. This is the nom de plume of one of her earliest works, a short story entitled La Llurania, published in 1955.
Lorde, then struggling with questions of authorial identity, signed the story "Rey Domini," a name that looks like a modern name of Hispanic origin but sounds like classical Latin.2 How do we interpret this unusual element of "classicizing" by an author few would look to for such evidence?3 The answer lies in her description of her experience as a student at St. Catherine's School in Harlem where Lorde was subjected to racist belittlement. The head of the school, Monsignor John J. Brady, who fondled some of his young white charges, told Lorde's mother that "he had never expected to have to take Colored [sic] kids into his school." For her part Lorde did not care about his lechery which did not affect her, but she did "care that he kept me every Wednesday afternoon after school to memorize latin [sic] nouns."
She wrote: "I came to loathe Wednesday afternoons, sitting by myself in the classroom trying to memorize the singular and plural of a long list of latin [sic] nouns, and their genders. Every half-hour or so, Father Brady would look in from the rectory and ask to hear the words. If I so much as hesitated over any word or its plural, or its gender, or said it out of place on the list, he would spin on his black-robed heel and disappear for another half-hour or so. Although early dismissal was at 2:00 p.m., some Wednesdays I didn't get home until after four o'clock. Sometimes on Wednesday nights I would dream of the white, acrid-smelling mimeograph sheet: agricola, agricolae, fem., farmer. Three years later when I began Hunter High School and had to take latin [sic] in earnest, I had built up such a block to everything about it that I failed my first two terms of it. (Zami: A New Spelling of My Name 60-61)."
Lorde nonetheless learned her Latin lessons, and the triangulation of nomenclature (given, Latinate and Afro-Caribbean names) delineates an important dynamic of Lorde's self-creation. Through acts of mythopoesis Lorde reinvented herself at various points in her life by creating a set of triple identities. In creating her second name, she turned with a sense of play back to Latin and dressed her "real" name up in a trilingual pun. In Spanish, rey is a masculine noun meaning "king." In Latin, re is the ablative singular of the feminine noun res, rei, meaning "affair" or "business." Domini is the genitive singular of the masculine noun dominus, domini, meaning "master" or "lord." Together the words tell us that the author of La Llurania is carrying out the business of a "Lorde." She has taken the pain experienced as a schoolgirl when learning Latin, and with royal imperative has converted it into a learned and artful jest for wordsmiths, philologists, and clever readers to enjoy.
1. See for example AnaLouise Keating, "Inscribing ‘Black,’ Becoming … Afrekete: Audre Lorde's Interactional Self-Naming," Women Reading Women Writing (Temple U Pr, 1996), 145-179; Kara Provost, "Becoming Afrekete; The Trickster in the Work of Audre Lorde," MELUS 20 (1995): 45-59 or AnaLouise Keating, "Making Our Shattered Faces Whole: The Black Goddess and Audre Lorde's Revision of Patriarchal Myth," Frontiers 13 (1992): 20-33.
2.La Llurania was published in Venture 2 (1955): 47-51. The author's name is there spelled "Rey Domoni" which seems to have been a typographical error made by the editors of the journal in 1955. No scholar has commented upon this in any of the secondary sources, and "Domoni" reads "Domini" throughout the bibliography concerning Lorde. See Alexis de Veaux, Warrior Poet: A Bibliography of Audre Lorde (New York: Norton, 2004), 396-397, note 9 which cites "Rey Domini" and does not mention "Rey Domoni.
3. Black classicism, also known as "Classica Africana" is a new division in the field of the classical tradition. It examines the influence of classics upon the creative and professional lives of people of African descent. Named "Classica Africana" by Michele Valerie Ronnick in 1996, the area holds much promise for future research. See Michele Valerie Ronnick, "Racial Ideology and the Classics in the African-American University Experience," Classical Bulletin 76 (2000): 169-180, for an overview. See also Ronnick's entry on "black classicism," forthcoming in the second edition of The Encyclopaedia Africana, eds. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Oxford: Oxford U Pr, forthcoming).
Yakini B. Kemp (essay date fall 2004)
SOURCE: Kemp, Yakini B. "Writing Power: Identity Complexities and the Exotic Erotic in Audre Lorde's Writing." Studies in the Literary Imagination 37, no. 2 (fall 2004): 21-36.
[In the following essay, Kemp discusses the influence of Lorde's Caribbean heritage on her erotic writings.]
Audre Lorde is often cited as an icon for defining and asserting multiple identities in her life as well as in her prose, poetry, and mythic autobiography. Lorde has been tapped as a profound urban, American poet by academics, claimed as "foremother" by diasporic black lesbians, and cited as the only canonical black lesbian writer for white academic lesbians.1 Most often, Lorde's identity as Caribbean descendant is glossed over with the mention of her parental heritage, even though numerous critics analyze her use of African diasporic mythology and imagery. Notable exceptions to this occurrence are Trinidad-born Carole Boyce Davies's analysis in her Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject and in Haitian-born Myriam Chancy's Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile. Davies asserts that Lorde "resolves" her Caribbean identity in her "biomythography," Zami. Chancy sees Lorde's and other Afro-Caribbean women's writings as a move toward "self-love and self-awareness" and "toward a revolution of consciousness, which could one day affirm the beauty and wisdom of Black women and end [their] alienation," which she believes will facilitate "the return home" (219). Both critics find resolution to Lorde's exile status through her positing of cultural, political, and gender-relative subjects in the personae, issues, and objectives of her writing. In her essays, especially those in Sister Outsider, Lorde as feminist and cultural theorist provides the basis for a framework to view society and to assess activist social engagement. She does this from the gaze of a woman with many identities: Black woman, lesbian, mother, poet, Caribbean descendant, political activist, and teacher, to name only a few of. Her poignant and absorbing prose and poetry about surviving breast cancer and facing terminal cancer add other roles. What becomes clear is that throughout her writing life, Audre Lorde tried to honor and celebrate her identities. In particular, her role as activist/intellectual accords with the established intellectual tradition of many Caribbean writer activists who, as Jamaica Kincaid says, must leave the Caribbean because if they stay home they will stop writing (131). One of the most prominent of those intellectuals, C. L. R. James, in describing "the great artist" could very well be describing Audre Lorde's actual production:
[T]he great artist is the product of a long and deeply rooted national tradition…. He appears at a moment of transition in national life with results which are recognised as having significance for the whole civilised world. By a combination of learning (in his own particular sphere), observation, imagination and creative logic, he can construct the personalities and relations of the future, rooting them in the past and the present. By that economy of means which is great art, he adds to the sum of knowledge of the world and in doing this, as a general rule, he adds new range and flexibility to the medium that he is using.
Although James cannot cite a "great Caribbean artist" using his somewhat elitist and male-centered criteria in this 1959 lecture at the University of West Indies, Jamaica, his definition portends the unique impact of Lorde's major contribution to women's literature and women's studies as poet, novelist, and feminist theorist.
With the rise of postcolonial theoretical formulations regarding Caribbean literary and artistic output, the works of major African Caribbean writers are often analyzed and categorized by the well-known theorists; their theory "still turns on Western phallocentric (master) or feminist ‘gynocentric’ (mistress-master) philosophy" (Davies 39). However, the African Caribbean writer, born in a metropolitan center as Lorde was, writes of "a place I had never been to but knew out of my mother's mouth" (Zami 256). It follows that Lorde's activism as black woman, lesbian activist, and artist in the United States becomes "representative of individual quests for freedom of choice in romantic and sexual partnerships and, ultimately, as microcosmic glimpses of a struggle for human (and democratic) rights" (Kemp 76). Furthermore, Davies asserts that "The question of identity for Afro-Caribbean/American women writers involves a self-definition which takes into account the multifaceted nature of human existence and of female identity…. For the Caribbean American woman writer, cultural politics have to be worked out and articulated along with sexual politics" (115). Lorde herself states:
It has been very necessary and very generative for me to deal with all the aspects of who I am, and I've been saying this for a long time. I am not one piece of myself. I cannot be simply a Black person and not be a woman too, nor can I be a woman without being a lesbian. … Of course, there will always be people, and there have always been people in my life, who will come to me and say, "Well, here, define yourself as such and such," to the exclusion of the other pieces of myself. There is an injustice to self in doing this; it is an injustice to the women for whom I write. In fact, it is an injustice to everyone. What happens when you narrow your definition to what is convenient, or what is fashionable, or what is expected, is dishonesty by silence.
("My Words Will" 262-63)
Yet one dimension of the problematic nature of this task for Lorde the writer emanates from subjective perspectives of two of her primary self-identifications. The Caribbean as geographical locus resides in the popular Western consciousness as tropical vacation paradise; indeed, tourism is a mainstay of most economies of the region. Also, popular representation of woman-to-woman eroticism is most often relegated to male-centered sex fantasy or religious taboo when given any space. Thus, two of Lorde's primary identities confer the exotic and the taboo: Caribbean descendant and Wittig's "not-woman," lesbian.2 From this viewpoint, Lorde's derivative use of Caribbean, African, and woman-centered imagery codifies as the "exotic" in typical readings. In this article I will analyze Lorde's constructions of identity with regard to her use of the erotic, especially in formulations of Caribbean identity and lesbian identity. In Zami and in Lorde's poetry, the erotic, while remaining a site of conflict and contradiction, actually functions as a liberating force. By reconciling Lorde's use of the erotic and its employment in identity construction, her continued reclamation and placement as African Caribbean writer can be given expanded meaning as a logical conclusion. Moreover, this analysis demonstrates that Lorde's work concurs with Davies's statement "that all the postmodernist questions of redefinition of the meaning of identity, of home, of linear history, the metanarratives of self and identity are destabilized in the writing of Black women's experiences" (116).
Zami, Lorde's fictionalized autobiography, or autobiographical novel, seemingly takes precedence over all her other writings, as attested by the record of feminist critical analyses in academic journals and books. Yet it is Zami that singularly casts Audre Lorde as Caribbean descendant and writer. The writer gives full attention to the characterization of love versus the dominant relationship of the pre-adolescent and teenaged Audre with her Carriacou-born mother, Linda. The chapters that prominently feature Linda's sometimes severe parental strictures also demonstrate the character Audre's immersion into the exiled island soul and culture while growing up in New York. The same mother becomes a persona in the first two sections of the poem "From the House of Yemanjá" :
My mother had two faces and a frying pot
where she cooked up her daughters
before she fixed our dinner.
My mother had two faces
and a broken pot
where she hid out a perfect daughter
who was not me
I am the sun and moon and forever hungry
for her eyes.
I bear two women upon my back
one dark and rich and hidden
in the ivory hungers of the other
pale as a witch
yet steady and familiar
brings me bread and terror
in my sleep
her breasts are huge exciting anchors
in the midnight storm.
Representations of stark feelings of hunger, fear, and terror alongside the daughter's embodiment as the earth's primary celestial bodies ("sun and moon") center the portrait of the domineering but competent matriarch. For the daughter, the mother is concurrently a source of emotional conflict, fear, and sustenance. Lorde's words describing her mother's breasts, "huge exciting anchors," undeniably add an erotic element, which then dissipates with the maternal service of protector/safe harbor. The mother in Zami and in "The House of Yemanjá" is at once witch, deity, flesh, and home. In a later poem, "Legacy-Hers," Lorde as the speaker says,
I learn how to die
from your many examples
cracking the code of your living
heroisms collusions invisibilities
Even for the mature daughter, the mother is still fierce object of both admiration and caution. Lorde's conflicting appraisal of her mother as character and as persona not only connotes her mother's character strengths and weaknesses but also conveys the weighty influence of the physical and psychological imprint of one Caribbean exile on her sensitive and "different" daughter. In Zami it becomes clear that the character Audre is imbued with a real but nebulous sense of exile from home, which she inherits from both her parents but primarily from her mother's recollections of "that amorphous and mystically perfect place called ‘home’" (71).
The highlighting of the mother in Zami and in several poems aligns Lorde's work with that of other Caribbean women writers who frequently centralize mother-daughter relationships in their works. In her discussion of novels by Jamaican writer Erna Brodber, Denise Narain concedes that this tendency is a consistent avoidance of "woman as sexual being" and cites Dionne Brand's argument
that there is still a silence about representing the black woman as a sexual agent and that Caribbean women writers tend to hide behind a focus on mother-daughter relationships; Brand describes "big mothers" as "overwhelming our texts" so that the discussion focuses on "sex without sexuality."
Lorde disrupts this tendency by using fictionalized accounts of her own sexual development and personal history as a basis for the experiences in Zami and in "The House of Yemanjá."
Gisele Anatol adds an insightful interpretation of the mother-daughter relationship in Zami :
The mature Audre eventually realizes the unmistakable influence that her mother and mother's culture have on her life. A conventional psychoanalytic interpretation would categorize a girl's break away from her mother as necessary for the establishment of Self; I, however, agree with those feminists who view such sentiments of individualism as ultimately illusory and typically masculinist, only serving to demonize the mother. It is the connection between mother and daughter and not the separation which needs to be the focus of critical inquiry. Significantly, the text ends: "[In Carriacou] it is said that the desire to lie with other women is a drive from the mother's blood" (Zami 256). Thus, Audre's lesbianism, her Caribbean heritage, and her relationship with her mother become inseparably entwined and claimed as essential to her life, and her identity.
By claiming this identity, Lorde the writer brings original focus to the gaze of the Caribbean descendant through employing a specific and different evocation of the diasporic self and of her own erotic potential.
In "Uses of the Erotic as Power," Lorde makes profound observations regarding the conscription of human erotic potential in the service of phallocentric media and culture to the detriment of women. Her primary argument—that passion undergirds all vital human endeavor and is the underlying basis for all human motivation/action—leads to her overall conclusion. "The erotic is a potential source of power for all women," Lorde says, "in a patriarchal world that discourages women from experiencing full contact with their own erotic energy" (qtd. in Morris 4). Lorde's use of the erotic in her writing, especially in Zami 's love scenes, is often analyzed as symbolic of the protagonist Audre: finding and coalescing her longing for home (the Caribbean), motherland (Africa), and lesbian identity. Very near the end of Zami resides the climactic scene and tropical sensuality of the lovemaking between Audre and Kitty (who becomes Afrekete, the trickster Goddess). This brief relationship that concludes the novel is transformative for the protagonist, Audre. Kitty's "chocolate skin and deep sculptured mouth reminded me of a Benin bronze" (244). Afrekete is black, unlike all but one of the women lovers Audre has engaged up to this point. Therefore, Afrekete becomes the re-establishment of an emotional connection with "blackness" and, significantly, with Black womanhood. Audre says, "Afrekete taught me roots, new definitions of our women's bodies—definitions for which I had only been in training to learn before" (250).
Another point of reconnection resides in Kitty's origins in the American South, the geographical locus of slavery, implying an ancestral connection to Audre's kin who were enslaved in the Caribbean. Also, Kitty is a mother; she has a seven-year-old daughter being raised by Kitty's mother in Georgia. Thus, Kitty compounds all signs (and their contradictions) associated with home and exile for Audre: black, southern, rooted, sensuous, mother, immigrant (from the South), and nomadic. Whereas the character Audre cites the relationship with Kitty/Afrekete as pivotal for her lesbian womanhood, it is only a summer romance, ending with Kitty's complete disappearance. For all their emotional, sexual, and sensuous involvement, Kitty basically abandons Audre, rendering their connection a brief affair. The eroticism of their coupling is conveyed in the language: "Our bodies met again, each surface touched with each other's flame, from the tips of our curled toes to our tongues, and locked into our own wild rhythms, we rode each other across the thundering space, dripped like light from the peak of each other's tongue" (Zami 249).
The exotic inevitably is relayed through the description of tropical fruit used in lovemaking:
I took a ripe avocado and rolled it between my hands until the skin became a green case for the soft mashed fruit inside, hard pit at the core. I rose from kissing your mouth to nibble a hole in the fruit skin near the navel stalk, squeezed the pale yellow-green fruit juice in thin ritual lines back and forth over and around your coconut-brown belly.
The oil and sweat from our bodies kept the fruit liquid, and I massaged it over your thighs and between your breasts until your brownness shone like a light through a veil of the palest green avocado, a mantle of goddess pear that I slowly licked from your skin.
Of course, the imagery intends to evoke the sensuousness of the Caribbean as physical entity, as body, as an island; moreover, Lorde's language consciously and completely conveys the feminine—woman's body engaged with woman's body. Furthermore, the elevation of the avocado to "goddess pear" also recasts the lovemaking as an act between goddesses. The intentional spiritual elevation and mythic overtones in Kitty's transformation into Afrekete. Charlene Ball has coined "the word theaphany (suggested by thealogy) to refer to a woman-centered revelation of the sacred. … In Zami the appearance of Afrekete is a theaphany that occurs within the context of lesbian experience." Ball believes that,
In Zami, Lorde fills a need in women's mythology, helping women of all colors re-vision their mythic journeys. Since Zami, like its author, stands at the intersections of interlocking and overlapping identities, such a discussion, I hope, will deepen our understandings of the book and its transformative capabilities as well as increase the richness and power of mythic images available.
Ball further states that Lorde's revisionist myth-making "challenges and displaces existing myth, making visible what had been made invisible and making political what had been naturalized" (63). However, the logical extensions of this same "myth-making" causes Anatol to caution against a "purely celebratory appraisal of Zami " (138). In Anatol's assessment, Lorde's privileging of the African mythological and African-centered reference toward "authenticity" ignores the actual historical relevance of the Caribbean: "For the people of the creolized spaces of the Caribbean, this leaves no hope for an independent cultural identity" (138). Using Lorde's statements from the beginning of Zami that "Grenadians and Barbadians walk like African peoples. Trinidadians do not" (9), Anatol accuses Lorde of creating "a hierarchy of African-diasporic identity based upon the presence of an undefined (and undefinable) African essence" (138). The critic also cites Afrekete's statement to Audre, "I got this under the bridge," which she makes about the tropical fruit they use for food and play; Audre's mother always says the same thing when she buys something from the same West Indian markets. What Anatol finds problematic is Lorde's interpretation (here, Anatol does not make a distinction between the viewpoint of Lorde the writer and Audre the character as she does elsewhere) "that whatever it was had come from as far back and as close to home—that is to say, was as authentic—as was possible" (Zami 249). Anatol argues that "not the point of origin but rather the point of connection … establishes the so-called authenticity" (139). Needless to say, Anatol's argument is splitting hairs, for the overall focus of Zami is on the search for and connection to an "authentic" African/Caribbean American/lesbian self for Audre, a merging of all these found identities that does not privilege or "essentialize" any one identity.3 Consequently, Zami as narrative complies with representative postmodern writing in that the text as fictionalized autobiography questions its own formulations about identity, heritage, realism, and culture.
Whereas Anatol believes that "ever emergent cultural identity" requires "acknowledging migration and movements—literal as well as metaphorical" (139), the text of Zami remains one of only a few in which the intellectual, emotional, social, and sexual consciousness of a black lesbian character is given complete, skilled literary development. This fact may be another reason that the exotic still comes into association with the text. However, feminist critics find various ways to discount Lorde's writing as "exoticizing." Ball provides a good defense of Lorde's lush and sensuous portrayal of Kitty/Afrekete:
This description might serve to exoticize Kitty/Afrekete, harking back as it does to colonialist descriptions of native women of color in exotic garb who bear upon their heads succulent fruits and other dainties, submissively presenting them—along with their own sexually available selves—to a (male, white) protagonist. … [Lorde,] however, deconstructs this objectified image by depicting one woman of color bringing these riches from the earth not to a white man, but to another black woman, and not for the gaze of the white colonizer, but for the gaze of women-loving women. Moreover, Afrekete brings bounty from her farm, words that underscore her own agency and power as farmer and owner of land. And she is "hard and real," descriptors that contradict the stereotype of the available, yielding native maiden. Kitty/Afrekete is presented as a seducing and desiring subject, not a seductive and desired object. Thus the narrative renders this colonialist myth unstable.
It is true that Lorde's work can be said to destabilize the particular colonialist myth cited above, but at the same time she does employ the use of exotic imagery for what Ball describes as "lovemaking scenes that have become classic lesbian erotica" (71). In fact, as an African American and as the daughter of Caribbean parents, Lorde received two idealized notions of the West Indies. Her parents' view of home was a place of romanticized perfection even though they emigrated for better economic opportunities. In the 1950s—Zami 's chronological setting—primarily wealthy whites from Europe and the U.S. vacationed in "the islands," continuing the perpetuation of the colonialist view of the Caribbean as a leisure paradise at the service of the West. This idealized (albeit racist) perception of the Caribbean is perpetual in some ways through official tourist advertisements that are still targeted primarily to whites. Yet many more black Americans participate in tourism today. Unfortunately, as Ian Strachan states, some African American tourists regard Caribbean residents as a servant class; this attitude is similar to that of many European and U.S. whites (14). Always politically aware of the trappings of colonialist/imperialist gaze, Lorde's use of descriptive natural phenomena and the fruits of the Caribbean is not employed simply for the amusement of a leisure class or for exploitation of a service class; instead, she re-creates these images as tools for mutual sexual pleasure and emotional exchange between black working-class women lovers in New York. In this manner Lorde at once expands the range of erotic vision while adding contradictory implications for discourse on the erotic. Even though Lorde's use of natural and food imagery can be linked to Caribbean and African identifications, their use also complicates these associations because the fruits are exotic. The "cocoyams and cassava—those magical fruit" and "ripe red finger bananas" (Zami 249) Audre uses in her lovemaking with Afrekete represent the literal fruit of the tropical islands that symbolically transform feeling and connections to the loved one's body and to home.
At eighteen, after her first complete sexual experience with Ginger, a black co-worker at the dangerously unregulated Keystone Electronics factory in Stamford, Audre explains, "Loving Ginger that night was like coming home to a joy that I knew I was meant for" (Zami 139). Finding her erotic feelings centered in lesbian desire allows Audre to experience physical pleasure as a type of return home. Notably, the woman's body becomes landscape and metaphorical home in Zami and in Lorde's love poetry. In her poem "Outlines," Lorde voices the metaphorical view reflected in her love poetry:
When women make love
beyond the first exploration
we meet each other knowing
in a landscape
the rest of our lives
attempts to understand.
Most often, the landscape of the woman's body and Lorde's imagery remain evocative of the Caribbean with an emphasis on mutual satisfaction, as in the poem "Recreation," which interweaves the creative labor of writing with the revivifying power of lovemaking:
Touching you I catch midnight
as moon fires set in my throat
I love your flesh into blossom
I made you
and take you made
There are also images of the bounty and lushness found in the lover's body landscape as described in "Woman" :
I dream of a place between your breasts
to build my house like a haven
where I plant crops
in your body
an endless harvest
where the commonest rock
is moonstone and ebony opal
giving milk to all of my hungers
What one critic calls "the brilliance of Lorde's lesbian notion of the erotic" (Ginzberg 87) pervades her poetry. In "On the Night of a Full Moon," the speaker describes her lover in images applicable to nature in the tropics:
your breasts warm as sunlight
your lips quick as young birds
between your thighs the sweet
sharp taste of lime.
The warmth of the sun, the flight of "young birds," and the taste of citrus relay the tropical setting as does the positing of the moon and ocean movements in the following section of the poem:
And I would be the moon
spoken over your beckoning flesh
breaking against reservations
my hands at your high tide
over and under inside you
In "Love Poem," probably Lorde's best-known erotic poem, the woman's body again is likened to land, and the indigenous images associated with many islands of the Caribbean appear. Reminiscent of the lovemaking scene with Afrekete in Zami, this poem opens with an invocation to the personified Earth (goddess) with the speaker herself becoming a goddess:
Speak Earth and bless me with what is richest
make sky flow honey out of my hips
rigid as mountains
spread over a valley
carved out by the mouth of rain.
The second verse enjoins images of woman-to-woman lovemaking with forces of nature. References to genitalia ("the split cup") become feminine symbolism. Again, the lover's body becomes geographical terrain, "forests hollow" that produce "honey":
And I knew when I entered her I was
high wind in her forests hollow
fingers whispering sound
from the split cup
The lover's body and orifices become formations reflective of the mountains and caverns:
impaled on a lance of tongues
on the tips of her breast on her navel
and my breath
howling into her entrances
As she does in other love poems, Lorde here uses ocean imagery, likening the narrator's passion to sea birds: "Greedy as herring-gulls / or a child / I swing out over the earth" (77). Lorde's words here and in other poems actively propel images of nature, easily associated with the Caribbean, into the poetry's erotic vocabulary resulting in provocative sensuousness. In "An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich," Lorde reveals that in the early 1970s, "Love Poem" was too explicit for Broadside Press founder and editor Dudley Randall, who published Lorde's collection From a Land Where Other People Live ; it was the only poem left out of the collection ("An Interview" 99). Whereas Lorde's images of lesbian sexuality in her erotic poetry may still have shock value in some circles, Lorde explains her rationale: "I love to write love poems; I love loving" ("My Words Will" 264). She further states that she wrote "Uses of the Erotic as Power" to examine the whole question of loving:
Women have not been taught to respect the erotic urge, the place that is uniquely female. So, just as some Black people tend to reject Blackness because it has been termed inferior, we, as women, tend to reject our capacity for feeling, our ability to love, to touch the erotic, because it has been devalued.
("My Words Will" 265)
Rather than acquiesce to this "devalued" rendering of the erotic, Lorde published love poems in the same collections that included her scathing political poems about racism, poverty, and exploited children. Moreover, as Sarah Chinn states, "Bypassing the debate over ‘feminist’ sexuality that dominated the period in which she wrote Zami, Lorde replaces struggles over ‘objectification’ and ‘sexual freedom’ with a sexual language that represents lesbian bodies as sacred, communicative, instrumental, textured, difficult" (184). Thus, Lorde's exemplary use of the erotic gives her writing a type of power that mitigates her status as "marginalized other" conferred because she is black, woman, lesbian, born working class, and of Caribbean descent. Lorde's comments after she immigrated to St. Croix assert her understanding:
I am now part of the U.S. colonial community, as well as part of the international community of people of color. I am also part of the Black women's community. I am part of many communities. Poetry is a way of articulating and bringing together the energies of difference within those communities, so those energies can be used by me and others to do what must be done.
("Above the Wind" 54-55)
Ultimately, there exists a literary and imaginative connection between Lorde's derivative use and symbolic rendering of home, woman-to-woman love, and the erotic as transformative sources and the Caribbean's substantive function in writings by other black American women writers. Notably, other women writers also view the Caribbean as a place of rejuvenative, albeit redemptive, force. Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow serves as a good example. The protagonist, Avey Johnson, in her sixties, finds heritage, a renewed spirit, and a sense of purpose when she abandons her typical commercial Caribbean cruise and is persuaded to partake in the annual ritual dance/walk on the island of Curaçao. Of course, it may be argued that Marshall privileges the Caribbean because she is the daughter of Barbadian parents, but even the very successful popular-fiction novel How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry MacMillan posits the Caribbean as the place to find new beginnings. In MacMillan's novel, the thirty-something Stella finds love, purpose, and life as paramount consequences of her vacation trip to Jamaica. Although Haitian American Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory deals with the entrenched problems and psychological trauma faced by its central women characters, the novel demonstrates that through two fateful visits to her homeland, Haiti, the young mother, Sophie, receives answers to her life's questions, solace for her worried mind, and renewal of her belief in women's strength. Marshall, MacMillan, and Danticat, writers from three generations, incorporate varying degrees of realism regarding the Caribbean into their works; but all portray the Caribbean as a place of transformation and change, whether their own heritage links them directly or historically to the region.
Lorde's Caribbean heritage also provides her with a language that her own writing transforms into the unique and powerful. The major example of this remains her infusion of the word zami into the vocabulary of the literate Western cultural establishment and its adoption for the naming of many lesbian organizations of the African diaspora. Lorde's definition and translation of the word, provided in the epilogue to Zami, come from her mother's home in Carriacou: zami means "women who work together as friends and lovers" (255). Like Alice Walker, whose use and definition of womanism in In Search of Our Mother's Gardens created a new way of characterizing black women's relationships to self, each other, community, and world, Lorde's use of her mother's patois converges her Caribbean heritage, her lesbian self, and her black woman self into one. Lorde's employment of "original" language follows what Barbara Christian cites as a Caribbean trait: "that people invent their own forms" (xiii). Lorde's combination/juxtaposition/integration of Caribbean, American, African, and lesbian identities within the corpus of her writing evidence her invention. Ultimately, Audre Lorde's inventive forms of selfhood, discovery, love, and struggle serve as continual representations of her "resolution" of Caribbean identity.
1. In "Audre Lorde and the African American Family Tradition," Anna Wilson comments on the inclusion of two articles on Lorde in New Lesbian Criticism and concludes that "Zami is on the verge of canonization within white feminist academia as the token black lesbian voice" (77). In Persuasive Fictions, Wilson states that "current women's studies syllabi and bibliographies suggest that Zami has acquired the status of a standard text" and that "if black marginal subjectivity is acknowledged, Zami will regularly function as its representative, often to the exclusion of other writers and texts" (97).
2. In "One Is Not Born a Woman," Wittig explains: "One feature of lesbian oppression consists precisely of making women out of reach for us, since women belong to men. Thus a lesbian has to be something else, a not-woman, a not-man, not a product of nature" (13).
Lesbian feminist writers Makeda Silvera and Dionne Brand, both Canadian immigrants, cite the homophobic and silencing treatment of lesbians in their home countries of Jamaica and Trinidad, respectively. Participating in the First Caribbean Women Writers Conference at Wellesley College in 1990, Brand also notes the reluctance of black women academics to address lesbian subject matter. See Silvera, "Man Royals and Sodomites: Some Thoughts on the Invisibility of Afro-Caribbean Lesbians," and Brand, "This Body Itself."
3. Brenda Carr comments that because Lorde's work "slides between the particular and the universal," it "takes the risk of deploying essentialism"; how- ever, Carr notes that Lorde's activitist/poetic voice "reminds us that what is at stake is justice for social subjects—real bodies in a lived world" (153).
Anatol, Gisele Liza. "Border Crossings in Audre Lorde's Zami: Triangular Linkages of Identity and Desire." MaComère: Journal of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars 4 (2001): 130-41.
Ball, Charlene. "Old Magic and New Fury: The Theaphany of Afrekete in Audre Lorde's ‘Tar Beach.’" NWSA [National Women's Studies Association Journal] 13.1 (2001): 61-85. 22 Oct. 2002 ‹http://newfirstsearch.oclc.org›.
Brand, Dionne. "This Body Itself." Bread Out of Stone: Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics. Toronto: Coach House P, 1994. 25-50.
Carr, Brenda. "‘Woman Speaks … I am Woman and Not White’: Politics of Voice, Tactical Essentialism, and Cultural Intervention in Audre Lorde's Activist Poetics and Practice." College Literature 20.2 (1993): 133-53.
Chancy, Myriam. Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997.
Chinn, Sarah E. "Audre Lorde and the Power of Touch." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003): 181-205.
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives of Black Women Writers. Elmsford, NJ: Pergamon P, 1985.
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Davies, Carole Boyce. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1993.
Ginzberg, Ruth. "Audre Lorde's (Nonessentialist) Lesbian Eros." Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 7 (1992): 73-90.
James, C. L. R. "The Artist in the Caribbean." The Future in the Present: Selected Writings. Westport: Lawrence Hill, 1977. 183-90.
Kemp, Yakini. "When Difference Is Not the Dilemma: The Black Woman Couple in African American Women's Fiction." Arms Akimbo: Africana Women in Contemporary Literature. Ed. Janice Liddell and Yakini Kemp. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1999. 75-91.
Kincaid, Jamaica. "An Interview with Jamaica Kincaid." Kay Bonetti. The Missouri Review 15.2 (1992): 123-42.
Lorde, Audre. "Above the Wind: An Interview with Audre Lorde." Charles Rowell. August 29, 1990. Callaloo 23.1 (2000): 52-63.
———. The Black Unicorn. New York: Norton, 1978.
———. Chosen Poems—Old and New. New York: Norton, 1982.
———. "From the House of Yemanjá." The Black Unicorn 6-7.
———. From a Land Where Other People Live. Chicago: Broadside P, 1973.
———. "An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich." Sister Outsider 81-109.
———. "Legacy—Hers." The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, Poems 1987-1992. New York: Norton, 1993. 4.
———. "Love Poem." Chosen Poems 77.
———. "My Words Will Be There." Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. New York: Anchor, 1984. 261-91.
———. "On the Night of the Full Moon." Chosen Poems 20-21.
———. "Outlines." Our Dead Behind Us. New York: Norton, 1986.
———. "Recreation." The Black Unicorn 81.
———. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984.
———. "Uses of the Erotic as Power." Sister Outsider 53-59.
———. "Woman." The Black Unicorn 82.
———. Zami, A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1982.
MacMillan, Terry. How Stella Got Her Groove Back. New York: Signet, 1997.
Marshall, Paule. Praisesong for the Widow. New York: Dutton, 1984.
Morris, Margaret Kissam. "Audre Lorde: Textual Authority and the Embodied Self." Frontiers 23.1 (2002): 168-88. 23 Oct. 2002. ‹http://web5.infotrac.galegroup.com/›.
Narain, Denise deCaires. "The Body of the Woman in the Body of the Text: the Novels of Erna Brodber." Caribbean Women Writers: Fictions in English. Ed. Mary Condé and Thorunn Lonsdale. New York: MacMillan, 1999. 97-116.
Silvera, Makeda. "Man Royals and Sodomites: Some Thoughts on the Invisibility of Afro-Caribbean Lesbians." Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology. Toronto: Sister Vision P, 1992. 14-26.
Strachan, Ian Gregory. Paradise and Plantation: Tourism and Culture in the Anglophone Caribbean. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2002.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanich, 1983.
Wilson, Anna. "Audre Lorde and the African American Family Tradition: When Family Is Not Enough." New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Readings. Ed. Sally Munt, New York: Columbia UP, 1992. 75-93.
———. Persuasive Fictions: Feminist Narrative and Critical Myth. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2001.
Wittig, Monique. "One Is Not Born a Woman." The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon P, 1992. 9-20.
Chinosole. "Audre Lorde and Matrilineal Diaspora: "Moving History beyond Nightmare into Structures for the Future." In Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance, pp. 379-94. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Explores the culture of the African diaspora through Lorde's writings that focus on black matrilinealism.
Ginzberg, Ruth. "Audre Lorde's (Nonessentialist) Lesbian Eros." Hypatia 7, no. 4 (autumn 1992): 73-90.
Considers the political focus of Lorde's philosophy of the erotic.
Hall, Joan Wylie, ed. Conversations with Audre Lorde. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004, 208 p.
Collection of interviews with Lorde.
Keating, AnaLouise. "Inscribing ‘Black,’ Becoming … Afrekete: Audre Lorde's Interactional Self-Naming." In Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde, pp. 145-79. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Discusses Lorde's invention of self in her semi-autobiographical works.
Rudnitsky, Lexi. "The ‘Power’ and ‘Sequelae’ of Audre Lorde's Syntactical Strategies." Callaloo 26, no. 2 (spring 2003): 473-85.
Examines Lorde's use of poetry to create a new language that would challenge the existing social order.
Additional information on Lorde's life and works is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:2; Black Writers, Eds. 1, 3; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 142; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 16, 26, 46, 82; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 18, 71; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 2, 3, 4, 5; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules, Eds. MULT, POET; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 12; Poetry for Students, Vol. 16; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 173.
"Lorde, Audre 1934-1992." Black Literature Criticism: Classic and Emerging Authors since 1950. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/lorde-audre-1934-1992-0
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