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Audre Lorde’s Role in the Black Aesthetics Evolution Essay


Introduction

According to Neal, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) is “the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept” (1). The movement was substantially political and interconnected with the ideas of black nationalism, especially its principles that “affirmatively claimed blackness, emphasized the African origins of ‘New World’ black identities, advocated Pan-African political thinking, and fearlessly sought autonomy from white America” (Collins and Crawford 6).

Black artists expressed and advocated for the spiritual and cultural needs of African Americans. Along with political and social activists, they largely contributed to the rise of the “black consciousness” throughout the 1960s-1970s. Despite the fact that BAM was mainly male-dominated, the contribution of African American female authors to the evolution of the movement itself, and the broader social liberation efforts were tremendous. It is possible to say that Audre Lorde had one of the most prominent female voices in BAM. Consistently with the movement’s aesthetics, a lot of her compositions were political: she explored injustices and oppression that she faced as a Black woman, a lesbian, and an author.

However, Lorde challenged some of the core ideas of the movement. For instance, as Neal states, BAM spoke directly to black people and avoided any links to the “protest literature” targeted at the white audience (2). However, having multiple identity dimensions (a woman, a lesbian, a Black) that all were suppressed in one way or another in the patriarchal and conservative world of the white supremacy, Lorde wrote for a broader audience and, in this way, largely contributed to the evolution of the Black Aesthetics by expanding its initial significance.

To verify the proposed thesis statement, the analysis of some of Lorde’s poems and other writings will be conducted in the given paper. Additionally, to identify similar and distinct features of Lordean poetics and BAM, they will be reviewed and compared in the context of identity politics. Thus, identity construction mechanisms used by Lorde and other representatives of the Black Aesthetics will be reviewed.

Identity Politics

Identity politics is defined by Ilmonen as “the shared experience of oppression by certain subjugated groups, whether defined by gender, class, political status, sexuality, ethnicity, race or some other characteristic, which provides a basis for group politics” (3). It means that since BAM aimed to secure the political freedoms of a particular social group marginalized in a broader social-political context, it can be regarded as a political identity formation. Being a member of the given formation, through her literary work, Lorde attempted to assert and reclaim ways of understanding her distinctiveness that challenged dominant oppressive characterizations.

Multiple of Aspects Lorde’s Identity and Their Roles in Her Poetics

It is possible to say that the author’s Black identity is central to her overall personality as it is through this aspect, she looked at the other facets of her self-hood and examined the issues of freedom and equality. The notion of “blackness” was core in many of Lorde’s poems, including The Black Unicorn: “The black unicorn is restless / the black unicorn is unrelenting / the black unicorn is not / free” (Lorde). As Clarke observes, “there are muted references to a horrific past” in the poem − “perhaps the Atlantic slave trade, perhaps other kinds of coerced relations” (134). At the same time, the quoted part of the literary piece designates Lorde’s unwillingness to become comfortable with her current position and fear of oppression. It enunciates the author’s rebellious nature.

Lorde’s ideas of womanhood can be found in The Black Unicorn as well: “It is not on her lap where the horn rests / but deep in her moonlit / growing” (Lorde). According to Clarke, “moonlit” is the author’s reference to the vulva, while “the horn” is a phallic symbol as befitting Eshu − an androgynous, benevolent, yet mischievous Yoruba deity − denoting permeability and fecundity (134). It is worth noticing the Eshu is a trickster god, the breaker of taboos, who is disobedient, willful, and defiant (Doty and Hynes 80-81).

It is possible to say that by combining the feminine features with Eshu’s rebellious qualities, Lorde tried to depict the complexity, versatility, and depth of the female nature. The horn can also be a symbol of strength because, in the myths about unicorns, it is described as a source of the animal’s power. It is a sign of masculinity as well. The given image of womanhood, combining both feminine and masculine properties, is associated with powerfulness and completeness compared to the traditional Western views on femininity as a synonym of vulnerability and liability. The fact that both feminine and masculine qualities are merged in the given metaphor may also refer to Lorde’s unconventional sexuality.

As stated by Njeng, Lorde often compared women and lesbians to blacks because they all suffered from oppression, “where black women have suffered from racism and under patriarchy, and women are taught to suspect or repress their erotic urges (which Lorde considers central to women)” (31). When integrating these three dimensions of her identity, the poet created an image of a Black warrior woman endowing her with many historical and ethnic African features, e.g., derived from Dahomey traditions. Ilmonen also observes that in her poems, Lorde often referred to the West African cultural and spiritual heritage as “the consoling arms of a mother” (4). It is even possible to say that she saw it as a superior being and asked for its benevolence and support. For example, in 125th Street and Abomey, she calls to Seboulisa, the mother of all Yoruba orisha − manifestations of the supreme deity:

“take my fear of being alone

like my warrior sisters

who rode in defense of your queendom

disguised and apart

give me the woman strength

of tongue in this cold season” (Lorde).

According to Ilmonen, such a presentation of a collective power within Lorde’s personality links the author to the essentialist identity politics of black lesbian feminism (4). Additionally, it is possible to assume that it connects her to the principles of BAM’s identity politics as well because not only she creates an image of a powerful woman combining both feminine and masculine features but also employs the specific imagery language of the African traditions.

BAM and Lorde’s Works: Common Features

The bindings of folk culture with contemporary Black life is one of the major features of Black Aesthetics (Gabbin 3). The elements of cultural heritage penetrated into the poetry of the BAM authors and inevitably influenced the form and the emotional content of their compositions. In accordance with the given premise of the Black Aesthetics, in 125th Street and Abomey, Lorde refers to her ethnic memory to support her stance.

It is possible to assume that for her, the folk tradition was a source of personal, spiritual, imaginative, and traditional values. Moreover, as stated by Gates and Smith, “Lorde’s African city inflects gender and sexuality in terms that oppose the masculinist ethos prevalent among many male writers of the period, though it aims no less at a reimagined ‘blackness’ capable of fierce yet loving communal identity” (638). In this way, the cultural and traditional African values harmonically co-exist with other aspects of the poet’s self-hood and vision.

Lorde’s poetry has many other qualities associated with the Black Aesthetics. For instance, by drawing the example of Sterling A. Brown, one of the founders of the Black Aesthetics tradition, Gabbin notes that it is characteristic for Black authors’ poetry to reveal “an exploration of self-hood, a celebration of the strength and stoicism of Black people, and an abiding faith in the possibilities of their lives” (5). These ideas can be traced in The Black Unicorn, which was briefly evaluated previously in the paper. They can also be observed in For Assata:

“I dream of your freedom

as my victory

and the victory of all dark women

who forego the vanities of silence” (Lorde).

The poem is dedicated to Assata Shakur, a Black female protester and one of the most significant figures in the Black Panther Party. Lorde wrote this literary piece in 1977 when Shakur was charged with the first-degree murder and imprisoned (Reed). One of the most famous statements by Shakur is as follows: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains” (Reed). It means that the activist encouraged African Americans to unite in order to confront social injustice and White supremacy.

For the poet, the figure of Assata Shakur is a symbol of the fight for freedom as she always openly stood against ethnic and gender injustice. The fearless and strong woman, who was not afraid to sacrifice her own freedom in order to defend the rights and interests of many, is represented in the poem as a role model for every Black woman who is not courageous enough to speak out. The lines quoted above demonstrate a Lordean perspective on the issues of African Americans’ resilience and hope for a better future where the victory over the centuries-long oppression is possible.

The analysis of the author’s poems makes it clear that the element of confrontation to some unfavorable forces and oppression is one of the central to Lorde’s poetry. As stated by Neal, all authors writing consistently with the principles of the Black Aesthetics are guided in their work by the following questions: “whose vision of the world is finally more meaningful, ours or the white oppressors’? What is the truth? Or, more precisely, whose truth shall we express, that of the oppressed or of the oppressors?” (2).

It is possible to say that Lorde asked herself those questions when writing. She depicted reality from the point of view of the oppressed people who could face coercion as implied in The Black Unicorn, who might need to protect and defend their values and origins like female warriors defended Seboulisa’s queendom in 125th Street and Abomey, or who suffered from the “vanities of silence” as mentioned in For Assata (Lorde).

By taking the stance of the oppressed ones, the poet obtained an opportunity to provide a more realistic picture of social disparities and problems. Thus, Lorde’s poetry comprised an ethical component, which was regarded by Neal as a foundation of the Black Aesthetics (2).

The intersection of BAM and Feminism in Lorde’s Writing

As it was already briefly mentioned above, in her poetry, Lorde extensively addressed the problems of womanhood. Feminism was a substantial part of the poet’s identity, and she constantly challenged the conventional notions of femininity by representing female protagonists and other female characters in her poems as fierce warriors and fearless rebels. The piece that illustrates the given assumption best is A Woman Speaks:

“I have been a woman

for a long time

beware my smile

I am treacherous with old magic

and the noon’s new fury

with all your wide futures

promised

I am

woman

and not white” (Lorde).

As noted by Clarke, in the poem, “the speaker is both confessional and admonitory and carries tremendous authority” (135). Again, Lorde endows the female figure with power and abilities to destroy those who can harm her. Although the oppressing forces are presented in the poem only implicitly, the last line helps identify what those forces may be and to whom exactly the speaker’s warnings are addressed. The phrase “I am a woman and not white” seems to multiply the burden of the oppression and simultaneously and proportionally increase the threat to oppressors conveyed by the speaker.

In A Woman Speaks, Lorde refers to Afrin city and communal identity, e.g., “my sisters / witches in Dahomey,” but it is possible to say that the notion of womanhood bears a core meaning in the given poem (Lorde). Although here she indicates her ethnicity clearly, it does not necessarily mean that through this poem, she addresses merely Black women. As Ilmonen quotes Keating, “Lorde extends her experience outwards to include all – regardless of color, sexuality, gender, age, or class – who do not fit this country’s ‘mythical norm’” (5).

Based on this, the identity politics in Lorde’s poetry goes beyond BAM’s identity politics that concentrate on the ideas and issues of blackness exclusively. By merging different dimensions of her own identity, the poet managed to target multiple areas in the system of social domination. Thus, Lorde’s poetry is at the intersection of BAM and feminism and the black lesbian feminism, in particular.

The assumption that Lorde spoke to women of all races, social class, and sexual orientation can be verified through the analysis of The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. In the given piece of literature, Lorde states: “The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken” (Lorde 44).

The poet does not deny the fact that there are many differences between Black and White people and women, in particular. However, she emphasizes that despite those differences, diverse females should unite, try to listen to each other, and spread the message of liberation.

In the Transformation, Lorde observes that ethnicity is one of the most valuable aspects of personality and, for Black women, their blackness is also the major source of vulnerability and strength (42). Although white women cannot relate to the experience of Black women to the full extent, the author nevertheless attempts to motivate them to examine the pertinence of those experiences and especially the works of literature by black female authors to their lives. Lorde encourages all women to “not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own” (43). In this way, she challenged the logic of domination at multiple levels (e.g., ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) and stimulated the creation of transformative social models.

Voice and Silence: Lorde’s Identity as a Writer and an Activist

According to Carr, the major tool in Lorde’s struggle against systemic inequalities and a means for their intervention was language (133). In the Transformation, she claims that language was before continuously used against women and African Americans and now it can become a powerful instrument for the transformation of silence into words and actions (Lorde 43). The similar ideas can be observed in her multiple poetic compositions as well.

For instance, in For Assata, the poet states that women have suffered from “vanities of silence” (Lorde). Moreover, by opposing Assata to “sisters who have not yet spoken,” she emphasized the importance of language and ability to speak out despite the fact that women and other individuals suffering from oppression in the social system where patriarchy and white supremacy dominate may be punished when doing so (Lorde).

It is evident that the concepts of voice and silence are of great importance in Lorde’s poetics and participate in Lordean identity construction as she uses them as metaphors in many of her works including Death Dance for a Poet, A Litany for Survival, and A Song for Many Movements. According to Clark, in Lorde’s poems, silence always “portends deadly fear and collusion, which prevent speaking, which prevent concerted political action” (146). For example, in A Litany for Survival, silence is associated with fear:

“learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk

for by this weapon

this illusion of some safety to be found

the heavy-footed hoped to silence us

For all of us

this instant and this triumph

We were never meant to survive” (Lorde).

Here, Lorde indicates that silence is not safe as it may appear at first glance because it never prevented anyone from suffering and dying and, on the contrary, it can even contribute to adverse outcomes.

Silence can also be associated with inflicted ideas and the lack of awareness of own real identity. In Death Dance for a Poet, Lorde uses the following metaphor: “in the hungers of silence / she has stolen her father’s judgments.” It is possible to presume that “the hungers of silence” can signify either the inability of a woman to express herself in the patriarchal social structure and the need to comply with the dominant ideology that deprives her of liberties or the lack of role models on a broader scale − other women who speak out, openly claim their rights and fearlessly articulate opinions.

Compared to silence, voice and language represent activism and equality in Lorde’s poetics. In her poems, other writings, and public speeches, she both directly and indirectly encouraged her audiences to speak up. From her perspective, although speaking may be dangerous, it is still much better than silence: “to question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end” (Lorde 41). The given idea can be concluded by the final lines from A Litany for Survival: “So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive” (Lorde).

The concept of voice and language play a significant role in the formation of Lorde’s identity as an author. It is possible to say that her poetry was the form of activism in itself. Authorship as one of the major dimensions of the poet’s personality interacted with other aspects of her identity. For example, in 125th Street and Abomey, she asks Seboulisa, Dahomean mother goddess of all, to give her “the woman strength / of tongue in this cold season” (Lorde).

She compares herself with the warrior sisters so that a reader can make an inference that the speaker herself is a warrior but her weapon is language, and she uses it in the mission to defend something she truly believes in: justice and equality. At the same time, the element of womanhood is inseparable from other aspects of her character in the given poem. In this way, Lorde connects her identity as a writer to the notions of africanicity, blackness, and feminism.

Conclusion

In the paper, the focus was made on the analysis of multiple dimensions of Lorde’s identity: an African American, a woman, and a writer. The findings of the literature review, as well as the evaluation of the author’s poems and writings, make it clear that there are a lot of similarities in both aesthetic and political features of BAM and Lordean poetics. First of all, both of the literary phenomena were largely inspired by various elements of African heritage, mythology, and cultural traditions.

Secondly, they served the purpose of fighting against White supremacy and social inequality by constructing and praising Black identity and depicting the challenges that African Americans faced throughout the history. As stated by Neal, the representatives of BAM believe that their ethics and aesthetics are one (2). As the analysis showed, the given statement is true in the case of Lorde as well.

At the same time, the formulated thesis statement was verified by the evidence derived from the scholarly resources and the independent criticism of some Lorde’s works. The idea that the poet wrote in a broader context than that of BAM can be regarded as valid because Lorde frequently integrated the concepts of womanhood and sisterhood in her poems. Moreover, it was shown that not only did she address the African American audience but also targeted diverse population groups who were oppressed in one way or another. Thus, Lorde’s poetry may be interesting for women from different multicultural backgrounds, members of the LGBT community, and Black people in general no matter where they live.

However, it does not mean that in order to convey her message efficiently, the author compromised her connectedness with the Black Aesthetics and conformed with the Western and predominantly white literary traditions. Lorde managed to preserve her unique writing style and loyalty to her African origins and heritage. In fact, many of her poems show that blackness and ethnicity were highly valued and cherished by the poet as she drew inspiration from them and used them to create an imaginative world of her poems. Thus, although some aspects of Lorde’s work are beyond the BAM framework, she remains an outstanding and significant representative of the given movement.

Works Cited

Carr, Brenda. “‘A 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, vol. 20, no. 2, 1993, pp. 133-153.

Clarke, Cheryl. “After Mecca:” Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement. Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Collins, Lisa Gail, and Margo Natalie Crawford. New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement. Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Doty, William G., and William J. Hynes. Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticisms. University Alabama Press, 1993.

Gabbin, Joanne V. Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Gates, Henry Louis, and Valerie Smith. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Ilmonen, Kaisa. “Identity politics revisited: On Audre Lorde, Intersectionality, and Mobilizing Writing Styles”. European Journal of Women’s Studies, no. 3, 2017, pp. 1-16.

Lorde, Audre. The Black Unicorn: Poems. W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.

—. The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. 1977. Web.

Neal, Larry. “The Black Arts Movement.” The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 12, no. 4, 1968, pp. 1-2.

Njeng, Eric Sipyinyu. “Lesbian Poetics and the Poetry of Audre Lorde.” English Academy Review, vol. 24, no. 1, 2007, pp. 23-36.

Reed, Conor Tomás. “.” Advocate, 2017. Web.

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