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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

[2254] Abbie Rowe, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), courtesy of the National Park Service, Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement.

The daughter of West Indian parents, Audre Lorde was born in Harlem. She graduated from Hunter College in 1961 and earned a Masters in Library Science from Columbia University. For the next decade, she worked as a librarian and teacher. Lorde was also poet in residence at Tougaloo College, Mississippi, and taught at a number of colleges in New York City. Although she is known primarily as a poet, her “biomythography,” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name(1982), is an important and influential prose work that chronicles her life from her childhood in Harlem to her “coming out” as a lesbian. In addition, Lorde recounts her battle with cancer in her poignant book The Cancer Journals (1980). These works, along with many of her poems, offer Lorde’s readers personal glimpses into her life and experience, a trait that aligns her with confessional writers like Adrienne Rich, with whom she enjoyed a long and artistically fruitful relationship, and also with Sylvia Plath.

As Lorde has acknowledged, she is not an easy poet to categorize. Often associated with the Black Arts movement, her poetry, like that of Amiri Baraka, is frequently fiercely political; rage and violence are not tempered in her verse. In many ways, though, her verse, like that of Nikki Giovanni and June Jordan, falls into the feminist expansion of the Black Arts movement. In the late 1960s Lorde created poems like “Coal” and “Black Mother Woman” that celebrate blackness and seek to instill a sense of pride and self-love in the African American community. She draws inspiration from African history and myth, and many readers consider her best poetry to be those works that deal most closely with myth. Lorde’s poems are not just directed at her own race; indeed, much of her work, often termed protest poetry, is laced with social criticism meant to call all readers to action. Poems like “Chain,” for example, originate from current events and their journalistic origins force readers to confront social travesties in modern society. Known for her political commitment, Lorde is widely considered one of the most powerful and radical poets of our time.

Teaching Tips

  • Read within the context of the Black Arts movement, the political undertones of Lorde’s poetry are clearly visible. The message “Black Is Beautiful,” one of the hallmarks of the movement, was a radical call for the black community to nurture itself and to recognize its own self-worth. Using the archive, study the visual images that reflect the idea that “Black Is Beautiful.” Alternatively, instructors could show the class representations of black Americans from the early twentieth century. Examples might include Aunt Jemima, Bojangles, minstrel shows, Uncle Ben, and the “lawn jockey.” In small groups, students should consider each image, identify the stereotype the image is based on, and explain how and why a poet like Lorde chose to counter such derogatory stereotypes with her work. Is it easy for students to recognize the original stereotypes black writers were trying to challenge? If so, what does that suggest? If not, what might that suggest? Then have your students read “Coal.” How does looking at the images in the archive change the way they read this poem? What new elements do they notice in the text?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Lorde often writes about differences between generations, particularly of women. In “Black Mother Woman,” what is the speaker’s relationship to her mother? What has she learned from her? What does this poem have to say about identity? What is the significance of the title?
  2. Comprehension: Many of Lorde’s poems explore the issue of being black and female. Why does Lorde title a poem “Coal”? What is the effect of isolating the pronoun “I” on the first line? What is the tone of the poem? How does Lorde portray language in this poem? What is she saying about words and their meanings? What is she saying about blackness in this poem?
  3. Context: How is Lorde’s poetry a feminist response to Black Arts poetry, such as that by Baraka? You might compare “Coal” or “Black Mother Woman” with Baraka’s “An Agony. As Now.” and “A Poem for Willie Best.”
  4. Context: Audre Lorde talks about using poetry to break the silence. How does her poetry push the boundaries of the genre’s traditional subject matter? How might that align her with confessional poets? What differences do you see between her writing and that of confessional poets like Sexton and Plath?
  5. Exploration: Lorde’s poetry, like Baraka’s, often expresses rage and violence. Discuss Lorde’s intended audience. How might her poetry affect different groups of people? How does Lorde challenge conventional concepts of what it means to be an American?
  6. Exploration: Lorde’s interest in African tradition, and particularly in oral traditions, deeply influenced her work. How does oral tradition manifest itself in her poems? How does her use of the oral tradition connect her to earlier African American writers, like those of the Harlem Renaissance, or perhaps to authors of slave narratives? What techniques do these writers share?

Selected Archive Items

[2254] Abbie Rowe, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), 
courtesy of the National Park Service, Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement. 
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many groups, including African Americans seeking greater equality and civil rights, used marches and nonviolent protests to make their voices heard. The sight of thousands of protesters marching in front of the White House had a powerful impact.

[3042] Anonymous, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [A Young Woman at the March with a Banner](1963), 
courtesy of the Still Picture Branch, National Archives and Records Administration. 
Basic constitutional rights were denied to African Americans for well over the first 150 years of the United States’s existence. “I have come to believe over and over again,” poet Audre Lorde said, “that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

[5460] Courier Lithograph Company, Uncle Tom’s Cabin–On the Levee (1899), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Theatrical Poster Collection [POS-TH-1899.U53, no. 3]. 
Poster for a theater production showing happy slaves dancing. Post-Civil War Uncle Tom Shows were often performed by whites in blackface. By presenting blacks as subservient, without physical, intellectual, moral, or sexual power, such shows gave the term “Uncle Tom” its current derogatory meaning.

[6237] Gemini Rising, Inc., Clenched Fist on Red, Green, and Black Background (1971), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4389]. 
The Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s was closely related to the Black Power movement. Leaders of the Black Arts movement, such as Amiri Baraka, argued that ethics and aesthetics were inextricably linked and that black art ought to be politically focused and community-oriented.

[7138] Anonymous, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) Leads the Black Arts Parade Down 125th Toward the Black Arts Theater Repertory/School on 130th Street, New York City (1965), 
courtesy of The Liberator. 
Influenced by civil rights activism and black nationalism, Baraka (Jones) and other African American artists opened the Black Arts Theater in Harlem in 1965.

[7652] Anonymous, Jim Crow Jubilee (1847), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-37348]. 
Jim Crow laws took their name from a character in minstrel shows that featured racist stereotypes about African Americans, depicting them as lazy and as less intelligent than whites.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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