- freely available
Humanities 2019, 8(3), 136; https://doi.org/10.3390/h8030136
1. Introduction: Narrativizing Identity and the Omissions of History
As such, for Lorde, the project’s overt commitment to identity required a pastiche of genres in order to formalize the relationship to self she sought to evoke for the sake of affirming an identity that did not, on its own, feel safe in the world: the “biomythography”, part highly historicized memoir, part timeless creation myth. As an aspect of this, the project also required grappling with a key problem that remains with us today, and one that puts her work in a certain alignment with a history of radical thinkers that stretches back well past the neoliberal turn: how to write from the perspective of the individuated self in such a way that will be affirming and resonant for the individual reader, such that one’s work might forge a sense of community while also asserting a political value beyond the narrative of the individual. One might say that in this way—both formally and politically—Lorde’s work stands in a clear lineage with African American women’s life-writing, from the slave narratives and spiritual confessions of the nineteenth century, to migration narratives of the mid-twentieth, to the autobiographical writing of second- and third-wave feminisms.6 In each of these iterations, racial and sexual inequality writ large appear to imbue literary form with something like an “indexical” register, such that asserting the particularized narrative voice correlated at various moments to the assertion of political personhood—or even that of full humanity—worthy of recognition in the public sphere. As such, despite its mid-century temporal scope, the aim and structure of Lorde’s 1982 memoir can be understood as participating in a much longer tradition of African American autobiography, and in the kind of formal experimentation demanded by such political aims. For authors forced to bear the unequal norms of socially-ascribed identity, the memoir form emerged early on as an elastic mode, one that could demonstrate liberation from the hierarchical hegemonies of essentialized personhoods.I call it a biomythography. I wrote the book out of a need I heard in the black women’s community—that’s how it first started. Barbara Smith said to me: ‘I’m a black lesbian feminist literary critic and I don’t know whether it’s possible to be a black lesbian feminist literary critic and survive.’ When I heard that—just about five years ago—I thought, ‘Oh boy, I’ve got to start writing some of that stuff down. She needs to know that yes, it is possible.’ And it grew from that. […] I learned a lot in doing it, but then again I learned a lot in learning how to write prose, a different kind of thinking.5
2. A Memoir of Identity in the Era of Civil Rights
In each of these moments, Lorde pivots suddenly from one topic to another, juxtaposing thoughts and images that would appear to have no associative relationship: from the abstracted reference “so many pieces” of life, to Jet magazine; from dropping an issue of Jet on a train downtown in the summer of 1955, to Lorde mentioning at the library that she wrote poetry. Through the careful structure of these otherwise disconnected moments, Lorde evokes the ghostly presence of Till’s murder—more precisely, the photograph of his corpse—by choosing not to render it at all. In this gentle but purposeful omission, Lorde responds to the grotesqueness she felt at the proliferation of the image that summer, a feeling she illuminated in her poem written simultaneous with Zami, “Afterimages”. By not including a narration of the image in Zami, Lorde refuses to participate in the sacrifice of his body to public consumption. The move resonates with Gwendolyn Brooks’s response to Mamie Till-Mobley’s voluntary sacrifice of the privacy of her grief, in Brooks’s spare and formally careful poem “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” in which the poet’s perspective hovers above Till’s mother, at a respectful and yet intimately protective distance:Jet was a girlie magazine trying to be a black newsmagazine which I borrowed from my brother-in-law Henry on my infrequent visits to the Bronx, read avidly on the long subway ride downtown, and then surreptitiously dropped onto the next seat as I got off. When I mentioned at the library that I wrote poetry…(Lorde 1982, p. 210) (my emphasis)
Here, Brooks uses poetic form to refuse the invasive proximity of realist representation. Coming after the previous long poem, “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” which offered an unsparingly quotidian view of Till’s white woman accuser, the “Last Quatrain” contrasts sharply with this preceding perspective. As a consequence of the contrast, the simple language and formal restraint of “The Last Quatrain” has a devastating effect: showing that in sacrificing the privacy of her deepest grief and trauma—by making her son’s funeral public, and open casket, for the sake of the greater good—Mamie Till has given enough.(after the murder,after the burial)Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;the tint of pulled taffy.She sits in a red room, drinking black coffee.She kisses her killed boy.And she is sorry.Chaos in windy graysthrough a red prairie.
But in this plastic, anti-human society in which we live, there have never been too many people buying fat Black girls born almost blind and ambidextrous, gay or straight. Unattractive, too, or so the ads in Ebony and Jet seemed to tell me. Yet I read them anyway, in the bathroom, on the newsstand, at my sister’s house, whenever I got a chance. It was a furtive reading, but it was an affirmation of some part of me, however frustrating.
Thus, we understand Jet magazine as an ambivalent power in her life, but one that communicates vital information to her about what it must “mean” to be both black and a woman. Unable to find herself reflected in the pages of Jet, her first avenue to self-understanding becomes the woman-loving erotic: a way to knowledge that is not only unacceptable in the larger black community of the time, but by all indications invisible. Zami is not only a story of a young lesbian woman’s journey to sexual self-realization and empowerment, but also a story of that same woman’s journey toward and through her own “blackness.” Not by accident, the physical/psychic breakdown that grips Audre toward the end of the narrative and leads her to self-actualization occurs in the fall of 1956, one year after Till’s death and coinciding with the frightening and thrilling beginning of what we now call the modern Civil Rights Movement.If nobody’s going to dig you too tough anyway, it really doesn’t matter so much what you dare to explore. I had already begun to learn that when I left my parents’ house.
By excluding the event from her memoir, but including it, and indicating its powerful personal significance, in her poetry, Lorde draws a distinction between what can and cannot be expressed through prose, but also between that which belongs within and without the form of a narrative about racial identity. By refusing to share the grief and trauma of involuntarily encountering the Till photographs that summer of 1955, in her memoir Lorde asserts a refusal just as politically significant as the self-fashioning project itself: to keep a sense of emotional privacy in the harsh midst of an un-chosen political life.[…]learning to survivewhere there is no foodmy eyes are always hungryand rememberinghowever the image entersits force remains.[…]His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st yearWhen I walked through a northern summerEyes averted from each corner’s photographyNewspapers protest posters magazines[…]And wherever I looked that summerI learned to be at home with children’s bloodwith savored violencewith pictures of Black broken fleshused crumpled up discardedlying amid the sidewalk refuselike a raped woman’s face.
At the close of the interview, Lorde admits:For some reason, the more poetry I wrote, the less I felt that I could write prose. … [C]ommunicating deep feeling in linear, solid blocks of print felt arcane, a method beyond me. …I was also afraid of it because there were inescapable conclusions or convictions I had come to about my own life, my own feelings that defied thought. And I wasn’t going to let them go. I wasn’t going to give them up. They were too precious to me. They were life to me. But I couldn’t analyze or understand them because they didn’t make the kind of sense I had been taught to expect through understanding. There were things I knew and couldn’t say. And I couldn’t understand them. …[or] write prose about them. …All I had was the sense that I had to hold on to these feelings and that I had to air them in some way.12
I don’t know how I just wrote the long prose piece I have just finished [Zami], but I just knew that I had to do it.
Adrienne: That you had to understand what you knew and also make it available to others.
For Lorde, feeling precedes knowing, and moreover is the birth mother of knowledge:Audre: That’s right. Inseparable process now. But for me, I had to know I knew it first—I had to feel.
Poetic language is the first and only pathway by which crucial information can travel out of herself and into the world. Poetic language is intimately reflective of her primary source of knowledge, the wordless fluidity of intuitive wisdom and sensual experience. By Lorde’s description, prosaic language presumes an ownership on her part as the writer, a claim to the fixed nature of what is being expressed. To put knowledge primarily baszed on intuition and feeling into prose form too soon would be to “lose” it.This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are—until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.13
3. The Self-Structuring Power of Silence
Information is repeatedly kept from Audre throughout her childhood by her parents: information about race, emotional survival, sexuality. This becomes more than a neutral silence, but a willful withholding that Audre understands better incrementally as she grows. Not surprisingly, anger and silence consequently erupt between Audre and her mother as she becomes a teenager. Audre becomes the victim of her own silence, but also learns the power that such silence can wield. In a later essay, Lorde would write:As a child, the most horrible condition I could contemplate was being wrong and being discovered. Mistakes could mean exposure, maybe even annihilation. In my mother’s house, there was no room in which to make errors, no room to be wrong.
As a child perceiving the racist attitudes of whites but deprived of the language with which to apprehend it, Audre believed that she was “different because I was me”. (Lorde 1982, p. 82) Thus, in place of what should have been an understanding of herself as belonging to a marginalized and oppressed racial group, victimized by a racism that had nothing to do with her, the power of her parents’ silence became translated in a child’s mind into the opposite: an interpretation of racist attitudes as indicating a personal failing on her part, and therefore inculcating a personal shame. That is, the experience of racial identity that should have indicated nothing more than an ascribed group membership, rooted in historical contingency, instead became a painfully alienating experience of private, painfully individualized identity.For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.14
As Audre strikes out on her own, she employs her own silence as a way of preserving a self that has not yet found its voice. Like her reluctance to write in prose, she does not give words to what she is feeling until she feels that she understands it, so that she can be speaking from a place of power. In one of the most poignant examples, Audre’s silence about her abortion becomes a painful way of protecting her truth by creating the self she wants to be in others’ eyes:I learned how to feel and ask questions afterward. I learned how to first cherish the façade and then the fact of being an outlaw.
In her first sexual relationship with a woman, Audre remains quiet, allowing Ginger to imagine her in a way that will make possible the courageous act of making love: when Ginger imagines her as a “slick kitty from the city,” Audre “held [her] peace” and did her best to live true to the wished-for projection (Lorde 1982, p. 129). Ginger, a black woman, thus helps name both who Audre already is and who she is destined to become. Repeatedly asking her in these scenes, “cat got your tongue?”, Lorde reminds us of Audre’s outward silences and foreshadows Audre’s ultimate experience of self-inscription with her final partner of Zami, Afrekete. With Ginger, Audre uses silence and her honed skills of nonverbal perception to reach a new, though insufficient, level of self-knowledge and self-realization. Unable to name herself alone, she allows, and tacitly encourages, Ginger to do the work for her. Ginger continued to “buil[d] up an incredible mythology” (Lorde 1982, p. 133) about Audre, as Audre became more and more dependent on her for company, love, food, and shelter. Audre’s continued silence allows, and tacitly encourages, Ginger to assume her identity as a lesbian. Audre is empowered, however superficially, by Ginger’s creation of her, and her strategic silence allows this radically collaborative personal development to occur.The abortion had left me with an additional sadness about which I could not speak, certainly not to these girls who saw my house and my independence as a refuge, and seemed to think that I was settled and strong and dependable, which, of course, was exactly what I wanted them to think.
Ginger is not only an agent of Audre’s sexual realization, but also inadvertently dislodges a small boulder of deep racial recognition that builds intensity, becoming an avalanche upon her as Zami approaches its conclusion.It wasn’t her fault I was feeling so out of sorts all of a sudden, so disjointed. Crispus Attucks. Something had slipped out of place. …I had spent four years at Hunter High School, supposedly the best public high school in New York City…. Yet, I never once heard the name mentioned of the first man to fall in the american revolution, not ever been told that he was a Negro. What did that mean about the history that I had learned? …‘What’s wrong with you today? Cat got your tongue?’ [Ginger asked.]
Though invisible in the text, the escalation of the American Civil Rights Movement by the end of 1955 was on a parallel course with Audre’s increasingly frustrated racial silences. Just as the activism of the 1950s began to erupt, Audre’s own feelings of racial invisibility within and without had begun to destroy her. Lorde recalls not only “blinding headaches” during this time, but also an almost involuntary act of self-mutilation when she scalds herself with boiling water. Symbolically, the injury is later covered by bracelets brought to her by her mother from Grenada, the home of Audre’s own racial identity (Lorde 1982, pp. 233, 236). In the same year, Audre’s struggle with maintaining a racial identity within the white “gay girl” community is increasingly stifled by the girls’ refusal to admit racial difference, and their insistence on a shared, colorblind exclusion from mainstream society.Sometimes we’d pass Black women on Eighth Street—the invisible but visible sisters—or in the Bag or at Laurel’s, and our glances might cross, but we never looked into each other’s eyes. We acknowledged our kinship by passing in silence, looking the other way. Still, we were always on the lookout, Flee and I, for that telltale flick of the eye, that certain otherwise prohibited openness of expression, that definiteness of voice which would suggest, I think she’s gay. After all, doesn’t it take one to know one?
In this light, Zami appears as an even more profound telling of an African American woman’s ongoing journey to and from herself, and one that reflects a battle that was perhaps Lorde’s toughest, one in which the silences are as powerful as the words spoken.For those of us who write, it is necessary for us to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it.
Conflicts of Interest
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Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Berkeley: The Crossing Press, 1982) p. 69.
See for example, various work by Walter Benn Michaels, including The Trouble with Diversity, (Michaels 2017). For the argument along these lines that specifically concerns African American literature, see (Warren 2011). For a more recent appraisal of women’s life writing in particular in the context of neoliberal hegemony, see (Gilmore 2017, pp. 85–117).
(Lorde et al. 1982), interview from Off Our Backs, April 1982, p. 2.
For one study of African American women’s spiritual narratives of the nineteenth century, see (Moody 2001). Regarding the political and historical significance of African American life writing more generally, see (Franklin 1995; Andrews 1986); regarding the migration narrative of the twentieth century, see (Griffin 1995). For a more recent consideration of the genre and its theoretical implications for a diasporic black identity, see (Alabi 2005). Regarding the ongoing historical and political significance of the form for African-American women in particular, see (McKay 1995).
(Lorde et al. 1982), interview from Off Our Backs, April 1982, p. 3.
Though an autobiography of sorts, the historical Audre Lorde as writer is not interchangeable with the protagonist of Zami. For clarity, through this essay, I will borrow a distinction from Anna Wilson, in which “Audre” refers to the protagonist of Zami, and “Lorde” refers to the author herself.
(Wilson 2001) writes: “Zami is also [in addition to being a personal narrative] densely situated in a web of references to historical events—the Rosenberg executions, the Supreme Court ruling on desegregation […] which […] lend it verisimilitude and suggest that Lorde is intending to conjure a specific or cultural moment”. (p. 99) While Wilson does not mention the the historical absences, she goes on to discuss Lorde’s “fabrications,” particularly her “rewrit[ing] the [African American] genealogy so that it includes her”. (p. 109) I suggest that her conspicuous omissions contribute to such constructive fabrications.
Various historians and artists have since memorialized Till’s death and elaborated on the historical ramifications of the ensuing trial and circulation of the photos. For a gloss on significant literary interpretations and reflections, see (Metress 2003). For key historical accounts, including that of Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley, see (Till-Mobley and Benson 2003; Rubin 1996; Whitfield 1988). On Mamie Till’s response in particular and its political and ideological significance, see (Valerie Smith 2008). On the significance of the media and photographic representation of Till’s murder, particularly in the context of the longer history of American lynching documentation and circulation, see Goldsby.
In her essay on Zami, Cassie Premo (Steele 2000) discusses the traumatic memory’s resistance to narration: “As we have seen [in other examples of “witness” poetry], traumatic memories are not in narrative form but are flashes, images, or ‘afterimages’, that remain with the survivor, repeating themselves within her, assaulting her from within”. (p. 76) Steele goes on to discuss the power and necessity of telling the story of such memories, that such telling allows the writer to “go beyond surviving to living”. Her discussion, however, does not address the absence of such specific “witnessing” in Lorde’s “biomythography,” which has a tacit claim to be written for the sake of doing just what Steele describes. Steele concludes her essay by exhorting the value of “witnessing”: “…[W]e must choose to witness or not… To refuse these choices is, as we have seen, to be a ‘false witness’, to contribute to the continuation, to the perpetuation of violent destruction”.
Lorde, “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich,” in Sister Outsider, pp. 87–88.
Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”, in Sister Outsider, pp. 36–39.
Lorde, “Poetry is not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider, p. 44.
Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” in Sister Outsider, p. 42.
Ana Louise (Keating 1996) also notes the significance of Lorde’s silence, as both racially self-preserving and as an echo of her mother’s attempts at protection, though she does not note the absence of Till’s murder form the text.
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