Sermon presented by Rev. Gabriele Parks
How many of you were here last week? Remember the responsive reading # 587 which Yvon Kennon read with you? The writer of this poem was a remarkable woman: one of the 20th centuries most lyrical and vibrant poets, Audre Lorde. She described herself as a “Black lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet”. However, her life was one that could not be summed up in a phrase. I want to share with you today some facts about her life, along with some of her marvelous poetry.
Audrey Geraldine Lorde was born on February 18, 1934 in New York City. As a young child, she decided to drop the “y” from the end of her name. This seems to have set a precedent in her life of self determination. She was the daughter of Caribbean immigrants from Grenada who settled in Harlem. A poem she wrote in 1992 shortly before her death gives insight into her relationship with her father:
“Inheritance – His”
My face resembles your face
less and less each day. When I was young
no one mistook whose child I was.
Features build coloring;
alone among my creamy fine-boned sisters
marked me Byron’s daughter.
No sun set when you died, but a door
opened onto my mother. After you left
she grieved her crumpled world aloft;
an iron fist sweated with business symbols
a printed blotter dwell in the house of Lord’s
your hollow voice changing down a hospital corridor
yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil.
My mother’s Grenville tales
spin through early summer evenings.
But you refused to speak of home
of stepping proud Black and penniless
into this land where only white men
ruled by money. How you labored
in the docks of the Hotel Astor
your bright wife a chambermaid upstairs
welded love and survival to ambition
as the land of promise withered
crashed the hotel closed
and you peddle dawn-bought apples
from a push-cart on Broadway.
Does an image of return
wealthy and triumphant
warm your chilblained fingers
as you count coins in the Manhattan snow
or is it only Linda
who dreams of home?
You bought old books at auctions
for my un-languaged world
gave me your idols Marcus Garvey Citizen Kane
and morsels from your dinner plate
when I was seven.
I owe you my Dahomeyan jaw
the free high school for gifted girls
no one else thought I should attend
and the darkness that we share.
Now I am older than you were when you died
overwork and silence exploding your brain.
You are gradually receding from my face.
Who were you outside the 23rd Psalm?
Knowing so little
how did I become so much
Audre was the youngest of three sisters, she was raised in Manhattan and attended a Catholic school. While she was still in high school, her first poem appeared in Seventeen magazine. She had tried to publish it in the high school journal, but the administration of the school felt that her work was too romantic for their literary journal. Audre graduated from Columbia University and Hunter College, where she later held the prestigious post of Thomas Hunter Chair of Literature. For seven years, from 1961 through 1968, she served as a librarian in New York public schools. In 1962, Lorde married Edward Rollins. They had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathon, but divorced in 1970.
While Lorde worked as a librarian, she refinied her talents as a writer. In 1968, she accepted a teaching position at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi where the violence that greeted the civil rights movement was close at hand every night. This period cemented the bond between her artistic talents and her dedication to the struggle against injustice. Listen to her famous poem COAL:
Coal is the total black, being spoken
from the earth’s inside.
There are many kinds of open
how a diamond comes into a knot of flame
how sound comes into a word, coloured
by who pays for what speaking.
Some words are open like a diamond
on glass windows
singing out within the passing crash of sun
There are words like stapled wagers
in a perforated book, -buy and sign and tear apart-
and come whatever wills all chances
the stub remains
an ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.
Some words live in my throat
breeding like adders. Others know sun
seeking like gypsies over my tongue
to explode through my lips
like young sparrows bursting from shell.
Love is a word, another kind of open.
As the diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am Black because I come from the earth’s inside
now take my word for jewel in the open light.
Isn’t her use of language awesome?! Another one of her more powerful poems is “Needed: A Choral of Black Women’s Voices,” about two specific incidences of murdered black women. Not only does it bring to life the two victims, but it also has Lorde’s perspective as a narrator or leader of the women. The poem is divided into three “voices,” or parts, Lorde’s, and one part each for the two murdered women. In her parts she includes how bitter and oppressive these murders become because the victims are African-American women. Here is a short excerpt:
This woman is Black
so her blood is shed into silence
this woman is Black
so her death falls to earth
like the drippings of birds
to be washed away with silence and rain.
Lorde uses very little punctuation, so when a poem is read, there are few breaks in, or between lines, which creates a continuous flow of imagery and energy. She also chooses carefully which words will be capitalized. For instance in the excerpt I read, Lorde only capitalizes the word “Black.” Audre Lorde’s first volume of poems, The First Cities, was published in 1968. In 1968 she also became the writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where she discovered a love of teaching. In Tougaloo she also met her long-term partner, Frances Clayton. Here is one of the many poems she wrote for her:
when you do say hello I am never sure
if you are being saucy or experimental or
merely protecting some new position.
Sometimes you gurgle while asleep
and I know tender places still intrigue you.
when you question me on love
shall I recommend a dictionary
Until the early 70′s, much of her work focused on the transience of love; but in 1974 she published New York Head Shot and Museum. This book began her most political writing. In 1976, her collection Coal was released and shortly thereafter The Black Unicorn was published. Poet Adrienne Rich said of The Black Unicorn that “Lorde writes. . . . poems of elemental wildness and healing, nightmare and lucidity.” Although her work gained wide acclaim, she was also sharply criticized for her lack of inhibition. In an interview in the journal Callaloo, Lorde responded to her critics: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds. . . . Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity . . .or even about sex. It is about revolution and change. . . . Helms knows that my writing is aimed at his destruction, and the destruction of every single thing he stands for.”
In the essay “The Power of the Erotic,” Audre spoke eloquently about the importance of being in touch with one’s feelings and creativity. In a way, this is where Lorde’s sense of “community” began: understanding that if we don’t have a valued relationship with ourselves, we won’t have meaningful relationships with others. I’d like to read a few paragraphs to you:
“The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. . . Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic from most vital areas of our lives other than sex. . . .”
“The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need–the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.”
“During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it. I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.”
Audre Lorde received a host of awards and honors, including the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, which conferred the mantle of New York State Poet for 1991-93. In designating her New York State’s Poet Laureate, the Governor, Mario Cuomo, said: “Her imagination is charged by a sharp sense of racial injustice and cruelty, of sexual prejudice . . . She cries out against it as the voice of indignant humanity. Audre Lorde is the voice of the eloquent outsider who speaks in a language that can reach and touch people everywhere.” All in all, Lorde published over a dozen books of poetry, and six books of prose. In addition to being a writer, Audre Lorde also was a Teacher and Activist. She was at the center of the movement to preserve and celebrate African American culture at a time when the destruction of these institutions was on the rise. And, she provided avenues of expression to future generations of writers by co-founding the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Her dedication reached around the world when she formed the Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa. She was one of the featured speakers at the first national march for gay and lesbian liberation in DC in 1979. In 1989, she helped organize disaster relief efforts for St. Croix in the wake of Hurricane Hugo.
Late in life, Audre Lorde was given the African name Gamba Adisa, meaning “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Clear”. It is a name that applies to her whole life. Lorde’s son Jonathan Rollins recalled the warrior spirit that his mother possessed by stating that “. . . not fighting was not an option — We could lose. But we couldn’t not fight.” Audre Lorde was fighting on many fronts. She fought societal oppression as a Black person – fighting for racial justice; as a feminist,– fighting for equal rights for women; as a lesbian– fighting against homophobia and discrimination.
On a more personal level, as a poet, she fought for recognition as well as for financial survival; and as a person living with cancer, she constantly fought for a few more years, a few more months. Her life embodied more struggles than most of us had ever thought existed. Lorde bravely documented her 14-year battle against the cancer in “The Cancer Journals” and in her book of essays “A Burst of Light”. The Cancer Journals won the Gay Caucus Book of the Year award for 1981. Lorde wrote about her illness: ”The struggle with cancer now informs all my days, but it is only another face of that continuing battle for self-determination and survival that black women fight daily, often in triumph.”
She struggled against disease and against a medical establishment that was frequently indifferent to cultural differences and insensitive to women’s health issues. She stood in defiance to societal rules that said that she should hide the fact that she had breast cancer. Here is a poem she wrote about facing the certainty of death while around her life goes on:
The Electric Slide Boogie
New Year’s Day 1:16 AM
and my body is weary beyond
time to withdraw and rest
ample room allowed me in everyone’s head
but community calls
right over the threshold
drums beating through the walls
children playing their truck dramas
under the collapsible coat rack
in the narrow hallway outside my room
The TV lounge next door is wide open
it is midnight in Idaho
and the throb easy subtle spin
of the electric slide boogie
around the corner of the parlor
past the sweet clink
of dining room glasses
and the edged aroma of slightly overdone
all laced together
with the rich dark laughter
and her higher-octave sisters
How hard it is to sleep
in the middle of life.
Audre Lorde, died in St Croix, Virgin Islands, on November 17, 1992. I would like to close with her poem “If You Come Softly”
If you come as softly
As the wind within the trees
You may hear what I hear
See what sorrow sees.
If you come as lightly
As threading dew
I will take you gladly
Nor ask more of you.
You may sit beside me
Silent as a breath
Only those who stay dead
Shall remember death.
And if you come I will be silent
Nor speak harsh words to you.
I will not ask you why now.
Or how, or what you do.
We shall sit here, softly
Beneath two different years
And the rich between us
Shall drink our tears.