Year of Our (Audre) Lorde: December’s Prologue

Feature photo of the author credit: Camilo Godoy

Year of Our (Audre) Lorde is a monthly analysis of works by queen mother Audre Lorde as they apply to our current political moment. In the spirit of relying on ancestral wisdom, centering QTPOC voices, wellness, and just generally leveling up, we believe that the Lorde has already gifted us with the tools we need for our survival.


I’d been hoping that by the time I reached the end of this experience I would have some sort of profound realization to share with you. There’s a comfort from epiphanies and tidy endings that I crave even though life keeps revealing the impossibility of that wish. Like so many other people I’ve been chirping about the end of 2020 as if the transition from one year to the next will magically suture the open wounds from this year. If anything, this year has made the unresolved issues from other difficult years resurface in spectacular fashion. There has been grief for the actual lives lost, but there has also been grief for the growing pains and the relational shifts occurring with loved ones, as I leave behind a self that was no longer serving me.

This year, one of the hardest of my entire life, was made so much brighter by reading and immersing myself in Audre Lorde, and by having this space to share with you all. As I’ve said before, reading Audre Lorde is a continuous reckoning that is always loving but not without its frictions. I’ve circled around the poem “Prologue” for months, unsure how I was meant to engage with it, but compelled by a larger force to not put it down. Even the beginning of the poem might give a clue as Lorde wrestles with her own tensions:

Haunted by poems beginning with I
seek out those whom I love who are deaf
to whatever does not destroy
or curse the old ways that did not serve us
while history falters and our poets are dying
choked into silence by icy distinction
their death rattles blind curses
and I hear even my own voice becoming
a pale strident whisper

Part of what Lorde is contending with is her work as a writer, the issues of voice and community that come up for each of us who have truths to share that, by nature, are inconvenient and uncomfortable. The pressures of those communities — chosen or otherwise — so often lead to the sort of icy silencing she mentions, because of how exhausting it is to keep holding tight to that truth.

One of the things I didn’t and couldn’t have expected was the blowback I would get for not traveling to be with my family of origin during this still ongoing pandemic — that a decision made out of deep love and concern for everyone’s health has been seen by some as selfish and self-serving. I’ve been called on repeatedly to defend myself and the choices I’ve made. It’s more painful than surprising, and while the hurt is still tender, this has also led to much deeper understandings of all the things we’re each carrying and how this pandemic has caused us all to grapple with the things we try to bury.

At night sleep locks me into an echoless coffin
sometimes at noon I dream
there is nothing to fear
now standing up in the light of my father sun
without shadow
I speak without concern for the accusations
that I am too much or too little woman
that I am too black or white
or too much myself
and through my lips come the voices
of the ghosts of our ancestors
living and moving among us

In writing this essay it’s occurred to me that maybe this particular poem was waiting for me to be ready for it. I had to get to the point of not merely analyzing Lorde’s words but attempting to live them. Looking over this year’s previous selections, there’s a recurring emphasis on resilience and on using your voice and your work in service of what you know to be right and just. This is part of Audre Lorde’s larger ethos, but it’s also what I most needed to receive.

The above lines resonate in an acute way — one of my greatest fears is that I’m “too much.” Insert whatever adjective you’d like and it would probably be something I worry about. Lorde’s focus on “too much or too little woman,” and “too black or white” get at the core of the matter. I think about all the ways that we’ve been taught these lessons of too much and not enough, and how we reinscribe the refrains on ourselves and on one another. And it was hard to fight the impulse that, in going against what others wanted me to do and who they wanted me to be for them, that I was wrong to make the choices I did. But as I sit with the pain of transitioning through the paradigm shifts of 2020, there is joy in knowing this pain feels better than the pain of the old world order.

Hear
the old ways are going away
and coming back pretending change
masked as denunciation and lament
masked as a choice
between eager mirrors that blur and distort
us in easy definitions
until our image
shatters along its fault

For me, “Prologue” maps out Lorde’s traumas and vulnerabilities, both in the moment of writing in the early 1970s and their roots in her early childhood experiences. Her crystalline ability to pierce through to the core of any issue shines through here, as she remains firm in the righteousness of her chosen path.

The pain Lorde feels is evident; but so, too, is the understanding that she’s a part of something bigger than the present moment. I always sense the spectre of death when I read the following lines, but I don’t find it morbid so much as communing with life’s many cycles and the import of our actions during our limited time in this realm.

Hear my heart’s voice as it darkens
pulling old rhythms out of the earth
that will receive this piece of me
and a piece of each one of you
when our part in history quickens again
and is over:

This is where I understood the futility of wanting a neat ending to this series.

There’s no way to wrap this up pretty nor orderly. Much like the many revelations and past traumas unearthed by these last 12 months, what I’m left with is mostly jagged edges and realizations that there’s so much more work to do, so much more to learn.

Somewhere in the landscape past noon
I shall leave a dark print
of the me that I am
and who I am not
etched in a shadow of angry and remembered loving
and their ghosts will move
whispering through them
with me none the wiser
for they will have buried me
either in shame
or in peace.

There’s much I will carry with me in the aftermath of this experience, and this lasting image of the dark print, “the me that I am and who I am not” is certainly one of them.

Lorde’s declaration here is one of her clearest reminders that what comes after us is not what others proclaim our works and our lives to be. Instead it’s our ability to live out our truths, to raise our voices in service of what needs to be said. Others can and will say what they want, but if we’re able to muster even part of Audre Lorde’s resolve, then we too will rest easy.

As we leave each other, I want to say that the opportunity for this column could not have come at a better time. When I began with a sort of simple desire to deepen my knowledge of one our queer ancestors, there was no way to know where this experiment would lead. More than anything, I’m grateful to those who read and engaged with Lorde’s words — and with me, as I’ve attempted to grapple with them this year. Thank you for journeying with me. I hope that this final column, this “prologue,” speaks to the new beginnings and also the continued lessons we may receive from Audre Lorde’s incomparable legacy.

Jehan is a writer, artist, and editor basking in all things Black and queer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apogee, VICE, Public Books, Teachers & Writers Magazine, and Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory where she is an editor. She currently lives in Harlem but remains in a committed LDR with Brooklyn.

Jehan has written 18 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. first, i am so sorry to hear that people you are close too would make accusations of selfishness for exercising prudence. we seem to be living in contrary times where considerate is selfish, deception is fact, and indecency poses as morality. people who love you should be better. if i may, i hope you and every other woman of color are steadfast in protecting yourselves. especially given how badly the rest of us have been letting you down.

    i feel compelled to suggest that the analysis of “prologue” is a neat way to end this quadrennial. not the same as the point you make, but such a thoughtful finale.

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