Year of Our (Audre) Lorde: July Is a Black Unicorn

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.

The language of our time traffics in a lot of terminology that’s so commonplace, the words can lose their potency. I think a lot about the term intersectionality in particular, a brilliant distillation by Kimberlé Crenshaw of the multiple positionalities of marginalized folks. What sometimes gets lost in the use of this term is how absolutely exhausting it is to straddle multiple places and boundaries. Intersectionality is active, requiring a constant calibration between the various identity places you hold, choosing which parts of yourself to emphasize or not. An intersection is a geography — but it is also a place of in-betweens.

For me right now, that in-between is the pandemic within the pandemic, the ongoing issues facing Black people, especially Black queer and trans folks. Dwindling news coverage means dwindling urgency and hope for the reckoning we know we need, but fear will continuously be signaled at and never fully delivered.

What I love most about Audre Lorde’s The Black Unicorn is how she’s able to crystallize the experience of intersectionality — the feelings of exhaustion, fury, disgust, and hope.

In the title poem, she writes:

The black unicorn is greedy.
The black unicorn is impatient.
The black unicorn is mistaken
for a shadow
or symbol
and taken
through a cold country
where mist painted mockeries
of my fury.
It is not on her lap where the horn rests
but deep in her moonpit
The black unicorn is restless
the black unicorn is unrelenting
the black unicorn is not

I’m still angry. I’m still exhausted. The ways in which the outrageousness of this moment have begun to take on a sense of normalcy are both necessary and frightening. Breonna Taylor’s murderers still walk free. And let’s be real, they’re probably running around without masks. Lorde’s own sense of depletion, of restlessness and barely concealed fury are evident in this poem. But so, too, is her unwavering belief in our magic. I keep re-reading this poem trying to conceive of what she means by the Black unicorn.

I want to know how were these terms used then, in 1978 when The Black Unicorn was first published. Was Audre Lorde referring to herself as a unicorn? To all Black people? A defining characteristic of the unicorn is its solitary nature. While Lorde’s unicorn is an obvious reference to race, blackness is also a subversion here, because blackness itself is inherently a tether. It’s a tether to the histories of time and space and race that have come to define our journeys on this plane.

The themes of solitude and of a belonging so enmeshed with violence and grief resonate throughout the collection. In the poem “Outside,” Audre Lorde lays bare this tension in beautifully tender verse. She writes:

In the center of a harsh and spectrumed city
all things natural are strange.
I grew up in a genuine confusion
between grass and weeds and flowers
and what colored meant
except for clothes you couldn’t bleach
and nobody called me nigger
until I was thirteen.
Nobody lynched my mama
but what she’d never been
had bleached her face of everything
but very private furies
and made the other children
call me yellow snot at school.
And how many times have I called myself back
through my bones confusion
like marrow meaning meat
and how many times have you cut me
and run in the streets
my own blood
who do you think me to be
that you are terrified of becoming
or what do you see in my face
you have not already discarded
in your own mirror
what face do you see in my eyes
that you will someday
come to
acknowledge your own?
Who shall I curse that I grew up
believing in my mother’s face
or that I lived in fear of potent darkness
wearing my father’s shape
they have both marked me
with their blind and terrible love
and I am lustful for my own name.
Between the canyons of their mighty silences
mother bright and father brown
I seek my own shapes now
for they never spoke of me
except as theirs

I read this collection backward and forward, trying to figure out what compelled me to choose it for this month’s focus. Arguably the biggest difficulty of a series like this is determining which piece(s) speak to the present moment we’re in. What I love about The Black Unicorn is Audre Lorde’s continued insistence that our plight as Black people, as queer people, as women is forever a timely issue.

We are more than talking points, more than a trending Twitter topic. The issues we bring to light are at the center of our lives and our attempts to survive our inheritances. I found myself both nodding and wincing at the vulnerability and longing throughout Lorde’s writing. So often as queer Black women we’re required to perform our pain so our humanity can be rendered as real. And while it’s important to remember Audre Lorde is a product of a time that demanded such performances, she nonetheless refused to make herself palatable. Lorde’s message is a challenge for white people to be better and to do better by those whom they oppress.

In “Power,” Audre Lorde continues enacting the need for poetry with this reminder: “The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being / ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children.” She goes on to write:

The policeman who shot down a 10-year-old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove that. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size or nothing else
only the color.” and
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37-year-old white man with 13 years of police forcing
has been set free
by 11 white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one black woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10″ black woman’s frame
over the hot coals of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85-year-old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in ¾ time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

Lorde lives in the in-betweens: between power and disempowerment, fury and sorrow, hope and longing, life and death. The activeness and the labor of her intersectional living take their toll; it requires an intimacy with the precariousness of a life in the between. In “A Song for Many Movements,” Lorde writes:

Nobody wants to die on the way
caught between ghosts of whiteness
and the real water
none of us wanted to leave
our bones
on the way to salvation […] Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the ovens
or gallows
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
after the fall
too many empty cases
of blood to bury or burn
there will be no body left
to listen
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence.
Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.

In the same year that this volume was published, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time and underwent a mastectomy. Her cancer is likely traced to the dangerous factory work she undertook as a young woman struggling to make ends meet and speaks to the very heart of intersectionality — because of her numerous intersections, she took the only work available to her, forced to focus on a measure of immediate security at the expense of a longer, healthier life. At the same time, I think of a unicorn as an inherently fragile creature. Always beautiful and majestic, I always understood them as endangered and in need of protection.

My need to read hope and happy endings into Audre Lorde’s work is more evidence of my own fear of my precarity and of my own death. While I do think hope is at the crux of Lorde’s beliefs, it’s a radical hope that we make an impact and force a change on this world while we inhabit it. One of her most well-known works, “A Litany for Survival,” is heartening in that soothes as much as it emboldens.

Here’s the poem in full:

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours;
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
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.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid.
so it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.

What are your interpretations of The Black Unicorn?

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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.


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