Year of Our (Audre) Lorde: October’s Dead Is Behind Us

Photograph of author by 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.


A friend once told me that the time around Halloween is when the veil between this world and the next slips away, and our connection to the spirit world is at its highest. (This was before either of us had seen Coco.) It’s a reminder I carry with me, a wisdom I call upon that speaks to the multiple worlds we all inhabit, and the connections that defy common conceptions of time and space.

In her poetry collection Our Dead Behind Us, Audre Lorde contradicts the very claim of her title by revealing all the ways we carry our dead alongside us, within us, into our everyday and into the future. It’s a necessary re-framing of grief and time; and, true to form, Lorde is always in time. This collection feels sankofic; a look backwards, an engagement with history while the feet are pointed forward, headed into the future.

As the end of the longest year in history inches closer, I’ve been challenging myself to sit with the many losses that have characterized 2020, to reframe them as not a lack or a “negation of” — but as a series of ongoing paradigm shifts. Death takes on many forms; it’s not only the transition from this plane to another, but encompasses these shifts — within relationships, understandings of ourselves and others, and ways of being in the world. The poem “Mawu” speaks perfectly to this sense of reckoning and acceptance:

“Released / from the prism of dreaming / we make peace with the women / we shall never become / I measure your betrayals / in a hundred different faces / to claim you as my own / grown cool and delicate and grave / beyond revision / So long as your death is a leaving / it will never be my last.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about an experience I had last year. During a sacred ritual with
some ordained elders, one Baba came up to me and said, “You have a grandmother who walks with you. She’s here with you now. And every day.”

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I hadn’t shared anything about my grandmother throughout the ritual, hadn’t even said Nana’s name aloud in the days before. But then he told me she was with me, always, and it was as if I fell into an alignment, like he offered a shape to her in the present moment. I hadn’t even read the poem “Call” by then, and yet I was embodying it:

“I am a Black woman    stripped down / and praying / my whole life has been an alter / worth its ending / and I say Aido Hwedo is coming.”

(Aido Hwedo: The Rainbow Serpent; also a representation of all ancient divinities who must be worshipped but whose names and faces have been lost in time.”)

To be Black in this world is to be intimate with a kind of living death. It’s an intimacy no one craves, and yet Black people know better than most that Lorde speaks truth to power in saying “we were never meant to survive.” Whether we lose a grandmother or an aunt, or whether it’s Breonna Taylor, who we only come to recognize in the aftermath of her death, each loss feels personal and tethered to the next. And while we need to attend to the ways in which we #SayHerName, I think it’s important to evoke all those who are gone, especially those who die unnatural deaths borne from racism, queer and transphobia, unequal access to healthcare, and the numerous other ways this world actively tries to kill us.

Lorde, as prescient as ever, offers writing as an act of remembrance, of both engaging with the dead and affirming the truth of our living in “Learning to Write”:

“I am a bleak heroism of words / that refuse / to be buried alive / with the liars.”

I think this sentiment is one she also reaffirms beautifully in “Burning the Water Hyacinth:”

“Plucking desire / from my palms / like the firehairs of a cactus / I know this appetite / the greed of a poet / or an empty woman / trying to touch / what matters.”

Like so many people, for me part of grappling with the torrent-of-everything that is 2020 is acknowledging that this year is an accumulation of misdeeds, misrecognitions, and unaddressed issues all surfacing at once. Under each of the issues we’re contending with is the question of how we got here, and what do we do now that we are still here, certainly for the foreseeable future. The above lines from “Burning the Water Hyacinth,” about attempting to “touch what matters,” could be a banner proclamation for so many of us. Touch (or the lack thereof) has forcibly organized how we engage with one another, show love and affection, and attempt to bridge the distances furthered by the many multiple pandemics of 2020.

What Audre Lorde has demonstrated time and again is that touching what matters is the kind of touch that doesn’t reach wide but rather burrows deep, fingers submersed in the earth in order to get at the root of it all. This extended period of time we’ve currently spent with ourselves has propelled some of the deepest self-reflection we’ve allowed ourselves in years. Like how it took me getting into my thirties and the force of global pandemics to really write about the relationship that shaped most of my twenties. As hard as it is to admit, the death of that relationship was so acute, it took nearly seven years of reflection — rehashing the worst moments, doubting myself, hearing her voice each time I failed or misstepped, and discovering and rediscovering that familiarity — before I finally was able to put the worst of it to rest.

I’m no longer who I was before that relationship. And the process of confronting the myriad implications of that experience is ongoing. As Lorde states in the poem “Outlines”:

“When women make love / beyond the first exploration / we meet each other knowing / in a landscape / the rest of our lives / attempts to understand.”

After my first true heartbreak, it took several years post-mortem to realize I’d been living in response to that experience. My relationship with her was the most toxic I’d ever experienced and yet its ending felt like a death to me, one that foreclosed a future I saw for myself, for us. The self I inhabited was one formed against the sharpness of that loss, one I projected to convince myself — but really to convince her — that I was the antithesis of who she thought I was. From “Stations”:

“Some women wait for themselves / around the next corner / and call the empty spot peace /but the opposite of living / is only not living / and the stars do not care.”

There’s no easy resolution here.

It would be an empty filler to simply gesture at 2021 as a healing balm for all the dying and living we’re experiencing right now. Most years, Halloween season is a deeply welcomed comfort — an annual communion across the veil that fortifies me. I can’t say I feel that same fortifying power this year, certainly not in any way that offers a sense of assurance.

But what I’m realizing is that the ritual I’ve developed in this column, communing with Audre Lorde for these last ten months, has at least instilled a belief in me that our archival, ancestral engagement is part of our lineage of survival. She details this lineage pristinely in “On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verazzano Bridge:”

“I am writing these words as a route map / an artifact for survival / a chronicle of buried treasure / a mourning / for this place we are about to be leaving / a rudder for my children your children / our lovers our hopes braided / from the dull wharves of Tompkinsville / to Zimbabwe Chad Azania / […]History is not kind to us / we restitch it with living / past memory forward / into desire / into the panic articulation / of want without having / or even the promise of getting. / And I dream of our coming together / encircled driven / not only by love / but by lust for a working tomorrow / the flights of this journey / maples uncertain / and necessary as water.”

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 17 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. Now I’ve gotta read all of your pieces on Audre Lorde. Given this whole year, I asked my spouse to read a book with me that might help us better understand each other. I decided that Audre Lorde is the author with enough power to change anybody’s life. She changed mine with just little excerpts I read on Tumblr! Diving in now, using your articles as a guide.

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