Year of Our (Audre) Lorde: September’s Afterimages

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.


There’s so much that can be said, that seeks articulation in the wake of the Breonna Taylor verdict. After the ravages of this year, the anger and fear that comes along with the decision to value property over a Black woman’s life feels to me like an unbearable weight. The pain is raw and too tender to try and explicate now; the fear that I am safe nowhere, the Black women in my family of origin and family of choice are safe nowhere. It’s a fact we’ve known but one that feels all the more threatening in the wake of continuing injustice for Black women.

At the same time, we’re faced with the utter devastation that has ravaged the West Coast. As I write this, I’m curled under a sweater and blanket in an unseasonably cold apartment whose heat hasn’t been turned on yet. The cold is a result of the hazy gray saturating the sky in upstate New York and so much of the country as the smoke from the fires moves farther and farther east. Whether for the best or the worst of reasons, we are all connected to each other. The pain of others, of our Earth is viscerally real.

There’s an immediacy to the recent razing of the West Coast that demands our attention. As it should. Especially knowing that the devastation, we’ve learned, was not only preventable but premeditated. Like so much of the pain and loss of 2020, it simply did not have to be this way.

I wrestled more with this month’s choice of focus than I have any other. I was captivated by Audre Lorde’s startling use of imagery as much as I was disturbed by the pain and discomfort she stirred up. The poem “Afterimages” is Lorde’s juxtaposition of nature, violence, and loss.

In one vignette there is a white woman standing near the Pearl River in Mississippi after a hurricane, stilled by shock at all she’s lost to the storm. In the over vignette we are still in Mississippi, but decades earlier when the body of young Emmett Till is found.

however the image enters
its force remains

I can’t even begin to explain how tired I am of being made to bear witness to Black death and to the destruction of Black life. But I think what’s different here, what Lorde witnessed with the highly publicized account of Till’s murder was the power of the image. I suspect that for most of us Emmett Till is perhaps the first image of Black death and murder we encounter, at least on a nationwide scale. His mother crying over his distorted face in that open casket is one I will never forget. But what’s happened in our complete saturation cycle of images and videos of Black death is a numbness, or at least an uneasy sense that this is commonplace. I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere multiple comments on the use of Breonna Taylor’s name and image to promote everything from sporting events to social media influencers, yet she was denied her life and — in the aftermath — any sense of justice. The fires ravaging the Western U.S. are growing to be expected each year. Our climate crisis grows more and more perilous and again we are uneasy in how commonplace it is.

In each of these instances, it’s not that these atrocities happen — it’s the scale that is newsworthy. What’s just as important here is that Lorde’s calling into question so many crises that have been “naturalized” in one sense or another. The destruction of nature itself is utterly violent and completely unnatural. The disregard for Black life, the casual and frequent murders of Black people are utterly violent and completely unnatural.

A white woman stands bereft and empty
a black boy hacked into a murderous lesson
recalled in me forever
like a lurch of earth on the edge of sleep
etched into my visions
food for dragonfish that learn
to live upon whatever they must eat
fused images beneath my pain.

It’s not nearly as simple as the water which characterizes both of these figures. What Lorde does here is draw our attention to how we become inured to these violences, these assaults on nature — both the environment(s) we inhabit and our human nature, our shared humanity.

The Pearl River floods through the streets of Jackson
A Mississippi summer televised.
Trapped houses kneel like sinners in the rain
a white woman climbs from her roof to a passing boat
her fingers tarry for a moment on the chimney
now awash
tearless and no longer young, she holds
a tattered baby’s blanket in her arms.
In a flickering afterimage of the nightmare rain
a microphone
thrust up against her flat bewildered words
“we jest come from the bank yestiddy
borrowing money to pay the income tax
now everything’s gone. I never knew
it could be so hard.”
[…]

I inherited Jackson, Mississippi.
For my majority it gave me Emmett Till
his 15 years puffed out like bruises
on plump boy-cheeks
his only Mississippi summer
whistling a 21 gun salute to Dixie
as a white girl passed him in the street
and he was baptized my son forever
in the midnight waters of the Pearl.

What strikes me most about these lines from the poem, and its title, is that Lorde is once again demanding that we don’t look away. We are bombarded with so many of these images now and so many of these videos, data visualizations, and more of these devastations. But what Lorde is articulating is that we must register them as the individual losses they are.

Each incident haunts her as each of the incidents this year haunts me and I’m sure haunts most of us. But after this news cycle, after the fires die down, we cannot seek to erase the after images. We have to do all we can to ensure that these atrocities do not continue.

His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st year
when I walked through a northern summer
my eyes averted
from each corner’s photographies
newspapers protest posters magazines
Police Story, Confidential, True
the avid insistence of detail
pretending insight or information
the length of gash across the dead boy’s loins
his grieving mother’s lamentation
the severed lips, how many burns
his gouged out eyes
sewed shut upon the screaming covers
louder than life
all over
the veiled warning, the secret relish
of a black child’s mutilated body
fingered by street-corner eyes
bruise upon livid bruise

[…]

and wherever I looked that summer
I learned to be at home with children’s blood
with savored violence
with pictures of black broken flesh
used, crumpled, and discarded
lying amid the sidewalk refuse
like a raped woman’s face.

When she says she learned to “be at home with children’s blood,” I think Lorde is giving us a warning. We cannot naturalize this. The unnatural nature of the hurricanes she writes about, the fires we know continue on today, and the open killing of Black people all over this country are anything but natural disasters. We need to stay attuned, not only to the fact that these things keep happening, but to the ways in which we’re conditioned to passively consume Black death and the ravaging of our planet.

Within my eyes
the flickering afterimages of a nightmare rain
a woman wrings her hands
beneath the weight of agonies remembered
I wade through summer ghosts
betrayed by vision
hers and my own
becoming dragonfish to survive
the horrors we are living
with tortured lungs
adapting to breathe blood.

I think about the relationship between blackness and land a lot. As the descendant of enslaved people, that relationship used to be so fraught, more of a weariness of strange fruit than anything else. But in pushing beyond my initial discomfort, I came to realize that the problem isn’t the land but what humans do to it. There is a disposability, a capitalist consumption of land and labor and Black people and Indigenous folx, for anything and anyone that supplants the unquenchable hunger for our lives.

Audre Lorde implores us to bask in the difference, yet in “Afterimages” she articulates her own struggles with the task that she herself requires. It is anything but easy to witness so much of your own people’s destruction, wear your voice thin by decrying the injustices, and then watch that destruction ripple into others. While the differences are there, what Lorde so beautifully and achingly makes clear is that one person’s ruin will soon lead to another’s.

We can no longer adapt to breathing blood.

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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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