Written in 3 stanzas, the poem A Woman Speaks, from The Collected Work of Audre Lorde, is like an ocean before a storm. The tone and form create a serene surface, yet as the piece progresses, it gestures towards the true conflict within. Lorde focuses on both the inconsistencies in how black women are viewed and her own battle to define her identity outside of society’s norms. There are many declarative statements that serve to act as her own affirmations of worth, power, and vulnerability during the historical period of underrepresentation and prejudice she experienced.
A Woman Speaks is both a warrior’s song for the invisible and a conversation between women of different cultures. It seeks to affirm the lived experience of black women in the US and across the diaspora, and at the same time open a dialogue about what could still be done within the feminist movement to improve the lives of women of color. What is also important to this piece is that there is no accusations, only declarations of Lorde’s own truth. This piece is not meant to place blame, but to open up a perspective of the world to others who may not have ever experienced it in this way.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
A Woman Speaks‘s first two lines established the subject of the piece. “Moon marked and touched by sun/ my magic is unwritten”. These lines bring attention to how black women are perceived as both unearthly, goddess-like beings described in Jazz and many other artforms that praise their features and beauty, yet at the same time, their history is mostly forgotten. She calls attention to a need for understanding and action rather than feelings of remorse for this erasure in lines 10 through 12, “I do not mix /love with pity /nor hate with scorn”. She expresses a sense of being unknown by others. The voicelessness she describes can be attributed to the historical discriminated against women in the workplace and lacking political representation for queer women in the context of late the 70’s through the early 90’s American society when Audre Lorde was an activist and poet.
The second stanza of A Woman Speaks calls upon a reoccurring theme throughout her many pieces that draw attention to the strange position of women of color as both too strong and also underestimated. An important reference is made in the sixth line of the “witches in Dahomey.” Dahomey is another iconic piece by the same author named for the 14th-century African kingdom infamous for their fierce women warriors. Calling them witches is meant to illustrate how their strength is seen as evil, otherworldly, and positions them as outsiders. This stanza beckons the memory of generations of strong women who continue to seek a balance between strength and vulnerability. She connects herself to this history of warrior women stating that they “ wear me inside their coiled clothes”. She bends time, obscuring its linear form to position herself in the world of the Dahomey, then back again to her mother, and then to her own experience. This represents the oneness Audre feels with her ancestors and her elders.
The common archetype of the seductress is used in this last stanza reinforces the nuances between the common feminist critique of patriarchal society and what Lorde views as a missing piece of the feminist movement; its uplifting of black women. “Beware my smile/I am treacherous with old magic”. Rather than a true warning, I read these lines as a declaration of mysterious power, with a hint of sarcasm to dismantle the idea of the black woman as dangerous. She seems to long for a “wide future” in six, yet her last six words: “ I am /woman/ and not white,” act to boldly present herself as different, out of the reach of this “promise” but and still, a woman, engaged in similar struggles for equality, yet to be realized.
About Audre Lorde the Poet
Self-described lesbian, mother warrior poet Audre Lorde is a famous feminist and womanist poet who continued poetry and essays for over 3 decades that helped to shape the landscape of poetry from a queer black perspective. The daughter of immigrants from Grenada to New York, Lorde’s work is rich with symbolism and history from the African Diaspora. She was in active discussion with poets and writers such as Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and Alice Walker, yet her unique perspective on the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender continue to be discussed in many literary circles.
She used her notoriety as a poet to advocate for the betterment of people all over the world. She was recognized by many universities, obtaining her MLS from Columbia University, an honorary degree from Harvard, and serving as poet laureate of New York until her death in 1992 from breast cancer. Lorde wrote honestly and passionately about her experience with cancer, refusing to be silent of the many trials, contradictions, and intersections of her life.
Although she is remembered as a fierce political activist she was also an outspoken advocate for understanding and compassion. She founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, and was also an active opponent of Apartheid in South Africa, helping to begin a foundation to address the grave conditions of women of color under the oppressive law.