Through a reading of Audre Lorde’s poetry Edna Bonhomme reflects on writing as a collective act, diasporic Afro-Caribbean communities and Black feminist organising in Berlin.
'It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.' – Audre Lorde
In a 1990 interview in the Caribbean journal Callallo, Audre Lorde remarked, 'poets become part of any community out of which they operate because poetry grows out of the poet experiencing the worlds through which she moves.' There is no singular way to write poetry, nor is there a particular place where one has to do it, but Lorde’s wanderlust spirit had an indelible mark on her writing. As a writer who moved through the Caribbean, North America, and Europe, she transcribed lyrical verse that showed how she felt grounded in the world whilst also feeling out of place in a city – revealing the ongoing colonial relations that existed as well as the ways that Black women writers came together. Her poetry was about crossing physical borders but also political ones, where Black feminists could frame their histories and their own stories propelled by the aching quest to exercise their imagination.
Poetry marks the core of Afro-Caribbean experiences such as Lorde’s, especially as they are interwoven by writers who use their art form to reckon with their past while provoking and improvising. What are people reckoning with? They are challenging what the Caribbean represents, which is a middle passage, that converged into a place of mass genocide of indigenous people, the forced labor of Africans, and the site of resistance through the Haitian revolution and formation of negritude. Nevertheless, the Caribbean has been a potent intellectual and political zone, expanding the Black imaginary through Pan-Africanism and queer feminist discourse. Caribbean diasporic women, such as Audre Lorde, have implanted themselves into communities, not as objects, but as subjects, establishing their creative voice within settled and transient Black communities.
Lorde is an example of broader trends among Afro-Caribbean writers who have implanted themselves globally, often meeting with Black activists in the Caribbean and Europe. In 1986, after years of convening with the Sojourner Sisters in St. Croix, a group that advocated against domestic violence, Lorde participated in their First Conference of Caribbean Women Writers. This gathering was a way for seasoned and emerging Black writers to showcase their work, and implicate their prose within their own canon. At the conference, Lorde recited 'Need: a Chorale for Black Women Voices', an extended poem which chronicled the murder of a dozen Black women. While many of her poems were about survival and empowerment, she wrote this text 'for every Black woman who has ever bled at the hands of a brother', to acknowledge and hopefully conquer the violence against Black women in their communities. The poems are painful revelations, nevertheless, they show that discernment about Black women’s oppression can be used to overcome these disparities.
One important legacy of the Black presence in Germany – where I live – is the literary contributions of Audre Lorde during her Berlin years. Here, the poet devoted the last years of her life to battling cancer, connected to and uplifted the voices of Afro German feminists. She documented every moment with care by having healing circles and forming meaningful friendships with this community. In 1984, Audre Lorde recounted her experience in Germany with the poem, 'Berlin is Hard on Colored Girls' where she noted: 'an end to war perhaps … A nightingale waits in the alley.' A city haunted by colonialism in Africa, the ghosts of the fascist Nazi regime, and the divisions of the Cold War, Berlin – then and now – opens up the political space for artists and writers to confront their past because history is a bony process, ossified with the weight of the dead. At the heart of these layered histories are the narratives of Black people in Germany and the influence that African, Afropean, and Afro-Caribbean feminists have had in contemporary Afro-German identity. For example, Lorde was transformative in inspiring Afro-Germans such as May Ayim and Katharina Oguntoye to develop more formal networks for Black empowerment, marking the wanted and unwanted, curated for the purpose of bearing culinary sustenance and natural beauty.
In Lorde’s poem 'jessehelms', she offers a roadmap to her liberation. Published in 1991, Lorde conjured an affirmation, 'I am a Black woman writing my way to the future.' Rather than accepting her life as a defeat, she showed sheer power to write herself and other Black women into the world, not how society saw them, but how they see themselves as people who are loved and admired from within. Reclaiming herself in the future, even as she was battling with cancer, was part of a way of affirming her survival and that of other Black women. Lorde’s poetry, more than anything, was part of an international roadmap to her literary freedom. She reminds us that writing is not a solitary act, but an active constellation of people moving, imagining, and plotting for their manumission.
'For Each of You' from Your Silence Will Not Protect You.