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Audre Lorde: Parent-Child Relationships

Published on January 1st, 2017 at 03:42 am

by Michael Ware

    Audre Lorde was an African American poet, feminist, and civil rights activist. Her self- description as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” showed her complex personality and fearless nature. Lorde’s love of poetry began very early. As a child, Lorde had problems with communicating, but soon began to find poetry as a way to express herself. She would memorize the words of many poems and used them to answer any questions that were asked of her. When she was twelve years old, Lorde began writing her own poetry and by high school her first poem had been published by Seventeen magazine. From there, Lorde’s poetic success only grew. Lorde’s earliest poems consisted mostly of ideas of love, ranging from romantic love to love between friends. After experiencing years of civil unrest, especially during the 1960s, Lorde’s poems made a radical shift to more political statements. Despite this rapid change in topic matters, Lorde maintained some of the ideas she communicated in her original poetry. In particular, Lorde continued to express the idea of parent-child relationships and the effect they have on the people involved. This theme can be seen throughout Lorde’s poems, and it shows a reflection of Lorde’s personal family life.

    Raised in New York City by Caribbean immigrants, Lorde was the youngest of three daughters. Lorde’s relationship with her parents was very complicated and played a large part in many of the poems she wrote. Both of her parents were busy running a business together so she did not see them very often, but when they were around, they were often cold and distant to her. Lorde’s relationship with her mother, Linda, was especially strained, largely due to the color of her skin. Because of her diverse cultural family background, Linda’s skin color was light enough to pass for white. This was a source of pride for Linda and her family which, despite that the fact that her own husband’s skin was very dark, made her very suspicious of dark-skinned people. This suspicion created discord between Lorde and her mother because Lorde’s skin was much darker. As a result, Lorde had a difficult childhood that consisted of strict rules and a feeling of isolation. Lorde’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother largely impacted her writing by causing her to focus on themes that revolved around the importance of parent-child relationships.

    The theme of parent-child relationship can be seen clearly in Lorde’s poem “Hanging Fire.” “Hanging Fire” is narrated by a fourteen year old girl who is feeling anxious and isolated during a time in her life where she is in need of parental guidance. The title itself, “Hanging Fire”, may seem like an obscure reference, but it relates to the overall message of the poem. Normally the term “hanging fire” refers to a dangerous situation where there is a delay between the triggering of a gun and the gun’s actual ignition. In this case, however, it is used as a comparison to refer to the precarious time in a person’s life between childhood and adulthood. Lorde’s title choice contributes to the overall theme by expressing the importance of a healthy relationship between kids and their parents in order to receive the guidance needed to get through this awkward period in their life. The fourteen year old girl narrating the poem is being consumed by her problems about boys and the impending doom of death. She’s still so young and yet she worries “will I live long enough/to grow up” (32-33). The girl is yearning for her mother’s guidance to help ease her mind from some of the issues that are racing through it, but to no avail. Her mother continuously neglects her, leaving her feeling lonely and confused. Lorde’s repetition of “and momma’s in the bedroom/with the door closed” (10-11, 22-23, 34-35) shows how unapproachable the narrator’s mother is and the minimal interest she has in listening to her daughter’s concerns. The mother’s lack of affection towards her daughter in the poem relates back to Lorde’s relationship with her own mother. The little girl narrating the poem represents a younger version of Lorde herself. Lorde uses this poem to express the way she felt as a child due to the absence of attention that she received from her own mother. In the background of the poem’s main theme, Lorde throws in some lines that echo her views on the problems that women, especially black women, face in society. The line “I should have been on Math Team/my marks were better than his” (26-27) reflects the implications of a sexist and racist society. Overall, the events in Lorde’s “Hanging Fire” show the heavy impact that the lack of a nurturing parent-child relationship can have on the child’s self-esteem and self-worth.

    Lorde’s poem “From the House of Yemanjá” also reflects the theme of parent-child relationship through its depiction of a child’s need for motherly love. Lorde sets the tone of the poem in the title when she uses the name of a motherly African spirit. Yemanjá is the mother spirit of the Yoruba religion which is most commonly seen in places like Niger and Benin. Yemanjá is known for being loving, strongly protective, and caring to all her children Lorde’s use of Yemanjá not only relates to her sporadic references to mystic African culture, but it also provides a contrast to the motherly figure displayed within the poem itself. Yemanjá serves as a compassionate mother figure, while the narrator’s mother within the poem is described as indifferent to her child. The narrator declares that she is “the sun and the moon and forever hungry/for her eyes” (9-10) in order to show her desire for her mother’s attention. To the narrator’s disappointment, however, her mother continues to ignore her for the “perfect daughter/who was not me” (7-8). Lorde uses this metaphor of “the sun and the moon” (Lorde 9) to emphasize that no matter how powerful or beautiful the narrator becomes, her mother still continues to ignore her. The parent-child relationship theme is further developed through the narrator’s mother’s attempts to repress her child’s uniqueness. Lorde displays the mother’s “ivory hungers” (Lorde 13) as a metaphor for the unnatural culture and desires of white people. The narrator’s mother is trying to conform herself and her children to the norms of white society so that they will be better respected. However, in the process, the mother limits her daughter’s individuality and tries to shape her into something that she is not. This event mirrors the relationship Lorde felt with her own mother. Due to her light colored skin, Lorde’s mother believed that the culture and norms of white society were more acceptable and tried to force her children to adhere to them. Lorde’s inability to conform due to her physical characteristics frustrated her mother. In the poem, Lorde expresses that “the mother’s efforts to shape the speaker into something she is not do not quench the speaker’s desire for the mother’s love” (Poetry Foundation). The repetition of “Mother I need” (Lorde 27-29) emphasizes the narrator’s longing for the affection and protection of her mother. Lorde’s “From the House of Yemanjá” demonstrates the significance that an unhealthy relationship between family members has on a child. The poem expresses a child’s need for motherly unconditional love in order to fully appreciate and understand life.

    The poem “Story Books on a Kitchen Table” by Audre Lorde also expresses Lorde’s focus on the importance of parent-child relationship through the eyes of a neglected child. The tone is set with the opening verse of the poem:

Out of her womb of pain my mother spat me
Into her ill-fitting harness of despair
Into her deceits
Where anger reconceived me… (1-4)
Lorde’s descriptive language conveys the mother’s resentment towards her daughter that started the day she was born or “spat” to life. This mother-daughter tension is further seen through the narrator’s description of being raised by “her [mother’s] deceits” (Lorde 3) and “harness of despair” (Lorde 2). Lorde’s use of emotional diction sets the scene for a daughter whose mother was “pointed by her nightmare/of who I was not/becoming” (6-8). This line conveys the mother’s annoyance at how her child is turning out and her unsuccessful attempts to conform her daughter to the norms of society. Through this language we see another example of the repression of a child’s uniqueness which lingers in many of Lorde’s other poems. This controlling and resentful environment leads the narrator to feel very isolated like she’s wandering “through lonely rooms of afternoon/wrapped in nightmares” (14-15). Her mother has deserted her and left her alone without any guidance to help her survive the unexpected journey of life. This recurring idea of nightmares shows that the narrator is afraid of the unknown and feels as if there is no escape from the darkness since she has no one by her side to guide her. Lorde also includes an underlying theme about the dominance of white culture and the forcing of it onto blacks through the “fairy books/where white witches ruled” (18-19). This ties into the main theme of parent-child relationship as it relates to the idea of suppressing a “child’s unique personality so that she conforms with the rest of the world” (Poetry Foundation). This idea of squashing a child’s distinctive nature reflects Lorde’s struggles with her own mother. Through poems like this, Lorde “continues to grapple with the spectre of a mother whose lightness of skin and obsessive desire to be white” (Towns) made her try to force Lorde to be something that she was not. In the end, “Story Books on a Kitchen Table” represents the idea that a parent who resents their children and withholds emotional nourishment has a lasting impact on the happiness and success of the child. The poem shows the utmost importance of having a healthy parent-child relationship, a theme seen throughout Lorde’s work.

    Lorde’s poem “Now That I Am Forever with Child” also displays the importance of parent-child relationships through a more loving perspective. Most of Lorde’s parent-child relationship poems are narrated from the perspective of a child who has been neglected by their parents and how that has affected them. On the other hand, “Now That I Am Forever with Child” portrays the theme through the eyes of a loving new mother. The poem discusses the birth of Lorde’s daughter through copious amounts of nature imagery to reflect the beauty of birth. Lorde uses the line “while you were blooming within me” (Lorde 2) to compare the carrying of her baby to the beauty of a blooming flower. More nature imagery can be seen when Lorde says “then the seed opened” (Lorde 16) to compare the birth of her baby to a seed sprouting. It resembled the emergence of new life through a natural process. Lorde’s “legs were towers between which/a new world was passing” (19-20). Everything was going to change for her now because she had a baby, but it was a comfortable change for which she was ready. Lorde’s description of the birth of her first child and the love she had for it even before it was born shows a major contrast to Lorde’s relationship with her own mother. Lorde was ready to love and support her child no matter what, while her own mother had been quick to resent Lorde and suppress her dreams. This poem reveals that “Lorde’s ambivalent feelings about her mother ‘did not make [her] bitter against her own children when circumstances changed her role from that of child to mother’” (Poetry Foundation). “Now That I Am Forever with Child” uses nature imagery to express the beauty of birth and the ideal loving relationship that can be formed between parent and child even before birth.

    Audre Lorde was a fighter, a feminist, a civil rights activist, a mother, and a fearless poet whose work still touches us today. Her concentration on the relationship between parent and child shows the importance of a healthy and happy family environment. But Lorde also revealed that one can still rise above their childhood, regardless of the damaged state of one’s family. Despite the uncomfortable environment she lived in growing up, Lorde managed to find success and happiness before her life ended. Lorde’s bold personality allowed her to express all of her feelings and ideas through her words and through poetry. She did not let anyone hold her back because she knew that what she had to say was worth saying. Like Lorde once said, “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”

Works Cited

Towns, Saundra. "Audre Lorde." Discovering Authors, Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CEJ2101205428 &it=r&asid=97f2abef2c20db1946827e7d50a5ba36. Accessed 26 Nov. 2016.
“Audre Lorde.” Poetry Foundation, 2016, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and- poets/poets/detail/audre-lorde#poet. Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.
Lorde, Audre. “Hanging Fire.” The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. W.W. Norton and Company, 1997.
Lorde, Audre. “From the House of Yemanjá.” The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.
Lorde, Audre. “Story Books on a Kitchen Table.” The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.
Lorde, Audre. “Now That I Am Forever with Child.” Coal. W.W. Norton and Company, 1976.