Review by Marie Nemeth
Audre Lorde is a self identified “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet, mother” whose essays and poems investigate the civil rights movement of her time (Audre Lorde – 1934-1992). Lorde emphasizes the necessity of celebrating diversity within feminism in its value and promotion of womanhood experienced through various ethnic and racial groups, sexual orientations and identities, socioeconomic statuses, religions, and ages. Lorde experienced resistance to her radical notions of empowerment as a black, lesbian feminist, within each respective community, as the culmination of her ideals conflicted with the singular objective of the black and feminist movements. Various civil rights activists confined their beliefs to advancing acceptance and opportunity for race, gender, or sexual orientation, but Lorde’s devotion to each community, including a vested interest in spiritual and sexual awakening, garnered little support initially. Lorde’s poetry portrays intersectionality stunningly, by which she illustrates the common thread of oppression within organized intuitions. The Black Unicorn explores Lorde’s relationship with womanhood as she provides insight on the interwoven nature of oppression, sexism, African culture, sexual and spiritual awakening, and race, affirming that feminism necessitates focus on each element. Audre Lorde’s utilizes intersectionality as the feminist aesthetic in her collection of poetry, The Black Unicorn, in which she establishes agency and empowerment through reclamation of spirituality, autonomy and sexuality, and race.
Intersectionality frames Lorde’s The Black Unicorn with variations of reclamation. Spiritual empowerment is a reoccurring theme in Lorde’s The Black Unicorn, unveiling oppression of African and goddess culture. Lorde seeks to dismantle the degradation of goddess culture that contributed to the systematic oppression of women. Lorde alludes to the ancient West African religion of Vodoun as she references “witches in Dahomey” in “A Woman Speaks” and “Mawulisa,” in “Meet.” Dahomean Vodoun believe that Muwalisa is comprised of “Mawu” and “Lisa,” who have been recorded as the male and female principle, occasionally reported as androgynous same-sex deities. Between 1600 and 1900, Dahomean Vodoun allegedly claimed “40% of the African-American population and the Western Afro-diaspora, who have their direct ancestral roots in Dahomey, and whose ancestors were practitioners within the Dahomean Vodoun tradition.” European domination eradicated any religious beliefs that contrasted European Christianity through the defamation of traditional honored African religions.
Annihilating a culture entails destroying its religion and language, removing any sense of self, community, and connection to a higher power. Lorde’s images of Dahomean Vodoun elicit memories of slavery, colonization, and the aftermath of dehumanizing oppression. Yet, Lorde’s lamentation over the persecution of ancient African and goddess cultures instills a haunting image of rebirth and renewal wherein Lorde grants agency to the goddess, reviving her spirit through women. Lorde’s spirituality honors the ancient strength and grace of goddess culture through her allusions to high priestesses, solstices, full moons, and pagan worship. Lorde’s invocation of the goddess illustrates a time when women were worshiped for their natural life cycles, sexuality, and essence. The image of the moon, present in “The Black Unicorn,” “A Woman Speaks,” and “Meet” symbolizes the sanctity of womanhood, as the moon’s common association with women derives from ancient beliefs that a woman’s menstrual cycle matches the duration of the moon’s cycle, as pregnancy mirrors the waxing and waning of the moon. Priestess imagery exemplifies the lives of women who have been oppressed alongside their goddess culture. Lorde’s The Black Unicorn reclaims ownership over the degradation of African religion and women through her assertion that both will rise from the ruins with “magic [that] is unwritten.” The goddess is an ageless emblem of divine feminine strength, immortalized through women’s resilience that Lorde asserts deserves veneration. The image of the goddess evolves from a figure of worship to a symbol of rebellion by which women’s freedom of expression empowers them. Lorde infers that reclaiming ownership over the victimization of women and the goddess lessens the power of the perpetrators of oppression. The feminist aesthetic of Lorde’s spirituality seeks to empower women by granting them the ability to honor an identifiable divine being.
The spiritual undertones of The Black Unicorn accentuate Lorde’s reclamation of autonomy and sexuality. Goddess imagery weaves together elements of spirituality, sexuality, and race in “A Woman Speaks.” Lorde grieves the loss of goddess culture in which High Priestesses were worshiped for their sexuality, valued as a divine interaction. Yet, while priestesses were formerly honored for their sexuality, black women are historically condemned for theirs. Lorde’s stirring ownership is contingent upon the understanding that autonomy cannot be attained through a singular channel. By pairing spirituality with eroticism, Lorde furthers her proclamation that freedom of self is revolutionary. Lorde’s feminist ideals permeate her poetry, which invalidates the dominance men claim over female sexuality. Female empowerment necessitates liberation from male-defined conceptions of sexuality, spirituality, and femininity.
Lorde writes in “The Black Unicorn,” “It is not on her lap where the horn rests/ but deep in her moonpit/ growing.” The horn’s position on a lap denotes a phallic image, and as such, is associated with power. Yet, Lorde reclaims the unicorn horn’s power transmuting it into a symbol of pure, unadulterated, feminine sexuality. Lorde then evokes sensuality void of male involvement, instead stimulating the emotional and physical senses of femininity. Devotion to a divine being facilitates devotion to ones own divinity, according to Lorde’s assertion that “The erotic infuses and intensifies the experience of the body, linking the sensory with the spiritual.” Lorde celebrates and validates sexuality, dismantling the notion that female sexuality is innately inferior or inappropriate. As Lorde introduces eroticism without the accompaniment of the male gaze, she becomes fully autonomous through her sexual empowerment. “Meet” advances women’s sexual sovereignty through Lorde’s vibrant descriptions of lesbian eroticism, wherein men become obsolete. Reestablishing agency and authority becomes attainable for women as evidenced by Lorde’s radiant portrayals of independent womanhood free from male autocracy. Lorde’s poetry exposes her commitment to gender solidarity, as she viewed “female sexual repression as a tool of patriarchal domination.” Lorde’s reclamation of eroticism is vital to the feminist movement as sexuality is frequently utilized as a means of dominance, brutality, and dehumanization. Lorde writes that sexuality reveals creativity that is “‘…female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society’.” Eroticism is a fundamental facet of feminism to women and their goddesses, both of whom have endured centuries of abuse and debasement. The Black Unicorn collection epitomizes the folly in modern conceptions of women while imploring women to take ownership of their sexuality in feminist retaliation.
The intersectionality aesthetic of The Black Unicorn examines sexism within the black power movement, and racism within the feminist movement. Despite Audre Lorde’s efforts to conflate feminist and black agendas cohesively, the plight of black womanhood demands a more inclusive approach to liberation. American racism traces an appalling lineage back to the days of the slavery. The continued barbarism of institutionalized slavery strengthened racism’s crippling effects; the breadth of slavery was so expansive that its presence still looms in American culture. Audre Lorde’s identity as a black woman manifests itself into her intersectional poetry in which she divulges the discrimination with which black women are faced. This experience, although pervasive and inhumane, “becomes a social authority shared exclusively by the marginalized.”
Lorde’s “A Litany For Survival” introduces people living in shadows, between doors, unable to enter the world of acceptance. Lorde exposes the deep-rooted, psychological trauma from being “imprinted with fear,” at such a young, vulnerable age. The conditioning to live in fear becomes so ingrained that Lorde contends it becomes part of her identity as she “emphasizes the direct, causal relationship between racism and internalized racism.” The perpetual state of fear, about which Lorde writes, overshadows any personal expressions or experiences. The paradoxical nature of Lorde’s emotional oppression prevents her from ever escaping it as she writes that “when we are loved we are afraid/ love will vanish/ when we are alone we are afraid/ love will never return.” Fear imprisons Lorde, thus rendering her helpless, hopeless, and silent, just as slaves were stripped of their own identities. “A Litany for Survivors” outlines the enduring effects of racism before it poignantly ends with the lines, “So it is better to speak/ remembering/ we were never meant to survive.” Lorde’s ending celebrates the lives of black women, who shatter expectations by learning to heal. Lorde’s account of fear’s traumatic effects strengthens her praise for those still suffering, encouraging them reject fear. Every person’s experience of womanhood is dependent upon her sexual orientation, gender, class, age, race, and religion as evidenced by Lorde’s poetry. While racism remains a point of contention in third wave feminism, Lorde’s poetry demonstrates the necessity for a more holistic understanding of each woman’s life.
Audre Lorde assesses that the separation amongst women lies not in their differences but rather in “our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.” The Black Unicorn: Poems portrays women’s varied lives and identities to acknowledge the necessity of examining each aspect of womanhood through a feminist lens. Lorde’s investigation of empowerment through the reclamation of spirituality, autonomy and sexuality, and race provides insight on women’s experiences. Through Lorde’s critique on hegemony, it becomes apparent intersectionality is vital to promoting an authentic, unified, and holistic feminist agenda.
Audre Lorde was born in 1934 in New York City and is known for her poetry and essays that address issues of injustice amongst marginalized people. Her work remains cherished today for its vibrant portrayals of oppression she faced as a black, lesbian, feminist woman. Lorde reclaims womanhood for herself and all marginalized women.