Lorde on Our Fury over Racial Killings

Scene from Potemkin, Odessa steps episode


It appears that the defense attorneys for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery have been taking a page out of Georgia’s racist past in their attacks on the victim. An Audre Lorde poem (thanks to John Stoehr’s The Editorial Board for the alert) explores how we should respond.

It was bad enough that Arbery was essentially lynched for jogging through a mostly white neighborhood. It was bad enough that the public prosecutor didn’t immediately arrest the killers, believing that they were justified by a Citizen’s Arrest law that was codified into Georgia law in 1863 so that slaveowners could chase after their runaway slaves following the Emancipation Proclamation. (Arbery’s killers were arrested only when video footage surfaced.) But on top of all that, the killers’ defense lawyers have been nakedly racist, first striking as many Blacks as they could from the jury, then complaining about black pastors in the courtroom, and finally—thanks to Laura Hogue—dehumanizing the victim:

“Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”

Civil rights attorney and former prosecutor Charles Coleman, Jr., commenting on the case, observed that the killers had essentially regarded Arbery as a “runaway slave” and that Hogue’s words, while racist, were also strategic:

“Her word choice was intentional, her descriptions were unnecessary. And the description ultimately is inflammatory,” Coleman told CNN.

It was an “attempt to sort of really trigger some of the racial tropes and stereotypes that may be deeply embedded in the psyche of some of the jurors,” Coleman said.

Lorde’s poem is about an equally egregious racist killing, followed by an egregious verdict by an 11-1 white jury. Although it was written in 1978 before cell phone footage, “there are tapes to prove” what transpired.

You’ll learn about the killing and the trial as you read the poem so I’ll focus here on the poet exploring her reactions. Anger so overcomes her that her emotional state is “like a desert of raw gunshot wounds.” While she is filled with thoroughly understandable hatred and destruction, however, she fears that these emotions will disempower her. “I am lost without imagery or magic,” she laments.

In the opening stanza she distinguishes between poetry and rhetoric, the difference being that poetry opens us up and rhetoric closes us down. Poetry doesn’t let one stay in one’s hatred and destruction, no matter how justified, but forces one to look within and find similarities with the killer. Such self-honesty is what Lorde means by “being ready to kill yourself instead of your children.”

Her anger at the killing and the subsequent injustice burns so hot that she imagines meting out the same punishment to some innocent White. The revenge fantasy reminds me of Guitar in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Guitar, formerly protagonist Milkman’s best friend, becomes so bitter about white supremacists murdering African Americans that he joins a terrorist group that kills a random and innocent Caucasian for every innocent Black who is killed. This proves too much for Milkman, who is searching for a healthier way to deal with racism. By having the two square off at novel’s end, Morrison shows that there’s a dark response and a light response to social injustice. Blacks as well as Whites have both sides.

As an aside, I note that this is why white school boards are wrong to ban Toni Morrison, who is not hesitant to call out anyone guilty of prejudice. Blacks can demonize Whites just as Whites demonize Blacks. The difference is that demonizers with power do a lot more damage than demonizers without power.

Lorde too depicts a Guitar-like response to a white cop killing a 10-year-old and the jury setting him free. In it, she imagines herself as an angry black teenager who rapes, beats, and then incinerates an 85-year-old white woman. Or maybe she’s reporting an actual incident. What people would say about the episode is what they should say about killer cops: “What beasts they are.” In other words, just as the poet steps into a killer’s shoes, she invites white readers to step into her black shoes.

Lorde’s poetic exercise forces her to look at a side of herself, and of her people, that resembles the oppressor. If she is honest, she can’t retreat into self-righteous rhetoric. Toni Morrison also rejects that retreat.

Before Lorde gets to her dark fantasy, however, she talks about another Black response. The one woman of color on the jury goes along with the verdict of not guilty, saying that the white jurors “convinced me”—which as Lorde observes, actually means,

they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had

As a result of her capitulation, this woman

lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children

What we see, in other words, is two ways in which people of color can disempower themselves: capitulate to white society or imitate its brutality. Rhetoric in the end won’t save them so Lorde turns to poetry to hold on to her dignity, her humanity, and her power:

unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire

Lorde has every right to be furious. She knows, however, that she can’t allow that anger to destroy her.

Here’s the poem:

By Audre Lorde

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children

I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

The Georgia defense attorneys are saying, “Notice the color,” and “What a beast Ahmaud Arbery was.” If the jury rises to the occasion and refuses to succumb to racist rhetoric, then we’ve progressed a little bit and poetic understanding stands more of a chance.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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