“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”
- Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” 1977
In the quote with which we begin, Lorde is talking about light, not as in some false dichotomy between light and dark as a proxy for good and bad as a proxy for white and black, but as in that which makes the world visible, or makes the world what it is in making it visible, and so is the thing capable of unmaking the world what it is, and making it something else. She argues that poetry, in its role as the quality of light which illuminates our world and gives us new language to describe new ways, can be the tool we use (as against the Master’s tools) to dismantle this world and find the words for another. Poetry, she writes later in the essay, “lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before” (38). The heart of poetry is there with what white patriarchal reason rejects — the the invisible, the unknown, the unbelievable, and it is there in the secret, latent but as yet unspoken knowledge in all of us, that all of those impossible, unknown, unbelievable things are true and more powerful than any weapon that could stand against them. When Lorde says poetry is not a luxury, she counters the idea that revolutions can happen without poems, without whole new ways of doing and speaking and knowing, and that poems aren’t lived and living things, capable of ending the world and bringing to light another.
Audre Lorde, Image credit: Flavorwire
When Denise Ferreira da Silva writes about a Black Feminist Poethics in her brilliant essay “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World,” this is the kind of poetry I think about, the kind of poetry I bet she’s thinking about. When she writes, “Toward the end of the World produced by the tools of reason, the Black Feminist Poet peers beyond the horizon of thought, where historicity (temporality/ interiority), framed by the tools of universal reason, cannot but yield violence” (84), it could be Lorde peering out, eyes intent in their search for new ways of knowing and being, past the restrictions of thought contained by linear time and white supremacist reason.
Da Silva explains that the Black Feminist Poet, or Poethicist perhaps, through an exploration of Blackness not as essential fact, but as an idea counter to white supremacy, would demand a type of decolonization that would stretch beyond white liberal fantasies where white domination could continue with a different mask, or even where the same power could transfer to different hands, if such a thing were possible with the kind of power that steals lives and lands in the first place. Instead, this decolonization would end this world, expose time for the construct to control bodies that it is, and in so doing liberate us from the categories an unfolding, linear time, a white supremacist time, makes possible. She writes, “When Blackness returns the Necessity of Time to the Subject, it recalls that the World and its Categories thrive in the contingency of Existence shared by the Subject of Whiteness and its Racial Others” (89).
Denise Ferreira da Silva, Image Credit: Arika
In this world after the Black Feminist Poet has exposed time for its role in white dominance and subjugation (if “after” even still signifies, which I suspect it won’t), showing time to be a “here” instead of a universal, a background, an everywhere, a given; in this world everything else will be opened up, everything will be embedded and entangled and simultaneous, rendering categories or genres used to control, more than irrelevant — impossible, unthinkable. What is so thrilling (or what more is so thrilling), as da Silva points out, is that this world described by da Silva fits the world as shown to us by quantum field theory, a world where matter is entangled and time is far from linear. Everything is and is becoming and connected to everything else. The significance of this is world-ending, and world-creating. Da Silva writes, “A Black Feminist Poethics become here in a World imaged as endless Poethics: that is, existence toward the beyond of Space-time, where The Thing resists dissolving any attempt to reduce what exists -- anyone and everything -- to the register of the object, the other, and the commodity” (91). The hierarchy that made this world of capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist control possible is not possible in a world where no one is object, other, or commodity under another’s human. Without that hierarchy, this world can not but cease to be, it can no longer sustain itself. The notion of “universal reason” that constructed and justified and naturalized that hierarchy for so long must be replaced, which is precisely what the Black Feminist Poet will do. Or as Lorde explains, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us -- the poet -- whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom” (38).
Perhaps it would be tempting to dismiss all this as too abstract (or too mystical, or fantastic, or irrational, a mere dream, etc), and so I would like to turn to three artists who I feel are just the Black Feminist Poets da Silva describes - the poet Sasha Banks, the painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and the rapper Princess Nokia (none of these artists’ practices are adequately described with the nouns I just listed, but more on their work later). First I would like to offer my own, small and initial though it may be, artistic contribution to da Silva’s project. To me this is not just an interesting idea - I want to help unmake this world and make another in all the ways I can.
Poem by Laura Henriksen. All video footage open source and free for personal and commercial use.
I was deeply moved by da Silva’s examination of time as a system of control, as another false limit set around people in an effort to contain their incredible power and strength. It made me think of a fictional hero of mine, Janie Starks, and the nonfiction hero who wrote her, Zora Neale Hurston, two women who absolutely could not be contained or controlled by even as the most pervasive, complete systems ever constructed smoothly operated with just such a project. Throughout the narrative of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s vision exceeds the limits of time and reason, leading to a conclusion where she is able to return home after her hero’s quest for freedom a champion, a Black woman who has seen God and defied death, and knows now the truth of the world. Hurston writes, “Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” (193). With this closing, we understand that existence exceeds the short time between birth and death, that feeling and thinking are just as real as seeing and knowing, that Janie’s soul still wanders and is still free, that the whole world and everything in it is at her fingertips forever.
I was inspired to write a poem about this view of horizons, the way they can expand and contract at our will, so that we do not have to afraid of them, or afraid of anything. I wrote about understanding “reality” and “existence” in a different way, where the limits around what it means to exist and be real have been erased, because all false borders and categories have been erased. I wrote about Zora Neale Hurston herself, her fearlessness, her brilliance, the world she saw and made possible. I wrote about love and care, which for me must always be central to create something worth believing in. Maybe love isn’t the answer, but, I think it is, just not any white supremacist love or patriarchal love or commodified love. Instead a love that blows like a hurricane, destroying what it must so that then a love can flow like honey, and cover everything, entangling every edge.
Zora Neale Hurston, Image: Library of Congress
To experiment with temporality and ephemerality, and thinking about Hurston’s work making salvage recordings for the WPA, but breaking every “objective” ethnographic rule by including her own voice, I recorded myself reading the poem, and played it over images that hinted at or mirrored the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God — trees for Janie’s awakening, birds for her flight for freedom, a storm for her struggles, and a clear sky for the peace she finds.
As a poet and artist, I promise no one in particular but also all the future world to continue attempting to make things and live in such a way that helps to make another world possible.
Da Silva, Denise Ferreira. “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World." The Black Scholar, Vol. 44, No. 2, 2014, pp. 81-97.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Harper Perennial, 2006.
Lorde, Audre. "Poetry Is Not A Luxury." Sister Outsider. 1982. Crossing Press, 2007.