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The Power of Words in Audre Lorde’s "A Litany for Survival"


A proud, self-described Black lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet, Audre Lorde dedicated her life and her art to eradicating the deep-rooted injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. For this, she is celebrated as one of the most revolutionary authorial voices in American literary history. In this article, we will delve into the analysis of her renowned poem, "A Litany for Survival" (1978), which has to be read as her poetic stand on the power of spoken words.

Before approaching this brilliant composition, it is crucial to introduce Audre Lorde's unique view on poetry as a means to re-claim a black feminist position in society and expose the intersectional violence inflicted upon black women in the United States (Gumbs, 2008). With an overview of her essay “Poetry is not a Luxury” (1985), in which she thoroughly tackles this issue, it will be possible to fully comprehend the profound message of empowerment conveyed in "A Litany for Survival."



Audre Lorde speaking at the first Third World Gay Conference in Washington, DC (Simmons, 1979).
Figure 1: Audre Lorde speaking at the first Third World Gay Conference in Washington, DC (Simmons, 1979).


Poetry Is Not a Luxury


Right from the beginning of her essay "Poetry is Not a Luxury" (1985), Lorde articulates her belief that poetry serves as a vital tool for making sense of life. The author refers to poetry as the “illumination” through which individuals name, and thus, recognize, those ideas that are present within themselves, that have already been felt but are until that moment “nameless and formless”. This usage of images of light emphasizes how poetry, according to Lorde, offers guidance to unravel and understand the turmoil of our experiences, emotions, thoughts, and those parts of ourselves we least understand and, therefore, most fear. Before the end of the first section, it is clear the connection that Lorde draws between life and poetry, the latter being a moment of deep introspection that can lead to a better understanding of one’s identity and surroundings. The beautiful words of Lorde reveal the significance that the poetic act holds within our lives (1985):

As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us (1).

Illustration of a child reading a book
Figure 2: Illustration for a children's book (Alemagna, 2018).

Poetry is described as a dynamic force, a poetic motion that originates from the depths of our beings and blossoms outward. In this poignant passage of her essay, Audre Lorde eloquently expresses that poetry serves as the key to understanding and conquering our fears. Therefore, it becomes a ‘place of possibility’ where individuals can grow and survive.

In the following sections, it is evident that the author's focus is shifted from addressing a general audience to directly speaking to her Black sisters. These women, who she also makes clear are doubly marginalized by both sex and race, very often find their voices erased, silenced, or ignored. At this point, Lorde elucidates why poetry is not a luxury (Lorde, 1985), especially for queer Black women but, on the contrary, it is a powerful catalyst for igniting change and accomplishing tangible goals (Rowell, 2000):

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the 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. (1)

Photo of Audrey Lorde next to a blackboard that reads: "Women are powerful and dangerous"
Figure 3: Photo of Audre Lorde in 1983 (Alexander, 1983/Getty Images).

In this extract, Lorde stresses how poetry, especially for non-white women, could potentially establish their agency in reshaping cultural norms, while simultaneously challenging the existing power structures that have denigrated and alienated their experiences for so long. Lorde's unique perspective stems from the recognition that white supremacist ideology, deeply rooted in the current system, renders Black individuals, particularly Black women, invisible. Therefore, she urges Black women to wield the power of the pen and narrate their own stories, as failing to do so can allow others to keep dictating and distorting their choices (Hammond, 1980). Lorde maintains that self-naming and self-definition are crucial since relying on the world to define oneself often leads to disadvantageous outcomes. In the essay (1985), the author re-iterates:

We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. (1)

In this conclusive passage, Audre Lorde shares her view on poetry as more than "dreams" or "visions"—it is the foundation of our existence, and as such, it has the power to forge a new language, leading –ultimately– to the establishment of a transformed social order (Rudnitsky, 2003). Moreover, it becomes, particularly for Black women, a means to overcome fears, a space of resistance, that can turn spoken words into concrete action.



The Poem's Analysis

"A Litany for Survival"

​For Those of us who live at the shoreline standing upon the constant edges of decision crucial and alone for those of us who cannot indulge the passing dreams of choice who love in doorways coming and going in the hours between dawns looking inward and outward at once before and after seeking a now that can breed futures like bread in our children’s mouths so their dreams will not reflect the death of ours; For those of us who were imprinted with fear like a faint line in the center of our foreheads learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk for by this weapon this illusion of some safety to be found the heavy-footed hoped to silence us For all of us this instant and this triumph We were never meant to survive. And when the sun rises we are afraid it might not remain when the sun sets we are afraid it might not rise in the morning when our stomachs are full we are afraid of indigestion when our stomachs are empty we are afraid we may never eat again when we are loved we are afraid love will vanish when we are alone we are afraid love will never return and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.


To delve into the profound message of "A Litany for Survival", we must examine its title, through which the author hints at the poem's main purpose. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a litany as a traditional prayer of supplication, often involving a main speaker engaging in dialogue with a congregation of petitioners. In this composition, it is clear that the unknown narrator assumes the role of the preacher, summoning people to embrace survival by speaking up (Igwedibia, 2018). Given that this style of poetic expression often features repetitive formulas and rhythmic patterns, the multiple appearances of the phrase "for those of us" underscores the religious nature of the moment while also situating the narrator within the community of marginalized individuals being addressed. The narrating voice commences the litany by empathizing with the loss and uncertainty experienced by the people “who live at the shoreline”, in other words, those marginalized due to systemic oppression and discrimination. The narrator intimately comprehends the struggles faced by those individuals, who are inhumanly discarded by a system that fails to provide security for neither their present nor their future, and thus, share the same profound desire to ensure that their children’s dreams, to cite the poem, “will not reflect the death of theirs”. This paints a stark picture of the United States, the land of the American Dream, where equal opportunities are purportedly available to all. At the same time, the reality reveals exclusionary systems and oppressive forces rooted in racism, classism, and patriarchy at the expense of Black and Brown communities who are, as a result, prevented from accessing a particular set of privileges compared to their white counterparts. This is illustrated in the third stanza, where the narrator exposes the psychological effects of marginalization by writing that even with their stomachs full, with love in their lives, and with the pseudo certainty of the present, the fear of the future keeps Black and Brown communities in a constant state of mental, physical and, oftentimes, financial instability.



Illustration of several women by Ejaita
Figure 4: Illustration by the renowned Italian-Nigerian artist, Diana Ejaita (2020).

By the second stanza, the author boldly exposes the oppressive "heavy-footed" system as the suppressor of these marginalized voices, revealing its lack of interest in these people’s survival. Despite reaching the darkest point in the poem, where the realization dawns that the system never desired for Black and Brown to survive in the first place, Audre Lorde skillfully transforms this annihilating truth into a moment of triumph. The phrase "we were never meant to survive" is the very catalyst for expressing their voices and embracing self-pride. In this context, Audre argues that if her community is standing on the very edge of the world, they need not fear and should instead choose to speak out, for silence holds far more significant disadvantages. The fear that once prevented Audre from finding her voice is now defied, as the power of words becomes the ultimate tool for her liberation and empowerment, probably hinting at what Audre wishes for her people, particularly her Black sisters, to achieve. The third and final stanza, although the shortest, is by far the most powerful of the entire poem because, as Igwedibia (2018) explains in her essay “Audre Lorde’s Poems 'A Woman Speaks' and 'A Litany for Survival' towards a Gricean Theoretical Reading”: “[it allows] the readers discover and the petitioners remember that the power being summoned lies within themselves in their own communal voice” (6). In this final moment of prayer, people from different marginalized communities find solace in this sacred moment of gathering while the preacher speaks out the final statement: “It is better to speak Remembering / we were never meant to survive”.



Conclusion


This article shed light on Audre Lorde’s unique perspective regarding poetry as a means of self-expression and resistance. In the first part, we observed how she views poetry as a tool to illuminate and name the most complex ideas and emotions within individuals, providing a deeper understanding of oneself and the world. In her essay, Lorde emphasizes that poetry is not a luxury but a vital necessity, especially for Black women, as it empowers them to reshape cultural norms and challenge existing power structures. The second section of the article proposes the poem "A Litany for Survival" as an exemplification of Lorde's message of empowerment through words. The poem conveys the struggles faced by marginalized individuals who live at the shoreline of society, constantly subjected to uncertainty and fear, and exposes the oppressive system that never intended for their survival. Nevertheless, Lorde masterfully transforms this realization into a moment of triumph, urging individuals to speak up and refuse to be silenced. She emphasizes that remaining silent only perpetuates fear while speaking up becomes an act of resistance and a catalyst for change. The poem's concluding stanza holds immense power as it emphasizes the communal voice and agency of Black and Brown folks. It calls upon individuals to remember that –according to white suprematist ideology– they were never meant to survive, but by speaking up, they are actively reclaiming their power and defying the oppressive forces that seek to silence them. Overall, "A Litany for Survival" continues to resonate as a testament to the enduring spirit and strength of marginalized communities in their struggle for self-affirmation.


Bibliography

Gumbs, P. A. (2008). “The Life of A Poem: Audre Lorde's ‘Litany for Survival’ in Post-Lacrosse Durham”. Reflections Journal, 8(1), 84–102. Retrieved from: https://reflectionsjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/V8.N1.Gumbs_.Alexis.pdf


Hammond, K., & Lorde, A. (1980). An Interview with Audre Lorde. The American Poetry Review, 9(2), 18–21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27776388


Igwedibia, A. (2018). Audre Lorde’s Poems “A Woman Speaks” and “A Litany for Survival” towards a Gricean Theoretical Reading. Arts and Social Sciences Journal, 9(325), 1–7. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4172/2151-6200.1000325


Lorde, A. (1978). A Litany for Survival. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Retrieved from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/147275/a-litany-for-survival


Lorde, A. (1985). Poetry Is Not a Luxury. Retrieved from: https://makinglearning.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/poetry-is-not-a-luxury-audre-lorde.pdf


Rowell,C.H.,&Lorde,A.(2000).AbovetheWind:AnInterviewwithAudreLorde.Callaloo,23(1),52–63.http://www.jstor.org/stable/3299518


Rudnitsky, L. (2003). The “Power” and “Sequelae” of Audre Lorde’s Syntactical Strategies. Callaloo, 26(2), 473–485. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3300873



Visual Sources

Cover Image: Smith, T. K. (2020). How Audre Lorde’s Experience of Breast Cancer Fortified Her Revolutionary Politics [Lorde's Photo]. Literary Hub Website ["Excerpted from The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Classics. Foreword copyright © 2020 by Tracy K. Smith"]. Retrieved from: https://lithub.com/how-audre-lordes-experience-of-breast-cancer-fortified-her-revolutionary-politics/


Figure 1: Simmons, R. (1979). The Ron Simmons Photography Collection. [Photo]. Copyright: © Ron Simmons. Retrieved from: https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_TA2019.38.1.1.1.11


Figure 2: Alemagna, B. (2018). In Gopnik, A (2018). Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.themarginalian.org/2018/11/20/a-velocity-of-being-letters-to-a-young-reader/


Figure 3: Alexander, R (1983). [Photo of Audre Lorde in Front of a Blackboard,1983]. Copyright: © Getty Images Retrieved from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/audre-lorde


Figure 4: Ejaita, D. (2020). [Illustration]. In Jackson, N. A Litany for Survival: Giving Birth As A Black Woman in America. Harper's Magazine. Retrieved from: https://harpers.org/archive/2020/09/a-litany-for-survival-black-maternal-mortality/


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