The Thematic Efficacy of Well-woven Contrast in Audre Lorde’s From a Land Where Other People Live

Cynthia Sharp

Reviewed by Cynthia Sharp



An original review of American activist poet Audre Lorde’s early work From a Land Where Other People Live with an analysis of how her poetic style illumines her themes of anti-racism and heartbreak. The paper explores how the poet’s skilled use of devices like diction and contrast evoke emotion with a careful study of “Who Said It Was Simple,” a key poem in the collection.



          First published in 1973, Audre Lorde’s From a Land Where Other People Live from Broadside Press was a finalist for the 1974 National Book Awards for Poetry, arguably her most powerful verse. Lorde is one of my all time favourite writers for her wisdom and vision cast within a spellbinding, imaginative scope, uniting contrast in possibility. Even in their most painful epiphanies, personally and politically, her poems leave readers with a ray of optimism. “Movement Song,” addresses the heartache of pinpointing where a relationship ends, “moving away from me into tomorrows,” away from union with a dream of chosen love filled with wish and ripen,” to “blood and bone” of a relationship not working, quickly dissipating to separate paths, yet ends on “morning,” a near homonym for “mourning,” but also the start of a new day. Lorde continues to explore and feel closed doors through the eyes of her young son in poems like “As I Grow up Again,” bringing the reader into the emotional pain of the subject and narrator, yet filling us with empathy for the importance of creating a just and compassionate society capable of complexity. Even through her poetic memoir of the isolation of black women in the second wave of feminism, Lorde has us yearning to reach out and receive her promise of hope waiting in the wings, an inclusive future closer in reach each decade, if we’re willing to advocate for it.

          I focused on the poem that struck me the most in this collection, “Who Said It Was Simple,” a profound analysis of the hypocrisy of white feminism and a step toward initiating anti-racism as a necessary component of later evolutions of feminisms. Lorde begins the poem with an acknowledgement that its not simple, an opening question without a question mark, a simple truth, that advancing from a position of solidarity in human rights in the intersection of race, class, gender and orientation is going to take work, especially in a movement that is only aware of sexism and exploitation as it affects white women. Choked anger and intertwining branches of oppression mark the first lines. “There are so many roots to the tree of anger/ that sometimes the branches shatter/ before they bear,” the lacuna of extinguished black experience a gravity of loss in contrast with vocal excitement of white feminists preparing to march through American streets of the seventies.

          Lorde opens the second stanza with class privilege, “…the women rally before they march/ discussing the problematic girls/ they hire to make them free,” the sense of entitlement not only to service from someone with less, but an assumption that service comes with the right to complain about people working for them, potential agism and/or racism mixed into classism, the entire paradigm on which patriarchal capitalism is built trickling into the structure of the feminist movement, that those with money and time, privileged white women, define the agenda, that it’s white freedom from patriarchal men as the primary goal without any mirrors to its infiltration in relations between women of different classes or colours. The feminist movement surrounding the narrator wants for white women what white men have, what has been built on the backs of slavery, and the narrator sits silently contemplating the irony of asking black women to help achieve it, her dubious silence in juxtaposition to the animated chatter from the women at the counter.

          The poem moves on to the ignorance of the women discussing their freedom in the burger shop before the march to not notice or feel uncomfortable by the residue of slavery in the continued oppression of blacks, a “waiting brother” giving way to a man who can pass as white, a play on the word “waiter” and the long wait for true equality. The paradigms of residual slavery and racism are common, yet the feminists at the counter being served food don’t even see the suffering and mistreatment of the workers, the structures of oppression, the hierarchy of race within the hierarchy of class. They don’t see those they should be in solidarity with as they carve their plan for their own equality. Class and race privilege go unnoticed in the push for gender equity. Like the brother in the shadows, patiently, the narrator waits, is still in the room, a sign of hope that feminisms may open to embrace deeper equality, to move in the direction of real liberation for all.

          The middle stanza ends with a return to the narrator looking inward. I who am bound by my mirror as well as my bed…sit here wondering/ which me will survive/ all these liberations,” the irony of diction like “survive” next to “liberations,” both a hint of hope that she intends to survive the racism and classism in the feminism around her, along with a solemn recognition of her invisibility in the program, the paradox of being black, seen and unseen on others’ terms, a profound and powerful finish to a testimony of attempting to survive heteronormative white women’s liberation as a black woman and a lesbian, this poem dealing specifically with racism, though Lorde’s overall body of work speaks to many silences. The narrator’s observations address the ignorance of being considered a servant class in a liberation movement, the slavery history that’s rarely if ever acknowledged in white feminist texts of the time, the irony of the most privileged among those who were not white able bodied men using the same systems of oppression to liberate only themselves, inviting everyone else along in a service role to fight for white women’s rights with the promise if anything of a trickle down effect, assuming the narrator’s participation in a subservient manner, a follower rather than an agenda setter. Patiently, the narrator waits, a sign of hope that feminisms may open to embrace deeper equality, to continue to move in the direction of real liberation for all, hope in the face of unjust complexity.

          Lorde is a master of contrast with diction like “ladies” for the privileged white women preparing to march and “waiting brother” for the agony of all the years of residual slavery for the most black waiter in the background. Waiting…for rights, decency, equality. Waiting, out of sight, the play on the word “waiting” as both service and invisible decades of patience for America to fulfill its promise of freedom and equality. She writes in an accessible way, marking details, observing a scene, yet turns the irony of the images into a plea for action through point of view. Its clean, polished work that invites readers to infer painful truths. How long has the narrator sat wondering? How long have black feminists sat in bewilderment pondering if there will ever be solidarity in the feminist movement for anti-racism? If feminism will ever become a vehicle for real structural change around racial and class oppression? Fifty years later theyre still waiting, exhausted in the wings with the burden of teaching those who claim to be advancing emancipation.

          While the mirror in the poem is primarily a metaphor for colour, I like to treat it as a leaping off point to hold up a mirror to ourselves, as Lorde leads by quiet example, to see the ineptitude and oppression in early feminisms expecting racially oppressed women to rally for white womens equality to white men without any regard for class privilege, or desire to see or change those injustices. We are offered a mirror to see ourselves and movements accurately and do better.

Lorde, Audre. From A Land Where Other People Live. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1973. Book.


Bio: Cynthia Sharp holds an MFA in creative writing and an Honours BA in literature. She was the WIN Vancouver 2022 Poet Laureate, one of the Pandoras Collective 2020 Poetry Contest Judges, and the City of Richmond, British Columbias 2019 Writer in Residence. Her poetry, reviews and creative nonfiction have been published and broadcast internationally in journals such as CV2, Prism, Quills, Pocket Lint, The Pitkin Review and untethered. Her collections Ordinary Light and Rainforest in Russet are available in bookstores and libraries throughout the world.

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