By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Woman Speaks’ is a poem by the African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-92), published in her 1978 collection The Black Unicorn. Lorde was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’ In the poem, a Black woman addresses society and warns that she has not forgotten the powerful magic of her African ancestors, nor the fury she feels about society’s failure to deliver on its promise of a better future for women of colour.
You can read ‘A Woman Speaks’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Lorde’s poem below. The poem takes around one minute to read.
‘A Woman Speaks’: summary
Lorde’s poem comprises three stanzas. In the first stanza, Lorde’s speaker (whom the title identifies only as ‘a woman’) celebrates the ‘magic’ of her being, which leaves its mark on the world but has not been immortalised in poetry. She likens this mark she leaves on the world to the shape or imprint of a body that is left in the sand when the tide goes out.
She tells us that she is not after any favours from anyone unless they are sincerely offered with the same fervent passion (with ‘blood’ suggesting a violent passion or willingness to defend) as love, or as never-ending as her own errors or her sense of pride in herself. Here, you’ll note, she both praises her ego and acknowledges that she, like everyone, is human and makes mistakes.
Her love, she tells us towards the end of the first stanza, is not tempered or diluted by pity, and her hatred is pure, untainted with contempt for others. If we wish to know who she really is, we need to look into the insides or guts of Uranus, the classical god. In other words, she suggests that her true self is as visceral as the turbulent innards of a heavenly god.
The second stanza, however, urges us to look beyond the circumstances of her birth, or her divine power, to locate her true, authentic self. Like a goddess, she is unageing and still only halfway towards being fully grown and mature.
She is still looking for those women who live in Dahomey, part of West Africa, whom she identifies as her kin: women who practise African witchcraft and symbolically wear her within their garments as their mother carried them within her mourning clothes.
In the poem’s third and final stanza, Lorde’s speaker proclaims that she has been a woman for a long while, and we should not be fooled by her smile into thinking she is harmless or trustworthy: she is deceitful, carrying the ‘old magic’ associated with the African witches she mentioned in the previous stanza.
Indeed, she is possessed by a mounting fury or anger at the empty statements society makes about the promise of a better future for women like her. And, as she reveals at the end of the poem, she is a woman of colour.
‘A Woman Speaks’: analysis
Perhaps of all of Audre Lorde’s poems, ‘A Woman Speaks’ most powerfully articulates the need for what is now called intersectional feminism. For as the last line of Lorde’s poem makes clear, this is not just any woman who is speaking: specifically, it is a Black woman, whose experiences and challenges are different from those faced by many white women in America.
This is a point which Lorde had also made in her 1977 essay ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’, in which she views poetry as an essential component of women’s struggle to liberate themselves from patriarchal oppression and control.
But she also makes it clear that she specifically has Black women in mind: words and phrases like ‘noneuropean’ (which appear to call back to the African heritage of African-American women in the modern United States) and ‘Black mother’ indicate that, for Lorde, poetry is especially valuable to women of colour who are facing racial as well as patriarchal oppression.
This is why the references to ‘magic’, ‘witches’, and ‘Dahomey’ in ‘A Woman Speaks’ are so significant in what they symbolise. They divert from the usual images of (white) femininity – the bounteous and life-giving mother, the supportive wife, the nurturing female – in favour of offering something which is alien to many white American women’s experiences. It is also, of course, potentially destructive rather than life-giving, as the warning in the final stanza suggests.
Dahomey, we should note, was the old name for a kingdom in West Africa: the ancestral homeland of Lorde’s ancestors and the many other descendants of Black slaves in America. One of the chief reasons Lord and other women of colour are so marginalised in modern America can be traced back to the history of slavery in the Americas and the power imbalance that remains as a legacy of those times.
Again, this makes ‘A Woman Speaks’ an interesting poem to analyse alongside ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’, which argues for a turn (or return) to older, ancient forms of wisdom which precede the more recent European-influenced approaches to womanhood and femininity. The ‘magic’ of Black femininity is ‘unwritten’ not just because there have been so few Black female writers prior to Lorde’s generation (although that is not to say there were none at all, of course), but because their identity has been ignored by other (namely, white) writers, too.
‘A Woman Speaks’ is a visceral poem – literally visceral, when it refers to the ‘entrails’ of the god Uranus – and part of its power derives from Lorde’s choice of form. Like the majority of her poems, it is written in free verse, with irregular line lengths, no rhyme, and no regular metre. This is especially suitable for a poem in which the titular woman speaks to us, with the natural rhythms and free-flowing structure of the poem giving her words an immediacy and raw power.
But this is not to suggest that the poem, because it is written in free verse, is devoid of structure or control. Enjambment plays an especially crucial role: the run-on lines force us to read on as things are slowly revealed to us, connections between disparate things.
This happens when the speaker is gradually outlining her affinity with the ‘witches’ in Dahomey, but is perhaps most effectively deployed in the poem’s final three lines. Imagine ‘I am a woman and not white’ being arranged onto a single line rather than across three and you can see how the import of those final three words would easily be lost.