“My eyes are always hungry and remembering”: Audre Lorde and the Poetry of Witness

  • Cassie Premo Steele


In the previous chapter, we saw how Anne Sexton was unable to witness because she had no one with whom she could witness.1 Now we turn to the work of Audre Lorde, for whom such witnessing and rebuilding of intersubjective relations were possible. The difference in social and historical contexts is striking as we turn to Lorde’s life and work, approximately a decade after Sexton’s suicide. We will see that in Lorde’s lifetime she had friends, lovers, and a society who were able to be listeners to her witnessing.2 In this chapter, we will explore the process of witnessing more thoroughly and show how Lorde overcomes the legacy of silence through witnessing. Lorde deals with the personal and collective effects of trauma in several ways. As we have seen, her work remembers and reconstructs her own painful history and, in so doing, recalls and responds to the history of African Americans. In the first section of this chapter, we will look at how Lorde’s poetry is a call to witness an unrecognized traumatic history. In the next section, we will examine how her poetry itself witnesses to this history, and in so doing, opens the way to the possibility of mutual recognition between all the players in this history.


White Woman Male Dominance Traumatic Memory Female Victimization Painful History 
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  1. 1.
    The quote in the chapter title is from Audre Lorde’s poem, “A Litany for Survival,” in The Black Unicorn (New York: Norton, 1978): 31–32, which we will examine in this chapter. The term, “poetry of witness,” is used by Adrienne Rich in an interview with Matthew Rothschild in which Rich pays tribute to Lorde. See The Progressive (January 1994): 31–35, p. 31.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    These insights are from the interview with Adrienne Rich in Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984): 81–109, especially p. 82.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Michael A. Simpson, “Bitter Waters: Effects on Children of the Stresses of Unrest and Oppression,” International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes, ed. John P. Wilson and Beverley Raphael (New York: Plenum Press, 1993): 601–624, p. 610.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 7.
    The poem is in Lorde, Chosen Poems: Old and New (New York: Norton, 1982): 79–80.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    The frequently anthologized poem, “Harlem,” can be found in many places, including Six American Poets, ed. Joel Conarroe (New York: Random House, 1991): 257.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    The following summary has been gathered from these sources: Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), pp. 257–258; Lerone Bennett, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 6th ed. (New York, Penguin, 1988), pp. 377, 553; Michael Dyson, “Remembering Emmett Till,” Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993): 194–198, p. 195.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    The idea of “false witnessing” is put forth by Robert Jay Lifton in an interview with Cathy Caruth, in which Lifton says that false witnessing is a process by which “we reassert our own vitality and symbolic immortality by denying them their right to live and by identifying them with the death taint, by designating them as victims. So we live off them.” See Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995): 128–147, p. 139.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    Ana Louise Keating remarks that “Lorde’s ‘we’ is performative” in Women Reading/Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), p. 49.Google Scholar

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© Cassie Premo Steele 2000

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  • Cassie Premo Steele

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