Drawing Strength from Our Mothers: Tapping the Roots of Black Women’s History

  • Cassie Premo Steele


In an essay from 1984, Lorde asks Afro-German women to ask themselves, “How can I draw strength from my roots when these roots are entwined in such a terrible history?”1 Lorde’s own writings can be read as an answer to this very question. In this chapter, I will continue to analyze the historical and conceptual splits between spirituality and sexuality in Western culture that we saw addressed in Sexton’s poetry. I will show how Lorde’s writing responds to and attempts to heal this split through the “erotic as power,” which she treats in theory and narrative form, as well as throughout her poetry. By comparing the non-fiction writings of black women on spirituality and sexuality with Lorde’s treatment of these themes in her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” and in her narrative, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, we will see how Lorde both arises from and reacts to the tradition of black women’s thought. Further, by healing this split between sexuality and spirituality, Lorde shows how history may be turned from a problem into a solution.


Black Woman Sexual Trauma Itual Root Final Scene Black Feminist 
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  1. 1.
    From Lorde’s Forward to Showing Our True Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, ed. May Opitz and Katharina Oguntoye, trans. Anne V. Adams (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992): viii.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Black Feminist Thought (New York: Roudedge, 1990), pp. 72 and 78. See also K. Sue Jewell, From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond: Cultural Images and the Shaping of U.S. Social Policy (New York: Roudedge, 1993).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    The first quote is from Collins, p. 77; the second is from Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 15.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Beverly Guy-Sheftall, “The History of Black Women’s Liberation,” Lecture, September 7, 1994, Emory University, Adanta, Georgia. See also Guy-Sheftall, ed. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought (New York: The New Press, 1995), pp. 3–4.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The speech can be found in Maria S. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer, Essays and Speeches, ed. with Intro. Marilyn Richardson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987): 65–74.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The speech has been anthologized many times, including in Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing, ed. with Intro. Deirdre Mullane (New York: Anchor Books, 1993): 186.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    From Major Speeches by Negroes in the U.S., 1797–1971, ed. Eric Foner (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972): 345–346. Reprinted in Words of Fire, pages 37–38, p. 38.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Black Women’s Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), p. 73.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Fannie Barrier Williams, “The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation,” World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewell (Chicago, 1893): 696–711.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981), p. 166. Biographical information is from Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Words of Fire, p. 43.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988): 48–79, p. 59.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Barbara Smiths essay is discussed in chapter two. Lorde’s essay was originally published as a pamphlet by Out & Out Books, reprinted in Sister/Outsider (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984): 53–59; cited as Erotic. Although this is the first complete essay Lorde writes on the subject, the theme can be seen in her work from the beginning. In an interview on April 23, 1976, she says of her first volume of poetry, New York Head Shop and Museum, “I have gotten a lot of really weird reviews and I think this happens whenever you have poetry that has a lot of juice, that has the erotic in it, you are going to have people react not only to the poetry but to their own fear of their own feelings” (18, italics mine). From an interview with Deborah Wood from In the Memory and Spirit of Francis, Zora, and Lorraine: Essays and Interviews on Black Women and Writing, ed. Juliette Bowles (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Arts and the Humanities, Howard University, 1979): 11–22.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Lorde is credited with being the major influence on the theology of the erotic by Anne Bathurt Gilson in Eros Breaking Free: Interpreting Sexual Theo-Ethics (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1995), esp. pp. 66–68. Lorde’s theory of the erotic has also influenced the work of many black lesbian writers; see Afrekete: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Writing, eds. Catherine E. McKinley and L. Joyce Delaney (New York: Doubleday, 1995).Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    The Cancer Journals (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1980); cited as Cancer. The Black Unicorn (New York: Norton, 1978); cited as BU Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (San Francisco, The Crossing Press, 1982); cited as Zami. “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger” in Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984): 145–175; cited as Eye.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    Similarly to Keating (see note above), Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez contrasts the “disappointment and even anger with their biological mothers” that both Lorde and Anzaldúa express with the “idealized images they present of the mother-goddesses who serve as role models for their independent, emergent sense of self.” As my readings make clear, I want to trace the sources of these “mother-goddesses” in the writers’ personal as well as cultural biographies. See “Mothering the Self: Writing the Lesbian Sublime in Audre Lorde’s Zami and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera,” in Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color, ed. Sandra Kumamoto Stanley (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998): 244–62, p. 246.Google Scholar

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© Cassie Premo Steele 2000

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  • Cassie Premo Steele

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