Expanding the Limited Self: Restructuring and Redefining Expression in Lorde’s “Coal” and “Black Mother Woman”

Ann Magner

Oklahoma Christian University

UReCA: The NCHC Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity 2020 Edition

Expanding the Limited Self: Restructuring and Redefining Expression in Lorde’s “Coal” and “Black Mother Woman”


A multitude of political and social tensions divided majority and minority groups during the American post-Civil Rights era of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Non-dominant racial, sexual, and ethnic groups experienced both systemic and systematic oppression from the customs and practices of traditional culture. Among other limiting components of dominant society, conventional writing styles and structures failed to provide an accessible means of expression for societal “outsiders.” To critique this lack of accessible expression, many poets experimented with language and narrative structures, critiquing the limitations of language in expressing diversity and truth. Writer, professor, and social rights advocate Audre Lorde exemplifies this repurposing of language in her free verse poetry. As Lorde identified herself as a “Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two … and a member of an interracial couple” (Delsandro 114), Lorde’s experiences of identity and intersectionality greatly influenced the content of her writing. Furthermore, during her childhood and adolescence, Lorde endured a range of traumatic events, from oppression and silencing at home and school, to the loss of a close friend to suicide during her teenage years. While these traumatic experiences provided fuel for the heavy content of Lorde’s poetry, Lorde also sought out healing in her adult life, using poetry to manifest her experiences of questioning, discovering, and assembling her multifaceted identity. Employing postmodern techniques throughout “Coal” and “Black Mother Woman,” Lorde problematizes simplistic ideas about identity by revealing the complicated origins of selfhood.

Many scholars discuss how Lorde explores identity through anger and eroticism. Lorde’s use of these intense affects in her writing displays an intentional break from conventional means of expression. Roderick Ferguson describes Lorde’s writing methods as “a rehabilitation of the senses for the purposes of revolutionary change” (Ferguson 295). Lorde’s writing disorients readers from the comfort of polite emotions and immerses them in the passionate, motivating energies of anger and eroticism. For Lorde, this “rehabilitation of the senses” allows her to deconstruct restricting gender, racial, and political ideals. Anger builds rebellion while eroticism builds passion, and together these two energies drive a “revolutionary” message of new identity and rediscovered origins. Regarding eroticism in Lorde’s poetry, Laura Grattan claims, “By attuning us to the erotic, rather than claiming high ground above it, poetry sustains the tension between ‘the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings’” (Grattan 50). Erotic energy envelops a force which contains the most intimate aspects of humanity, specifically those of origin and deep, unspoken desire. In using this intimate energy, Lorde examines and defines the tensions between selfhood and emotion. By uniting eroticism with the search for identity, selfhood gains greater autonomy in the liberation of intimacy. Mark Tschaepe observes Lorde’s use of anger for societal influence: “Anger is a tool that has been used for survival, and Lorde suggests continuing to use it for survival through unapologetic and cultivated habit” (Tschaepe 98). Historically, anger has aided humanity in surviving and maintaining life: it increases strength and heightens perception in high-stakes situations. In a social context, the use of these powerful emotions requires practice and refinement to effectively express cultural or emotional needs. Furthermore, considering anger’s roots as an instinctual emotion, Lorde’s use of anger suggests a return to the basest, most natural human emotion. To encounter identity, her readers must first encounter the raw human instincts of eroticism and anger. 

While many scholars advocate for the use of anger and eroticism in Lorde’s work, others question the natural violence of anger and its potential threat for identity construction. Shiloh Whitney studies anger’s potentially “poisonous” nature: “Lorde analyzes her own anger as the metabolic by-product of being ‘force-fed’ racist hatred. … Learning to digest this affective by-product can be powerful, but it is isolating; it risks damaging one’s power to connect with particular others” (Whitney 287-288). Whitney examines the harmful, hate-filled origins of Lorde’s “fuel.” Although she acknowledges the benefits of harnessing this energy, she also discusses anger’s potential to cause greater harm and isolation, an isolation which could inhibit Lorde’s mission to build an all-inclusive community. Yet, Lorde’s insistence on the power of anger suggests individuals cannot choose the origins of their identity. The self is a collection of all experiences; thus, all experiences, even hate-filled, racist origins, must be acknowledged. Maria Davidson defends Lorde’s use of anger: “For Lorde, anger is not simply a negative or destructive feeling. It can also be instructive” (Davidson 96). Anger often denotes counterproductivity or irrationality. However, when oppressed individuals mindfully evaluate their experiences of anger, this evaluation can expose inborn rights and sources of injustice. Thoughtful anger produces a clearer concept of the self. Thus, selfhood develops from a multitude of complex emotions and experiences, none of which should be ignored. Lorde’s bold incorporation of anger and eroticism into her proclaimed methods of connection and self-realization deconstruct shallow understandings of identity, promoting a more holistic approach to selfhood.

In addition to studying Lorde’s use of affects, scholars analyze how Lorde reconstructs syntaxes and word connotations to better access the complex origins of identity. According to Lexi Rudnitsky, Lorde chose poetry as her preferred form of expression “because she believed that poetry alone had the ability to create a new language, which would, in turn, make possible a new social order” (Rudnitsky 473). Dominant language conventions constrained the complete expression of Lorde’s experiences as an “outsider” in typical societal expectations. Instead, Lorde turned to postmodern techniques such as fragmentation and disorienting sentence structures to more fully express and question identity. Regarding this relationship between identity and language, Megan Obourn claims, “each minoritarian positionality that she inhabits possesses its own ‘language’ of representation which includes vocabularies and syntaxes which do not necessarily fit with each other” (Obourn 234). Lorde’s manipulation of language reflects her complex experience of intersectionality, speaking both to the independence and interconnectivity of her many identity positions. Each of Lorde’s positions creates challenges and experiences unique to each identity, thus requiring varying connotations and sentence structures as Lorde lives through each position both separately and together. These myriad languages reflect the inherent complexity of human expression given the immeasurable nature of human identity and experience. In addition to constructing these layered methods of self-expression, Lester Olson states, “Paradoxically, by scrutinizing some liabilities that language may pose for members of subordinated communities, Lorde’s speech enacts specific and often subtle means for reclaiming language, exemplified by ‘difference’” (Olson 448). By reordering language structures, Lorde not only expresses her own experiences of identity, but she also gives societal “outsiders” access to a more inclusive form of expression. Within her layered, linguistically innovative works, Lorde both exposes and breaks the limitations of language, devising a more open dialogue regarding the nuance of identity and expression. Lorde’s radical reconstruction of definitions and syntaxes combine with subversive image patterns to redefine the boundaries and sources of self-definition. 

In her poem “Coal,” Lorde problematizes perspective to explore how contradiction plagues identity expression. Although the poem begins with “I” (Lorde, line 1), a pronoun which dictates unity within the self, the speaker refuses to continue within this unified frame, stating, “I / Is the total black” (1-2). The contradicting subject and verb form of these two lines jolts the reader from a first-person perspective into an objective, outside perspective of the speaker’s identity. These juxtaposed perspectives pose a problem for identity expression: the speaker cannot express her identity without claiming her existence as “I,” yet she seeks an objective definition of self obstructed by the inevitable subjectivity of human perception. The impossible statement “I / Is the total black” invokes the futility of containing identity within precise definitions. Yet although a concrete self seems impossible within this conflicting perspective, the speaker’s use of an objective verb form also invites readers to define themselves and others as the “I” of the poem. The speaker implores the reader to claim agency and charges the reader to give agency to others. In building community, individuals must objectively restore access to “I” to all people. Within impossible expression, Lorde reaches not only for a more complete selfhood but also for a more outwardly recognized selfhood. Regarding Lorde’s inclusive language and Lorde’s experiences of intersectionality, Sharon Barnes claims Lorde’s writings “propose that difference and the conflicts it engenders must be reconfigured as a source of opportunity for mutual empowerment rather than as inhibitors of connection” (Barnes 51). By inviting readers to explore identity objectively, Lorde seeks to resolve the divisive fears often experienced by people of differing origins. She endorses a community which validates inexpressible diversity via the expression of disparate yet complementary viewpoints. Lorde’s communally focused language suggests that individual realization must stem from both within and without. Human identity, while something entirely personal, also depends entirely on its communal source, for accepted expression as well as identity formation.

The poem further dismantles notions of selfhood in postmodern techniques of fragmentation. Within the poem’s contemplation of identity, the speaker expresses internal frustration: “Then there are words like stapled wagers / In a perforated book—buy and sign and tear apart— / And come whatever wills all chances / The stub remains / An ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge” (11-15). Both the word choice and the structure in this passage denote experiences of inward fragmentation and violence. Concerning structural fragmentation, “—buy and sign and tear apart—” interrupts the flow of the passage, disorienting the reader from the original subject. Furthermore, this aggressive accumulation of violent phrases seemingly attacks the reader, creating a difficult syntax alongside traumatic imagery. Phrases such as “perforated,” “tear,” and “ill-pulled tooth” force the reader to engage the “I’s” experiences of suffering and separation.  Someone or something toxic, outside of the speaker, has begun to define the speaker with “words like stapled wagers,” causing the speaker to lose track entirely of the subject—herself—and stumble into a rambling expression of a broken, tortured self. Within this fragmentation, selfhood becomes viciously mangled; words of trauma and fear construct self-expression and the speaker loses herself. Regarding Lorde’s use of postmodern techniques, Obourn claims Lorde manipulated formal structures to “represent states of psychic disorder and confusion, and an inability to express ultimate ‘Truths’” (Obourn 231). Fragmentation, both in sentence structure and imagery, clutters the speaker’s portrayal of identity with fearful chaos, portraying an unrecognizable experience of fragmented identity. However, because this passage conceals “ultimate ‘Truths’” in its disorder, the speaker incorporates a separate, implied truth: identity cannot be singularly or outwardly defined. The failure of conventional language structures to exhibit the infinite subtleties of identity compelled Lorde to experiment with structures and images, exposing the traumatic impact of restricting language and the impossibility of objectively defining and expressing identity.

Alongside postmodern fragmentation and traumatic imagery, “Coal” also manipulates religious and light imagery to question autonomy’s function in identity formation. Words and diamonds comprise the most prominent image patterns in “Coal”: “There are many kinds of open. / How a diamond comes into a knot of flame / How sound comes into a word, coloured / By who pays what for speaking” (4-7). Light and sound cause a shift in the perception and purpose of diamonds and words. Diamonds gain beauty in light, and words gain meaning in sound. By connecting sound and light imagery, the speaker alludes to a kind of enlightenment, perhaps a self-enlightenment driven by words and language. In the exposure of light and sound, the speaker searches for the defining factors that give meaning and purpose to identity. Furthermore, the diamond and the sound must “come” into the light themselves, which implies that identity cannot be realized without active seeking. The speaker must claim autonomy in her identity search if she wishes to understand herself. In conducting her introspection, the speaker also alludes to biblical accounts of creation: “I / Is the total black, being spoken / From the earth’s inside” (1-3). According to the Genesis creation account, God spoke the world into being. Likewise, Psalms 139 tells of how God forms people in the depths of the earth. These religious texts reflect the speaker’s experience of “being spoken / From the earth’s inside.” By invoking religious imagery, the speaker instills a spiritual morality and trueness into her search for identity and origin. The search for selfhood becomes sacred, justified in a purpose which transcends its seeker. Thus, Lorde skillfully yokes personal autonomy with a higher governing purpose to justify her exploration of the complex self and self-expression.

Although the speaker depicts her origin as sacred, she fails to identify who created her, leaving a question surrounding her identity formation. The speaker is “being spoken / From the earth’s inside” (2-3), a passive construction which omits the agent speaking her into being. In relation to this ambiguous language, Gargi Bhattacharyya states, “By identifying a gap in the language, we are encouraged to register the aporia in our thinking. It is that more perfect of jargon words, the one that reveals its own hitherto unseen object” (Bhattacharyya 62). The speaker purposely leaves out critical details of clarity to expand the possibilities of origin and identity. Although the “creator” could be a god, it could also be the speaker herself or another human being. This breadth of possibility causes readers to question the source, or sources, of selfhood. Identity could develop within the self or it could be ordained by an unknown, outside force: human, divine, or other. Eventually, the speaker presents her own solution to this uncertainty: “Love is a word another kind of open” (23). Love could refer to a variety of experiences, religious, erotic, or otherwise. Thus, the speaker provides another form of identity while still avoiding limiting definitions. Words and diamonds, while allowing the speaker to explore agency, still cause limitations in their need for light and sound. In contrast, love implies freedom, finding agency in the various spiritual, relational, sexual, and emotional contexts of the human experience. The elusive definitions of abstract love provide a more accurate expression of a complex autonomy than the physical notions of light and sound. Directly following this proclamation of “another kind of open,” the speaker establishes their own authority over their identity: “I am black because I come from the earth’s inside / Take my word for jewel in your open light” (25-26). Abstract, subject, undefinable love has granted the speaker autonomy over her identity, both its formation and expression. She experiences a revelation of who she is and claims agency over her ability to speak accurately and reliably of her realized self. Ambiguous language and layered imagery in “Coal” build the paradoxical nature of identity, something completely undefinable yet subject to personal expression and formation.

Akin to the subversive imagery in “Coal,” Lorde’s “Black Mother Woman” uses fragmented imagery to explore individual and relational effects of traumatic experiences. To explore relational trauma, the speaker describes herself and her mother with fragmented imagery: “I have become / an image of your once delicate flesh / split with deceitful longings” (line 3-5) and “your own split flesh / and long suffering eyes” (13-14). Maternal imagery typically represents life origins, nurturing care, and protection. However, the speaker depicts her relationship with her mother as “split,” establishing a disconnect from her life-giving source. This disconnect could have occurred because of rejection in the speaker’s early life and identity formation. Regarding Lorde’s individual experiences of trauma, Pamela Yetunde states, “Lorde’s mother’s personality had… an ego-fragmenting and anti-libidinal object-forming impact on the young Lorde” (Yetunde 180). Thus, the trauma of “Black Mother Woman” reflects a personal experience of motherly rejection and distance. The “split flesh” of both the speaker and her mother emphasizes how relational trauma had a shattering effect on identity development for the speaker. Multiple passages depict experiences of a broken relationship between the mother and speaker: “My eyes conceal / a squadron of conflicting rebellions” (24-25) and “I learned from you / to define myself / through your denials” (26-28). Inwardly and outwardly, the speaker experiences a splitting of the self. She encounters outward “denial” from her mother and inward “conflicting rebellions” in response to those denials. This maternal rejection severed the speaker’s access to validating maternal love, fragmenting the speaker’s agency over all aspects of her identity. However, although the speaker expresses a disconnect from her mother, she also attempts to rebuild a means of accessing maternal love and life. The speaker parallels herself and her mother, saying, “I have become / an image of your once delicate flesh” (3-4). The speaker recognizes the inherent connection between herself and her mother, yearning to heal the broken ties and reunite with her original source of life. By reuniting with her maternal origins, the speaker will gain access to an affirming, more complete concept of her identity, likewise healing from her experiences of rejection and disconnection.

Alongside maternal imagery, “Black Mother Woman” invokes religious imagery to explore the origins of trauma in selfhood. The speaker emphasizes her connection to the “flesh” and to “deceitful longings,” two phrases which relate to the concept of sin or moral wrongness. Sin often denotes an experience of imprisonment, or the chaining of a person’s spirit and ability to achieve goodness. Thus, the speaker indicates that suffering and rejection constrain her spirit, her agency. However, after contemplating her experiences of disconnect, the speaker says, “But I have peeled away your anger / down to the core of love / and look mother / I Am / a dark temple where your true spirit rises / beautiful / and tough as chestnut” (16-22). Although the mother’s “heavy love” (2) caused the speaker distress in her early life, the speaker’s perseverance through her trials led her to a different source of life. The speaker draws love and strength from within herself. Following this discovery of love, the speaker proclaims, “I Am,” recreating herself as a self-sustaining, goddess-like figure. Furthermore, the speaker’s self-discovery reunites her with her mother, as she tells her mother “your true spirit rises” in the speaker’s “dark temple.” The speaker’s temple, perhaps the truth of her identity, has always existed, waiting for recognition. This recognition dawns when the speaker discovers she contains the origins of her own life within herself. She cannot separate herself from herself. Thus, in discovering her agency over her own identity, the speaker uncovers her inherent connection to uncorrupted life and spiritual freedom. Lorde constructs this triumphant climax via contrasting sentence structures: “I Am / a dark temple where your true spirit rises / beautiful” (19-21). The contrast between the brief, bookend statements and the lengthier self-descriptions places emphasis on the content of the brief statements “I Am” and “beautiful.” Their brevity heightens the revelatory nature of her self-agency while framing the middle statement as the speaker’s utmost declaration of identity. By shaping religious imagery to symbolize the speaker’s discovery of herself, the speaker restores purity and legitimacy to her experiences of “flesh,” perhaps suggesting that her experiences of “split-ness” occurred not because of her inner self, but because of the limitations inflicted by outside discrimination and rejection. For the speaker, liberating identity exists in an inward acceptance and support of self. Upon uncovering the source of love, the speaker becomes self-affirming, authorizing herself as an agent over her identity and viewing her encounters with suffering as empowering and constructive. She regains autonomy and reconnects with formative sources of selfhood.

Within Lorde’s poetry, readers discover the unavoidable paradoxes of identity and expression. Identity exists regardless of its rejection or acceptance, yet numerous outward and inward experiences manipulate the realization of identity. Myriad experiences make up a single person, yet the inexpressibility of a person’s encounter with identity creates an impossibility of perfect wholeness. Lorde constructs open discussions of identity, not discriminating against her experiences of pain, discrimination, and rejection. Alongside these experiences of limitation, Lorde’s poetry exhibits the construction of strength, love, and beauty. In closely reading Lorde’s “Coal” and “Black Mother Woman,” readers discover the failure of words and human constructs in containing identity. Spiritual and earthly concepts, individual and relational experiences, and conventional communication and expression fail to accommodate the innumerable variances of human selfhood. Yet while acknowledging the complexities of “I,” Lorde also restores simplicity to the self. Many elements comprise one identity, but that identity remains an expressible one if one travels inwardly. By reordering structure and repurposing imagery, Lorde’s poetry reveals a fuller perspective of the human experience, one which acknowledges the surety of multifaceted existences alongside the imperfect yet adequate articulation of human selfdom.

Works Cited

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