Imagery and Repetition in Audre Lorde’s “Power”

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On an early Saturday morning in the spring of 1973, on-duty New York City Police Department undercover officer Thomas Shea shot ten-year-old Clifford Glover, who was walking with his father toward his father’s place of employment. Three years later, the jury–eleven white men and one African-American woman named Ederica Campbell–acquitted the then thirteen-year law enforcement veteran after a lengthy trial.  Black feminist Audre Lorde commemorates this moment in American history with her poem “Power,” and through the use of evocative imagery and repetition, she cements young Clifford Glover’s memory in the minds of every reader.

The opening four lines invite the reader to elevate his or her understanding of what power is and how poetry holds the opportunity to endure.  “The difference,” the poem begins, “between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children” (642). This bold, uncomfortable imagery introduces the gut-wrenching saga Lorde suggests Glover’s mother had over the course of the three years that passed between the day of her son’s death and the acquittal of his killer.  Lorde, who had emerged as a highly vocal figure in the Black Arts movement, aggrandized her platform as an activist-poet by re-telling the narrative through terrifying, vivid images such as “blood from his punctured cheeks” and how, upon finding him, the mother was “thirsting for the wetness of his blood” (642). These visual portrayals reinforce the opening statement from the poem because they express how Lorde is, in a way, risking her own reputation (and, perhaps, her own life) by protesting the outcome of the case and deliberately detailing the child’s unwarranted death instead of justifying the jury’s verdict.  

Thematically, Lorde’s speakers throughout the poem are exasperated with the failed legal system and widespread racism throughout America.  Through the use of gory imagery, the reader is placed beside Glover’s bleeding body and can feel the mother’s kisses on her son’s head (642). This use of pathos is intentionally shocking because, it stands to reason, Lorde believes her readers will only genuinely care about the victims in crimes such as this if they too can experience what Clifford Glover’s mother experienced.  

Interestingly, the title word appears at three significant passages within the poem.  First, from the perspective of Glover’s mother, Lorde writes that she (the boy’s mother) is “lost / without imagery or magic / trying to make power / out of hatred and destruction” (642).  Lorde is vicariously demonstrating how any mother whose young child was stripped away from her would be inclined to use the emotional reaction in the most positive way possible to honor the victim’s legacy.  Secondly, the poem’s speaker–arguably Lorde herself since so much attention is paid to the potential influence of poetry–creates a tragic image of the diminutive black woman in the deliberation room being bullied by the other eleven jury members.  By being literally outnumbered and out-manned, Ederica Campbell succumbed to the presumed relentless emotional- and physical abuse though, for a short while in that room, she had with her a level of power. In the final stanza, the speaker returns to the vital necessity to be able to differentiate between poetry and rhetoric.  If she fails in this, her power “will run corrupt as poisonous mold / or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire” (643). This serves as a call to action to all poets–especially black feminist poets–to remind them that their powerful words truly can change the trajectory of the racial divide that has existed in this alleged “land of the free” if they are brave enough to produce and share them.  

 

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Hurston’s Janie: Changing the Narrative of Black Female Protagonists

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In a novel replete with striking imagery, revealing dialect, and weighty themes, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God features an unprecedented protagonist whose integrity and will eventually carried her through three marriages and various instances of verbal- and mental abuse.  Though each husband has a distinct function in her life and in the novel, the manner in which each marriage concludes exhibits a slightly different facet of the main character, which escalates how female lead characters continue to abandon the long-standing gender roles and social expectations of black women, especially those in the American South.  

By characterizing a woman whose insistence of being respected by her husband leads her to shake free of her first marriage, Hurston introduces a character whose self-respect outweighs the apparent social norms of her time.  Logan Killicks was far from romantic. Their marriage was nothing short of an arrangement where Janie served far more as an employee than as an equal or a lover. Thus, as Janie is offering this stage of her life to Phoeby, the scant details focus solely on Killicks’ comparison of Janie’s apparent laziness to his “fust wife” who “never bothered [him] ‘bout choppin no wood nohow” as well as how Janie “done been spoilt rotten” (26).   In rapid-fire narrative style, Janie meets Joe Starks and shares their flirtatious tryst with Phoeby. During Killicks’ final scene, Killicks is described as overly tired–something many men in this book have in common–but Janie pushes forward with the notion of leaving him for someone else. He downplays her idea as a waste of time because “‘[t]’ain’t too many mens would trust yuh, knowin’ yo’ folks lak dey do” (30). Arguably, at that precise moment in her first marriage, Janie could envision her future with Killicks and more than likely resolved to leave him at the earliest opportunity and accept Joe Sparks’ offer.  This clearly demonstrates how Hurston intentionally clashed Janie’s self-respect with the complacency of black characters presented before her. T

Janie’s relationship with Sparks displays a new set of roles and opportunities for her.  As the wife of someone whose initiative and ability to build a black community is unparalleled by any other resident, Janie’s social status escalates, even though Joe never affords her the opportunity to speak publicly.  However, to say Sparks simply duped her into this marriage to legitimize his social status in a town full of strangers might overstep the truth. Both men so far had previously cooed rhymes to her, a gesture that Janie values and clearly wished had continued.  Like Killicks, any romantic feelings Joe held toward Janie are quickly suffocated by his selfish desire for power and raising the town’s level of respect for him.

Throughout the twenty years they were together, Janie rarely challenged Joe and settled into her slim pocket of the store and home while her husband enjoyed a career of being touted as a great leader.  When she did publicly confront his misogyny and attack his manhood, he shunned her by sleeping in a different room. Hurston describes this short phase of their relationship as the “sleep of swords” and directly challenges the hypocrisy of Joe’s insults: “Why must Joe be so mad with her for making him look so small when he did it to her all the time?” (81).  Here, Hurston launches from her predecessors’ descriptions of this imbalance and bullhorns to the reader that this uneven trajectory simply cannot continue as women struggle to achieve equality.

What is vital to the closing of this chapter of her life was how Janie maintained respect for the man who used her throughout her early adulthood.  Her loyalty toward Joe up to the bitter end of his life exhibits how Hurston sees women as respectful and selfless. Upon meeting Tea Cake, however, Janie is challenged by the townspeople because starting a new relationship after the passing of a husband is, to them, a clear sign of disrespect.  Janie refuses to fall into that social trap, however. By exhibiting a believable, multi-faceted woman in this novel, Hurston dispels the limited roles for black women and clearly instructs them to abandon these social norms and live the life they want.

Tea Cake’s selflessness is apparent by putting himself between the dog and Janie.  Later, she demonstrates reserve and respect toward her dying husband and even regrets how his illness is affecting her ability to tend to him (182).  In the horrifying moment of their final battle, Janie’s self-defense leads her to shoot her husband, which reinforces Hurston’s desire for women to balance altruistic loyalty and self-preservation.  The faceless, nameless jury excuses her from punishment, which also suggests that all of Janie’s actions–from escaping a slave-like marriage to Killicks to killing a diseased Tea Cake–have become universally accepted.  The fact that Janie has outlasted three men, two of whom succumbed to death, further emphasizes that women who strive for self-improvement while shifting out of the pre-established social norms can and will live much longer, fruitful lives.

 

Gwendolyn Brooks and the Unknown

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Upon winning the Midwestern Writers’ Conference poetry award in 1943, Gwendolyn Brooks pieced together what became her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville (325). In it, her gritty view of the south-Chicago neighborhood offers an unfiltered look into the lives of the area’s inhabitants and focuses on the domestic clashes between generations, social classes, siblings, and lovers.  On the heels of The Harlem Renaissance and World War II, Brooks deposited a unabashed reality of an American community whose stagnant state was the direct result of a government who provided virtually no assistance to returning black soldiers or their families.  A sense of identity and the unknown world is prevalent throughout a majority of this early published work. Two of the poems from A Street in Bronzeville carry with them a recurring curiosity and appeal toward the unknown.  A third poem, also published in 1945, continues her philosophical attention toward the unknown through the actions of a suave young man.  

This attention to the unknown appears in “kitchenette building”, a poem that juxtaposes personal ambition and personal obligation.  “Dream”, Brooks writes, “makes a giddy sound” which indicates how exciting aspirations can be. Immediately thereafter, however, she contrasts that with “strong” terms such as “rent” or “satisfying a man” (326).  This suggests that one’s dreams must come secondary to the daily obligations, especially for those in neighborhoods such as Bronzeville who are limited to living within tight quarters and represent a socio-economic reality for post-World War II readers.  The ambitions and advancements of the Harlem Renaissance artists should not be dismissed, but Brooks’ image of a family struggling to retain housing and the bare necessities such as food strike down the lofty goals of equality and immersion in white culture.  This speaker, the poem suggests, will be satisfied if there is enough “lukewarm water” remaining after the last child has bathed (326).

In “Sadie and Maud” Brooks exposes how two sisters’ different paths into adulthood sharply contrast the implied wisdom and direction of their parents or predecessors.  Sadie did not further her education and ended up with two children and no husband, which led to her sister and parents being ashamed of her (328). The final stanza, however, suggests that Maud’s conservative, academic route might have fulfilled her (and, presumably, her parents’) goals, but doing so also left her without a family of her own.  Maud, possibly on the advice of the previous generation, is falling in line with the politics of respectability in that furthering her education is the sole opportunity to enjoy a more fruitful existence. Yet, the implication with the final image of being “all alone/In this old house” is that Maud’s decision was the poorer of the two because she is left in an isolated state (328).  Presumably, Maud is the first of her lineage to qualify and attend college, which becomes the unknown presence in this poem. With no other details to apply, we are left connecting Maud’s academic aspirations with her lack of a family with whom she can enjoy the fruits of her scholarly labor. Brooks, thus, suggests a cautionary tale to her modernist readers because they may not wish to make the same sacrifices as Maud does in the spirit of gaining social acceptance in the educated world.  

Thirdly, the dense poem “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” offers a different spin on the unknown.  The entire poem details the minute-to-minute actions of a local ladies’ man whose entire existence is based in mystery and materialism.  Throughout the verse, the man’s previously unknown actions are delivered by an omniscient speaker. The previously unknown doings of Satin-Legs are suddenly now paired with this much broader announcement about humanity: “People are so in need, in need of help/People want so much that they do not know” (330).  Brooks is commenting on the ever-present magnetism toward instant gratification in the modern world by suggesting “they do not know” about the voids in their lives. Sexual satisfaction–unlike a healthy, more conventional intimate relationship–simply cannot endure. Brooks vocalizes this warning to her readers that abandoning traditional values and replacing them with satisfying selfish desires will ultimately doom the moral code of society.  

Though Gwendolyn Brooks was clearly inspired by the art and writings of Harlem Renaissance giants, she establishes a less abrasive morality in her poems by orchestrating recognizable individuals and painting cautionary images of black community members who have inched closer to forgetting or abandoning a traditional moral compass.  

Why I Still teach THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

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Two of my HS junior classes began this J. D. Salinger classic today.  Why?  Well, I have 34 students in the two classes and exactly 34 copies in my classroom.  I’m going with “Fate” as the answer.

Some of you–especially those who have graduated SHS and endured my dry wit for at least a year–have read this book and may even remember a little about it.  I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated, but if you don’t know Holden Caulfield and his December weekend, close this app/laptop right this second, young man/woman!

I wrote recently about my favorite books.  I have long attributed my (perhaps irrational and illogical) choice of becoming a public school English teacher based on one particular novel:  this one. I was not required to read it in high school OR college.  In fact, back in about 1996, a friend and coworker (Bill Something from Iowa) at the now defunct JP ANTHONY BOOKSELLERS in the Meadows shopping center suggested I read it.  Prior to this book, I had thought myself well-versed in modern literature–primarily because I had finished THREE John Grisham novels in my spare time over the previous two years.

I was enamored.  I had already begun taking some writing classes by then, but this novel drilled inspiration into my over-sized head like nothing ever had before.

If it had been an expression back then, I’d have said, “Yeah.  That just happened.  Hashtag Amazeballs!”

My Point–(I’ve learned that not too many people read beyond 300 words, so I’m cutting it close):

Books can inspire us.  Not just the “classics” either.  I love all types of books; I try to give kids a look at books they may never pick up on their own.

I’m inspired a lot by books.  Then again, paintings do a lot for me as well.

Books, paintings, butterflies, songs, children’s laughter…

Inspiration is everywhere, folks.  Sometimes it finds you too.  Here’s hoping this year’s crop of juniors enjoy meeting Holden.