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Audre Lorde (1934-1992) described herself with the following list of words: "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet." Now that is one heck of a self-description. We have a feeling we'd have liked to share a meal—or maybe, like, 12 meals—with Ms. Lorde.
As you might have already guessed, Audre Lorde was known as much for her political activism as for her poetry. Indeed, political activism was a major part of her poetry. For Lorde, and many other feminists of her generation (we're looking at you, Adrienne Rich) poetry was not just a means of self-expression. It was a way of engaging, critiquing, and yes, even fighting the world. For feminists like Lorde, the personal was always political.
Don't believe us? Let's turn to Audre Lorde herself. The poet once remarked: "I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain." For Lorde, sharing pain—especially intense and never-ending pain—was her absolute duty. The only way to effect political change for a black, queer feminist like herself was to share her experiences with the world.
In "Hanging Fire," Lorde does just that. The speaker of the poem is a 14-year-old girl, who is most definitely in an adolescent funk. She's worried about how she looks, she's worried about the boy she likes, she's worried about the upcoming dance, she's worried about death. And, she's all alone in her fears; the poem tells us repeatedly that her "momma's in the bedroom / with the door closed."
Now, this poem may not seem so far out there to us today—we've all had our adolescent complaints, haven't we?—but to give voice to a 14-year-old female teenager in the 1970s was a little bit revolutionary (this poem was published in Lorde's 1978 collection The Black Unicorn). How many poems can you think of from that time that are spoken by young women?
Even though "Hanging Fire" is not one of Lorde's most overtly political poems, the very fact that Lorde shares the inner life of a young woman with her readers is a powerful political statement in and of itself. Hey, listen up, the poem says. We've all got struggles, and the struggles of a teenage girl are as legit as the struggles of an old white dude.
Now this is a philosophy we can get on board with.
Ah, the good old age of 14. We must admit that we were not our best at 14—braces, pimples, first-dance fears, sweaty palms. We're guessing that you weren't your best at 14 either.
And that's kind of the point of the poem. Though adolescence often feels like a singular, personal, "OMG why is this happening to me" experience, it actually happens to everyone. We all go through awkward, uncomfortable times in our teen years, and, lucky for us, we've got Audre Lorde's "Hanging Fire" to remind us that we're not alone (even if the speaker of the poem feels that way).
Adolescence is rough, even for the toughest among us. So sit back, give "Hanging Fire" a read, and be grateful that you're no longer 14. (Unless, of course, you are 14, in which case all we're got to say is: Hang in there. It gets better, kiddos.)
Get to Know Ms. Lorde
Here's a bio by the Poetry Foundation.
Modern American Poetry Does Audre Lorde
Check out this great resource on everything Audre.
The Awesome Angela Davis on Lorde
This is almost too much rad-ness to handle.
A Litany for Survival Trailer
Check out these clips from a documentary about Audre Lorde's life.
A Reading of "Hanging Fire"
You be the judge: love it or leave it?
Audre Lorde Reads Her Essay "Uses of the Erotic"
We could listen to this lady talk for hours.
Ms. Lorde Herself
Check out that penetrating stare.
Lorde in Later Years
We dig her hat.
"How Audre Lorde Made Queer History"
This is a great article on Lorde's impact on the LGBT community
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
Now here's a total must-have.
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
Get acquainted with Lorde's important political work here.
A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde
Dig this doc about our gal Audre.