[This is a response I wrote to Audre Lorde's "Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices," a poem assigned in the online course my friend Alexis Gumbs is teaching: "To Be a Problem: Outcast Subjectivity and Black Literary Production." In conjunction with this post, please read Alexis's comments on sexual violence against black women, "To Be Game."]
The language of this poem is extraordinary. It raises the voices of the dead, so to speak (thank you, Sharon Holland), to create an impression of mourning that's at once singularly personal yet all-too-familiar to victims of sexual violence. I can understand why Lorde might have revised this poem upon hearing it performed: this impression of mourning is as much aural as it is visual, and it's important to try reading parts of "Need" out loud to dwell in its beautiful sadness.
I was particularly affected by Pat's words on p. 11:
What terror embroidered my face
onto your hatred
what ancient unchallenged enemy
took on my sweet brown flesh
within your eyes
came armed against you
with only my laugther my hopeful art
my hair catching the late sunlight
my small son eager to see his mama work?
I need you. For what?
Was there no better place
to dig for your manhood except in my woman's bone?
On the same page Bobbie says: "We have a grave need for each other / but your eyes are thirsty / for vengeance / dressed in the easiest blood / and I am closest."
These verses speak back to those perpetrators of sexual violence who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Men must be confronted with the bruised, battered, bloodied flesh that is the outcome of their sexual aggression. In a sense, they must "own" that aggression by bearing witness to its horrible consequences.
At the same time, Pat and Bobbie acknowledge the psychic wounds that fuel the illogic of sexual violence against black women. The idea of "misplaced hatred" (12) resonates throughout Lorde's poem. An "ancient...enemy" is projected onto the black woman's body, and violence is done to that body out of fear, anxiety, self-loathing, and "terror."
Who or what is that ancient enemy? It's not just racism Lorde is speaking of here: it's a radical dehumanization, through racism but also through heteronormative patriarchy and capitalism (which breeds male insecurity and compensatory measures to escape "lack"), of the social and psychic life of black people. This is a problem of black people's oppression tout court as it's tragically played out in the sexual dehumanization of the black female body.
There's a "grave," or urgent, need for black men to realize this problem and to join their sisters in resisting racist-sexist structures of capitalist domination. But that collaboration recedes from the horizon when intergender need is literally taken to the grave -- when black women aren't fellow strugglers and insurgents but are the objects of putatively male needs: sexual gratification, domestic control, and violent, phallic sublimation.
Lorde's troping on the idea of "need" is tragic and visionary. It captures a powerful social dynamic -- a problem of racial, gender, and class politics as they inhere in rape-murder -- and provokes us to ask other questions. What happens when we say -- to lovers, friends, comrades, companions -- "I need you"? Do we really mean it? In what ways do we mean it? On what, or whose, terms?
Or do you say
...you need me you need me you need me
a broken drum
calling me Black goddess Black hope Black
strength Black mother
yet you touch me
and I die in the alleys of Boston...