Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

In the American traditions of Christian religious-political institutionalization and Black autobiography, veneration has historically been reserved to men for their position as hero, warrior, and/or messiah. The Black feminist movement, burgeoning during the second wave of American feminism with ethos of destabilizing classical ideas of white male veneration, recieved greater acknowledgment and circulation both culturally and scholarly in the latter half of the 20th century. In her 1982 biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde insinuates herself in the canon of Black autobiography and subverts its patriarchal tropes to better represent her intersectional identities. Lorde embodies the fullest degree of self-actualization on both the mythic and real island of Carriacou, Grenada in her correlation of the Afro-Carribean lesbian with goddesshood. The Afro-Carribean lesbian divine is manifested via Lorde’s inextricable relationships with Carriacou women: her mother Linda whom she must transcend, juxtaposed with Afrekete, her queer lover whom she becomes. 

Zami is immediately distinguished from canonically patriarchal Black life-writing as the centering of women,1 particularly the love of women, is integral to Lorde’s narrative. In an interview before its release, Lorde spoke to the evolution of Zami: “The book grew because it became a kind of testament to my own life and loving and the women who have fed me in very essential ways. And connections, very deep connections—African roots of child-bearing, raising, roots of women identification, of Caribbean woman-mothers” (Off Our Backs 2). Encompassing the mythic power of “loving” and “connections . . . of Caribbean woman-mothers” was a central force in the production of this biomythography, and is primarily embodied in mother Linda, lover Afrekete, and Audre herself—each in differing forms and stages. Lorde opens her narrative with the question of to whom she owes the power behind her voice. The answer is deeply revealing: 

“My father leaves his psychic print upon me, silent, intense, and unforgiving. But his is a distant lightning. Images of women flaming like torches adorn and define the borders of my journey, stand like dykes between me and the chaos. It is the images of women, kind and cruel, that lead me home.” (Zami 3) 

While acknowledging the impact of her father, throughout the text it is always women, both “cruel and kind,” who move and invigorate Lorde and “lead [her] home” to Carriacou, Grenada. Carriacou is coded as mythic via its situation as home to divine Black lesbians Linda and Afrekete, as well as the rich stories told by Audre’s mother (13), and its lack of appearance on most major maps (14). In being led home by divine Afro-Caribbean lesbians of Carriacou, Lorde moves closer to her fully-actualized goddess self that inhabits the home of her fantasies. 

As a text of female adoration, Lorde chronicles her self-transformation in terms of her relations with fellow women. Lorde describes her relationship with an older, white lover named Eudora, elucidating the immense power of women individually and in community in a reflection following their first sexual encounter together: “…[T]he first night when I held [Eudora], I felt myself pass beyond childhood, a woman connecting with other women in an intricate, complex, and ever-widening network of exchanging strengths” (Zami 175). Lorde’s view of personal maturity runs parallel to her entrenchment in community with empowered females. This is harshly contrasted with a trope of Black autobiography, the instillation of manhood via violence as character-building (see: June Jordan’s Soldier, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave). Lorde’s love of women is constantly shaping her, rather than the embracement or internalization of violent manhood that provokes maturation in the aforementioned autobiographies. 

Lorde tethers Blackness, femininity, divinity, and lesbianism into discrete entities in her description of Black women. Readers first encounter the Black goddess in Lorde’s early childhood through her neighbor, DeLois. Lorde characterizes DeLois’s gait as numinous: “She moved like how I thought god’s mother must have moved, and my mother, once upon a time, and someday maybe me” (Zami 4). Lorde creates a line of descendancy between “god’s mother”—deferring to the life-giving capacity of women rather than the traditionally coded male god—with her neighbor, her mother Linda and “someday maybe” herself (4). Lorde approximates herself to a distinctly Black female divine. Still inculcated with beliefs about the sociocultural role of Black women, Lorde pens: “I loved DeLois because she was big and Black and special and seemed to laugh all over. I was scared of DeLois for those very same reasons” (Zami 4). Lorde evolves past this fear in later years, but the love never dissipates. “Big,” “Black,” “special,” boisterous women serve as the model for Lorde’s ideal manifestation of both womanhood and goddesshood. Lorde uses a fairytale turn of phrase, “once upon a time” (Zami 4), to ponder her mother’s godly movements. Lorde employs the language of fantasy and mythology to code Linda as divine throughout the text, a product of Linda’s immense power in young Audre’s eyes. Linda’s divinity is so potent that in childhood Audre is confounded by the woman her mother is praying to, the Virgin Mary: “My child’s ears heard the words and pondered the mysteries of this mother to whom my solid and austere mother could whisper such beautiful words” (Zami 11). Linda’s power and divinity supersedes that of the Christian saint to young Audre. This excerpt also reinforces that Lorde’s conception of divinity is grounded in her interactions with real-life Black women, as opposed to the distant, white idols worshiped around her. 

Lorde forges a tightly interwoven connection between mother and daughter on the basis of identity, viewing herself as the byproduct of Linda’s latent fears and desires, while simultaneously contriving a lesbian identity for her mother. Lorde describes growing up as follows: “I grew Black as my need for life, for affirmation, for love, for sharing-copying from my mother what was in her, unfulfilled” (Zami 58). Though Lorde feels she has inherited and reproduced what was “unfulfilled” in Linda, Audre and Linda’s identities and relationship are more than mere reproductions of residual discontentment. Lorde actively constructs a new identity for her mother, transforming Linda’s material identity as a married heterosexual to that of a lesbian, an identity possessed by Lorde herself: “I believe that there have always been Black dykes around—in the sense of powerful and women-oriented women—who would rather have died than use that name for themselves. And that includes my momma” (Zami 15). This reveals a greater truth: Lorde’s belief in womanly power and the centering one’s life around relationships with women as the true mark of a dyke, rather than self-proclamation of sexual orientation. Thus, the women who “stand like dykes between [Lorde] and the chaos” (3) are grounded in their conviction in the power of women individually and relationally, rather simply possessing sexual interest in women. Lorde’s self-identification as an “unfulfilled” Linda alongside the postulation of Linda as a “Black dyke” (15) decreases the distance between mother and daughter, creating the impression that Audre and Linda are enmeshed as one. Lorde fully acknowledges the homogenization of the two; admittedly, it isn’t until the death of Lorde’s father that Audre begins to see herself as autonomous: “I saw my mother’s pain, and her blindness, and her strength, and for the first time I began to see her as separate from me, and I began to feel free of her” (Zami 143). In witnessing her mother’s intensely raw “pain,” “blindness,” and “strength,” Lorde understands that she is independent from her mother’s emotions and interpretations, and therefore must transcend Linda in order to self-actualize. 

Despite Audre’s self-proclaimed emancipation from Linda following the death of father Frederick Byron, the two women are still connected through Lorde’s use of language. Lorde is socialized around speech as a weapon: 

My mother’s words [taught] me all manner of wily and diversionary defenses learned from the white man’s tongue, from out of the mouth of her father. She had had to use these defenses, and had survived by them, and had also died by them a little, at the same time. All the colors change and become each other, merge and separate, flow into rainbows and nooses. (Zami 58) 

Linda’s painful “white” male language is a product of her cultural assimilation in America as a first-generation Grenadian immigrant. This is contrasted by the vibrant beauty of the cultural language of Carriacou that is simultaneously passed on through Linda. The use of language mirrors a broader truth about home—the power of Carriacou is augmented as mythic when placed in opposition to the bleak realities of the white supremacist, patriarchal society inhabited by Linda and Lorde. Linda’s words, possessing the cruelty of the “white man’s tongue,” the “nooses,” also contain the gorgeous richness of Carriacou patois, the “rainbows.” Linda’s words, both the “rainbows” and “nooses,” are employed by Audre most in moments of intense emotionality. 

Lorde directly reproduces Linda’s language when grieving, a demonstration of the external and internalized constraints that mediate Audre and Linda’s relationship. This is demonstrated in the wake of a major trauma, the suicide of Lorde’s childhood best friend Genevieve. Desperate for answers, Audre is questioned by Genevieve’s mother regarding her daughter’s potential motive. Audre quotes her mother, excerpted from a biting attempt at consolation: “I remembered my mother’s words, resisting them, ‘That man call himself father was using that girl for I don’t know what’” (Zami 102), referring to suspected abuse Geneveieve experienced at the hands of her father. Engulfed by emotion, Audre cannot bear to formulate her own words and relies on those of her mother’s words, notwithstanding its speculative and accusatory tone. Despite Audre “resisting” (102), the connection between mother and daughter is profound and irrepressible. Language itself is the conduit for resistance in Zami, whether Lorde is resisting the language of Linda’s conditioned austerity (102) or resisting further assimilation and loss of culture through the inherited language of Carriacou (32). Linda’s language directly informs Lorde’s beliefs: “Pain was always right around the corner. Difference had taught me that, out of the mouth of my mother” (Zami 205). Oral articulation has a profound impact on Lorde, as “the mouth of [her] mother” is both the mouth of her homeland, and the mouth of her childhood distress. Lorde subconsciously internalized this language, instinctually deferring to Linda’s words and beliefs when highly emotional. Thus, language is both a tool of resistance and a binder to Linda’s paradigm. 

Lorde further encounters ingrained beliefs from Linda upon entering her first romantic relationship with a woman, Muriel. Lorde writes of her view of love in this epoch:

Muriel and I talked about love as a voluntary commitment, while we each struggled through the steps of an old dance, not consciously learned, but desperately followed. We had learned well in the kitchens of our mothers, both powerful women who did not let go easily. In those warm places of survival, love was another name for control, however openly given. (Zami 214) 

The inherited belief that love is a “voluntary commitment… another name for control” and the practice of loving was “not consciously learned, but desperately followed” indicates that the “powerful wom[a]n who did not let go easily” still has a firm grasp on Audre’s conception of self in relationship. Lorde felt her mother’s (unwelcome) presence in the challenges of her first queer romantic relationship, and gestures that the behavior learned from her mother contributed to its demise. Several months into their relationship, Muriel asks Audre about the prospect of her sleeping with another woman with permission. Panged with jealousy and sorrow, Lorde is brought back to a memory with her mother just a few months before graduating high school. When preparing for school one morning, Lorde was surprised to find her mother awake. In their silent interaction, Lorde writes, “[o]ur eyes met for a moment, and it was the only time that I felt the full weight of my mother’s pain at the hostilities forever between us” (Zami 230). Feeling vulnerable and inadequate in her relationship, Lorde is reminded of the “hostilities” and perceived inadequacies that “forever” distance her from her mother. Audre’s understanding of love, lovelessness, and rejection are directly tied to her mother, as demonstrated by the juxtaposition of Audre’s memory of Linda with the present discomfort in her relationship with Muriel. 

Linda’s cultural vernacular from Carriacou adorns what is positively emotional in Lorde’s life, connecting her to the utopia of home. After intercourse with Muriel, Audre invokes her mother’s words (32) and names their rendezvous “raising your zandalee” (Zami 195). Lorde employs Linda’s “secret poetry” (32) from Carriacou to describe pleasure and womanly connection. Using a linguistic signifier of home, Lorde demonstrates Carriacou’s mythical function as a lesbian utopia. This is also true for the title of the biomythography: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Zami is the “Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers” (255). This text was grounded in the love of women in both its purpose and function, as is true for Lorde’s life, described in her own words as a “bridge and field of women” (225). Lorde explicitly invokes the self-actualization and transformation that has resulted from loving women: “Every woman I have ever loved has left her print upon me, where I loved some invaluable piece of myself apart from me so different that I had to stretch and grow in order to recognize her” (250). While colored with suffering, Zami is a love letter to women and the mythic homeland of Carriacou, encompassed together in the title Zami and the production of Lorde’s identity, the “New Spelling of [her] Name,” the enlightened Afro-Caribbean goddess Zami. Lorde’s closing sentence of the book draws on the importance of home and female love: 

Once home was a long way off, a place I had never been to but knew out of my mother’s mouth. I only discovered its latitudes when Carriacou was no longer my home. There it is said that the desire to lie with other women is a drive from the mother’s blood. (Zami 256) 

Lorde again refers to “[her] mother’s mouth” as the originating source of “home,” reinforcing Linda’s mythicality via her proximity to Carriacou. However, Lorde discovered “its latitudes,” the full degree of Carriacou’s fantastical power, only after establishing a home of her own years after the era of life she is recounting. Only then does Carriacou shed the tableau of the illusive homeland it once was. Finally, Lorde invokes Carriacou lore, correlating maternal lineage with lesbianism. Linda’s impact as a Grenadian “Black dyke” goddess (Zami 15), while fallible, forever informs Lorde’s picture of divinity and identity. 

Linda serves as the primary basis for the Afro-Carribean lesbian divine; however, it is not until Lorde meets lover Afrekete that she herself transcends into a state of goddesshood. Following a particulary painful breakup in her twenties, Audre connects with Afrekete (nicknamed Kitty), a Black lesbian mother from Carriacou. Lorde writes of her “need” for “life,” “affirmation” and “love” growing up, “sharing-copying” what was “unfulfilled” in her mother (Zami 58). Afrekete embodies the fully-actualized divine, fulfilling all that was “unfulfilled” in Linda, and subsequently in Audre. Afrekete provides the “life,” “affirmation” and “love” (58) that Linda couldn’t through her mothering. Afrekete expresses her desire for her children to be able to love and live openly, regardless of race or sexuality: “[My daughter is] going to be able to love anybody she wants to love,’Afrekete said, fiercely, lighting a Lucky Strike. ‘Same way she’s going to be able to work any place she damn well pleases. Her mama’s going to see to that’” (Zami 250). Injustice on the basis of difference in identity rouses Afrekete to action, starkly different from Linda’s prerogative, who coped with American racism by refusing to name it (69) and ignores Audre’s sexuality outright (216, 236). Lorde’s view of love, romance, sex and pleasure is also transformed by Afrekete, who is coded as a goddess by Lorde in a poetic incantation describing their sexual relationship: 

Afrekete Afrekete ride me to the crossroads where we shall sleep, coated in the woman’s power. The sound of our bodies meeting is the prayer of all strangers and sisters, that the discarded evils, abandoned at all crossroads, will not follow us upon our journeys (Zami 252). 

Lorde reinforces her correlation of lesbianism with personal strength and pleasure, referring to female bodily fluids as “the woman’s power” (252). The “evils” (252) or perhaps the “hostilities” (230) that forever separate Audre from the fallible goddess Linda are “abandoned at all crossroads” upon uniting with Afrekete. This “prayer,” represented in the meeting of the two bodies and in the poetic verse itself, allows Audre to depart from the “unfulfilled” Linda inside her to become one with Afrekete. Interestingly, after a mystical, sexual “meeting” between the two, Lorde is quick to remind readers that she is not in Carriacou with Afrekete, but in New York City: 

It was not onto the pale sands of Whydah, nor the beaches of Winneba or Annamabu, with cocopalms softly applauding and crickets keeping time with the pounding of a tar-laden, treacherous, beautiful sea. It was onto 113th Street that we descended after our meeting under the Midsummer Eve’s Moon” (Zami 253) 

This passage represents the bridging of the formerly disparate worlds—the mystical, lush world of Carriacou that Audre considers home and the harsh, white American world that she inhabits—in the plain statement of fact, “113th Street” (253). 

Closing her biomythography, Lorde conflates lesbian lover Afrekete with Eshu, the fabled male Afro-Caribbean trickster. Lorde summarizes the text as a product of the women she has loved: 

Recreating in words the women who helped give me substance. Ma-Liz, DeLois, Louise Briscoe, Aunt Anni, Linda, and Genevieve; MawuLisa, thunder, sky, sun, the great mother of us all; and Afrekete, her youngest daughter, the mischievous linguist, trickster, best-beloved, whom we must all become. (Zami 255) 

Lorde first lists women briefly mentioned in the text: DeLois, the larger-than-life neighbor (4); Louise Briscoe, a female tenant who died while living with Lorde’s family (4); Ma-Liz and Aunt Anni, maternal relatives who carry on the traditions of Carriacou (12). Lorde continues by naming more prominent figures, her mother Linda and childhood best friend Genevieve. In closing, Lorde invokes folkloric figures referenced in Lorde’s 1978 poetry book The Black Unicorn: MawuLisa, maternal Afro-Caribbean goddess, and a gender-bent subversion of Eshu, linguistic trickster and MawuLisa’s youngest son (The Black Unicorn 119) in the form of Afrekete. Real and mythic, on both large and small scales, Black women ground Lorde’s life and life-writing. Lorde transcends boundaries of gender and again reveals her deference for women in replacing the male Eshu with the female Afrekete. This change is aligned with Eshu’s historical gender ambiguity and fluidity in West African religious traditions (The Black Unicorn 120). Lorde transposes the fabled trickster figure of Eshu onto the power and divinity perceived in Afrekete. 

In merging the Black lesbian divine of Afrekete with the literary trickery of Eshu, Lorde is able to obscure, subvert, and move fluidly through literary and social boundaries. Lorde does this in form, interspersing prose with poetry, often indicated through the use of italics, and in content through literary expressions of the erotic with mother Linda (Zami 78) and with queer lovers like Afrekete (252). Lorde demonstrates a transcendance from Linda and her linguistic and ideological grasp as she is able to fully harness the power of language for herself, abandoning the cruelties and limiting beliefs of her mother while retaining the language from Carriacou. Following the release of Zami, New York Times reviewer Rosemary Daniell remarked that “… the publisher’s claim that in ‘Zami’ Miss Lorde ‘creates a new form, biomythography, combining elements of history, biography and myth’ is a bit pretentious” (Daniell 12). I fervently disagree with Daniell’s claim that the construction of biomythography was merely a “pretentious… publisher’s claim.” I argue that the construction of the novel genre was primarily rooted in Lorde’s writing, and a form of her “Becoming Afrekete.” (Zami 5) or perhaps, becoming Zami. Lorde does more than simply breathe new life into Black autobiography, she expands its limits to express the mystic beauty of lesbianism and Black femininity. Embodying the divine linguist and trickster enables Lorde to transgress boundaries of genre, blending biographical and folkloric narratives into one. Thus, Lorde creates a distinct genre, one worthy of its own classification: biomythography.

Works Cited

  • Daniell, Rosemary. “The Poet Who Found Her Own Way.” The New York Times, 19 Dec. 1982. 
  • Lorde, Audre, et al. “Interview: Audre Lorde: Lit from Within.” Off Our Backs, vol. 12, no. 4, off our backs, inc., 1982, pp. 2–11, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25774371 Lorde, Audre. The Black Unicorn: Poems. New York: Norton, 1978. Print. Lorde, Audre. Zami, a New Spelling of My Name. Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1982. 

Works consulted

  • Cannon, Sarita. “Reading, Writing, and Resistance in Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.” Biography, vol. 42 no. 2, 2019, p. 335-354. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bio.2019.0030. 
  • Jacobs, Bethany. “Mothering Herself: Manifesto of the Erotic Mother in Audre Lorde’s ‘Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.’” MELUS, vol. 40, no. 4, [Oxford University Press, Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)], 2015, pp. 110–28, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24569999. 
  • Provost, Kara, and Audre Lorde. “Becoming Afrekete: The Trickster in the Work of Audre Lorde.” MELUS, vol. 20, no. 4, [Oxford University Press, Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)], 1995, pp. 45–59, https://doi.org/10.2307/467889. 

  1.  I do not execrate the tradition of Black autobiography for its centering of manhood and masculinity, as I understand it to be a symptom of the tradition’s larger inculcation into oppressive regimes of white supremacy, patriarchy and anti-Blackness, as assimilation was constitutive to getting published. Furthermore, (overwhelmingly white) publishers and editors have surveilled Black literary content and inhibited both the author (made explicitly clear in Frederick Douglass’s elucidation of his relationship with the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in his latter autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom) and the reader in consuming authentic literary expressions of Blackness. I must note that this upholding of patriarchy cannot be ascribed wholly as the failings of Black authors.

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