When asked to find my favorite poem in the Norton anthology, I started from the beginning and read through until I hit one that made me stop. The poem that I stopped at was Audre Lorde’s “To My Daughter The Junkie On A Train.” What struck me in this poem that separated it from the others was the linebreaks, unexpected connections, and word choice. The lines act independently and yet work together to create multiple interpretations, in the same way, she chooses words that can have more than one meaning. The other poems of Lorde’s in the anthology also resonated with me and even just reading them aloud was quite an experience. After deciding I liked these poems the best, I read her short autobiographical comments that are included before her poems. Lorde identifies as a “Black, Lesbian, Feminist, warrior, poet, mother” and she writes about the intersectionality of these “ingredients” in her poem “Who Said It Was Simple.”
This is a short poem that is packed with meaning. The first stanza brings up the issues of intersectionality she wishes to discuss. In my reading, the “roots” are the sub-groups among the oppressed that make up the “tree of anger.” The “branches” are the different aspects of an individual’s identity. Here, Lorde is commenting on the competition of the sub-groups despite the commonality of their goals (freedom, equality…). In other words, even though there is one “tree,” different routes (note the word choice here) are taken by the sub-groups, thus sometimes “the branches shatter / before they bear.” Lorde’s choice to use the word “bear” is important as this can refer to the denotative meaning (bearing a heavy weight) or the connotative implication (women’s reproductive abilities). This relates to the third/final stanza where Lorde wonders “which me will survive all these liberations.” Here she is relating her identity back to the branches, wondering which will “survive” and which will “shatter.” It seems as though she is asking her readers to consider why the entire tree cannot survive and work as a whole, instead of working against itself.
The second stanza brings up the ways in which different aspects of identity all interact in daily life and in political activism. Lorde writes that “the women rally before they march / discussing the problematic girls / they hire to make them free.” These lines alone are packed with meaning. So, let’s unpack. The white women want rights and are exploiting black labor to get them. Their superior status (in terms of age, class, gender) is seen as they are capable of hiring help and they are women not “problematic girls.” This again relates to the idea in the first stanza about using one oppressed group’s plight to another’s advantage. These white women are using black women “to make them free.” It is important to note, Lorde does not mean “them” as in the “problematic girls” but “them” as in the women that are rallying. The way this is arranged on the page draws attention to it and reveals the racism in the feminist movements, and how obvious the inclusion of the black women should be as they are (as in the poem) quite literally right there next to the white women.
The next section of this stanza brings gender and race into conversation with each other in a concrete example of two people in line at the restaurant. An “almost white counterman passes / a waiting brother” to serve the white feminist ladies. The line break here is important as it stresses that while the counterman is passing over the black man he is also passing in the sense that he is “almost white.” This interaction exposes the racism in serving the white person first even if they were there second. This also intersects with gender as this situation depicts a woman getting served before a man. While men are usually depicted as superior, it seems as though being a white woman is deemed higher status than being a black male. Lorde then brings up the “slighter pleasures of their slavery.” Here she is acknowledging that females are oppressed, but to a lesser degree than people of color (especially women of color like herself). She articulates this nicely by stating she is “bound” (connotatively associated with slavery) by her mirror and her bed (her race and sexuality).
In this poem, Lorde recognizes the intersectionality of her identity and that she cannot separate her gender and race as they occur in combined experience. Women’s rights and civil rights movements ask her to choose between being either a person of color or a woman but there is no way to distinguish between these two parts of her whole without shattering her identity. She writes in the Norton: “what does my blood, or my heart, or my eyes have to do with my writing? They are all inseparable.”
According to Lorde, the whole point of poetry is to help your readers relate to your experiences. She writes, “a poem grows out of a poet’s experience…the poem becomes the emotional bridge to others who have not shared that experience.” Initially, I was struggling to relate to the course content as I am a white woman who has not had the experiences detailed in our readings. This poem in conjunction with Lorde’s explanation of the writing/reading process has helped me realize the truth of what Dr. McCoy told me in the first weeks of class: not having an experience is an experience in itself. When I read this poem, I should have grouped myself with the white activist women but Lorde forced me to relate with the speaker instead. I noticed this difference and realized that Lorde had created an “emotional bridge” for me to understand her experience. This, in turn, made me reflect on my own white privilege and how I “neither notice nor reject / the slighter pleasures of [my] slavery.”