Audrey Lorde and Essex Hemphill: Mothers and Fathers


Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill

Two Black-American poets: one a New Yorker from Harlem with family roots in Grenada and Barbados, the other growing up in Washington D.C. with roots in Columbia, South Carolina; one a passionately political Lesbian with children, the other a passionately political Gay man who would die of complications from AIDS.  Both of these writers, in poems and essays combining clear thinking with deep feeling – and in the facts of their lived lives – sought to widen what later came to be known as “identity politics”.  Their work goes far beyond it, establishing a universality of truth.  In the poems below Lorde and Hemphill reflect upon the meaning of relationship (and sometimes the lack thereof) with their mothers and fathers. These are poems of great intimacy and intelligence with head and heart in thrilling unison.


Audre Lorde in Berlin_1984_photograph © Dagmar Schultz


Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992)

Legacy – Hers”


When love leaps from my mouth

cadenced in that Grenada wisdom

upon which I first made holy war

then I must reassess

all my mother’s words

or every path I cherish.


Like everything else I learned from Linda*

this message hurtles across still uncalm air

silent tumultuous freed water

descending an imperfect drain.


I learn how to die from your many examples

cracking the code of your living

heroisms collusions invisibilities

constructing my own

book of your last hours

how we tried to connect

in that bland spotless room

one bright Black woman

to another bred for endurance

for battle


island women make good wives

whatever happens they’ve seen worse…


your last word to me was wonderful

and I am still seeking the rest

of that terrible acrostic


(from Lorde’s collection The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, 1993)

*Linda was the name of Lorde’s mother.

.     .     .

Audre Lorde

Father Son and Holy Ghost”


I have not ever seen my father’s grave.


Not that his judgement eyes have been


nor his great hands’ print

on our evening doorknobs

one half turn each night

and he would come

drabbled with the world’s business

massive and silent as the whole day’s wish

ready to redefine each of our shapes –

but that now the evening doorknobs wait

and do not recognize us as we pass.


Each week a different woman –

regular as his one quick glass each evening –

pulls up the grass his stillness grows

calling it week. Each week

A different woman has my mother’s face

and he, who time has,


must be amazed

who knew and loved but one.


My father died in silence, loving creation

and well-defined response.

He lived

still judgements on familiar things

and died

knowing a January 15th that year me.


Lest I go into dust

I have not ever seen my father’s grave.


(1968, revised 1976)

.     .     .

Audre Lorde

Inheritance – His”




My face resembles your face

less and less each day. When I was young

no one mistook whose child I was.

Features build colouring

alone among my creamy fine-boned sisters

marked me *Byron’s daughter.


No sun set when you died, but a door

opened onto my mother. After you left

she grieved her crumpled world aloft

an iron fist sweated with business symbols

a printed blotter. dwell in a house of Lord’s

your hollow voice chanting down a hospital corridor

yea, though I walk through the valley

of the shadow of death

I will fear no evil.




I rummage through the deaths you lived

swaying on a bridge of question.

At seven in Barbados

dropped into your unknown father’s life

your courage vault from his tailor’s table

back to the sea

Did the Grenada treeferns sing

your 15th summer as you jumped ship

to seek your mother

finding her too late

surrounded with new sons?


Who did you bury to become enforcer of the law

the handsome legend

before whose raised arm even trees wept

a man of deep and wordless passion

who wanted sons and got five girls?

You left the first two scratching in a treefern’s shade

the youngest is a renegade poet

searching for your answer in my blood.


My mother’s Grenville tales

spin through early summer evenings.

But you refused to speak of home

of stepping proud Black and penniless

into this land where only white men

ruled by money. How you laboured

in the docks of the Hotel Astor

your bright wife a chambermaid upstairs

welded love and survival to ambition

as the land of promise withered

crashed the hotel closed

and you peddle dawn-bought apples

from a pushcart on Broadway.

Does an image of return

wealthy and triumphant

warm your chilblained fingers

as you count coins in the Manhattan snow

or is it only Linda

who dreams of home?


When my mother’s first-born cries for milk

in the brutal city winter

do the faces of your other daughters dim

like the image of the treeferned yard

where a dark girl first cooked for you

and her ash heap still smells curry?




Did the secret of my sisters steal your tongue

like I stole money from your midnight pockets

stubborn and quaking

as you threaten to shoot me if I am the one?

the naked lightbulbs in our kitchen ceiling

glint off your service revolver

as you load whispering.


Did two little dark girls in Grenada

dart like flying fish

between your averred eyes

and my pajama-less body

our last adolescent summer

eavesdropped orations

to your shaving mirror

our most intense conversations

were you practising how to tell me

of my twin sisters abandoned

as you had been abandoned

by another Black woman seeking

her fortune Grenada Barbados

Panama Grenada.

New York City.




You bought old books at auction

for my unlanguaged world

gave me your idols Marcus Garvey Citizen Kane

and morsels from your dinner place

when I was seven.

I owe you my Dahomeyan jaw

the free high school for gifted girls

no one else thought I should attend

and the darkness that we share.

Our deepest bonds remain

the mirror and the gun.




An elderly Black judge

known for his way with women

visits this island where I live

shakes my hand, smiling

I knew your father,” he says

quite a man!”  Smiles again.

I flinch at his raised eyebrow.

A long-gone woman’s voice

lashes out at me in parting

You will never be satisfied

until you have the whole world

in your bed!”


Now I am older than you were when you died

overwork and silence exploding in your brain.

You are gradually receding from my face.

Who were you outside the 23rd Psalm?

Knowing so little

how did I become so much

like you?


Your hunger for rectitude

blossoms into rage

the hot tears of mourning

never shed for you before

your twisted measurements

the agony of denial

the power of unshared secrets.


(Written January – September 1992.  From Lorde’s The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance)

*Byron was the name of Lorde’s father.

.     .     .     .     .

Essex Hemphill in 1991


Essex Hemphill (1957 – 1995)

The Father, Son, and Unholy Ghosts”


We are not always
the bravest sons
our fathers dream.
Nor do they always
dream of us.
We don’t always
recognize him
if we have never
seen his face.
We are suspicious
of strangers.
is he the one?


I stand waist deep
in the decadence of forgetting.
The vain act of looking the other way.
Insisting there can be peace
and fecundity without confrontation.
The nagging question of blood hounds me.
How do I honour it?


I don’t understand
our choice of angers,
your domestic violence,
my flaring temper.
I wanted tenderness
to belong to us
more than food or money.
The ghost of my wants
is many things:
lover, guardian angel,
key to our secrets,
the dogs we let sleep.
The rhythm of silence
we do not disturb.


I circle questions of blood.
I give a fierce fire dance.
The flames call me.
It is safe. I leap
unprepared to be brave. I surrender
more frightened of being alone.
I have to do this
to stay alive.
To be acknowledged.
Fire calls. I slither
to the flames
to become birth.


A black hole, gaseous,
blisters around its edge,
swallows our estranged years.
They will never return
except as frightening remembrances
when we are locked in closets
and cannot breathe or scream.

I want to be free, daddy,
of the black hole between us.
The typical black hole.
If we let it be
it will widen enough
to swallow us.
Won’t it?


In my loneliest gestures
learning to live
with less is less.
I forestalled my destiny.
I never wanted
to be your son.
You never
made the choice
to be my father.
What we have learned
from no text book:
is how to live without
one another.
How to evade the stainless truth.
Drug pain bleary-eyed.
Store our waste in tombs
beneath the heart,
knowing at any moment
it could leak out.
And do we expect to survive?
What are we prepared for?
Trenched off.
Communications down.
Angry in alien tongues.
We use extreme weapons
to ward off one another.
Some nights, our opposing reports
are heard as we dream.
Silence is the deadliest weapon.
We both use it.
Precisely. Often.






.     .     .


In the Life”


Mother, do you know

I roam alone at night?

I wear colognes,

tight pants, and

chains of gold,

as I search

for men willing

to come back

to candlelight.


I’m not scared of these men

though some are killers

of sons like me. I learned

there is no tender mercy

for men of colour,

for sons who love men

like me.


Do not feel shame for how I live.

I chose this tribe

of warriors and outlaws.

Do not feel you failed

some test of motherhood.

My life has borne fruit

no woman could have given me



If one of these thick-lipped,

wet, black nights

while I’m out walking,

I find freedom in this village.

If I can take it with my tribe

I’ll bring you here.

And you will never notice

the absence of rice

and bridesmaids.






.     .     .

Audre Lorde poems © The Audre Lorde Estate

Essex Hemphill poems © Cleiss Press

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