Susan Melkisethian/Flickr

1.arrangement

“There is a place 

 

here 

 

where the Atlantic meets 

the Caribbean and 

it is 

 

very magical,  

 

and the first time I was there 

it was 

 

as if 

I was transformed 

 

suddenly 

 

to another place, 

another time, 

 

a synthesis.  

 

Standing there 

 

as an African

Caribbean 

American 

woman,

 

I could feel 

flowing through me 

Africa 

the horrors of

the Middle Passage, 

those fathers 

and mothers of mine 

 

who survived that 

who came 

to these shores here 

or came 

to Grenada 

or Barbados. 

 

The connection there 

with the indigenous people 

of these islands 

and who I am 

as I sit 

 

in this place.

 

It felt 

as if 

there was total 

consciousness 

for one moment 

of all

 

of these threads.” 

-Audre Lorde in Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson’s A Litany for Survival 

 

2. An extension

There is a place within each of us that Audre Lorde asks us to find and touch and name. She urges us to return to the connection we find hiding underneath layers of oppression and silence and to be able to say here, right here is where my one life meets the infinite. If we practice, we should be able to find that place within us no matter where we are physically or what is happening around us. 

I’m practicing.   

For example, in Elmina where the Atlantic meets the rock walls of slave fortresses, I lost my voice two days before I was supposed to facilitate the International Black Youth Summit with and for hundreds of young people. I was 22. The ocean, which in the Caribbean had always represented peace for me, here seemed pure anger. And I stood there wondering was it spiteful or vengeful. Was it the rage of this ocean that took my ancestors out of their life-worlds? Or was the ocean still hurt at having been so mis-used for a crime that has neither ended nor been repaired? Breathing the residue of captive bodies, facing the screaming sea, I felt that all I could offer was silence. All I could do was to not pretend that it mattered what we had for lunch afterwards, and whether anyone wanted to go out that night and dance. It is Audre Lorde who told us that our silence would not protect us. But in that gap of gasp and return I wanted to protect my silence. I wanted to offer silence as a stop in time. I wanted to halt the very ocean. If I had magical powers, I would have said there should be no next wave to crash on this shore, there should be no more. And for the rest of my time in Elmina I was triggered. I was angry with the taxi drivers, with the boys selling sea shells written in sharpie, with everything the hotel staff messed up. It was a set up. There was no way anyone I met in the Ghanaian formal or informal service industry could indulge my desire to be seen as a person, they could only afford to see me as money. Again. That is what it felt like to me at the time. Today I can acknowledge my privilege as a tourist, even though I had come to Ghana to work. Today I can honor that the feeling I had of being a unit of leverage was something I had to experience to know what I know right now. But I have still never been back to the African continent seeking home. 

Instead I, granddaughter of Anguilla and Jamaica, return to the small islands of the Caribbean for the smell of salt. I return to Carriacou, the land of Audre Lorde’s mother and read the graves. Since the first time I was there, in Carriacou was a short day-trip in the midst of the Conference of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars it was clear that I needed to come back. And as if the Lorde really does hear our Black feminist prayers, three years ago on the week leading up to my birthday a duo of Black feminist yoga teachers, artists and spiritual beacons (Karma Mayet and Shelley Nicole) invited me to attend a movement and writing retreat called “Our Name for Jewel” in Carriacou at the house of the Belmar sisters (Audre Lorde’s mother’s maiden name was Belmar) in honor of Audre Lorde’s transformative legacy.

 I was transformed. 

And not only because I suddenly realized that my own mother’s Jamaican but before that Scottish maiden name was the family name of many Carriacou and Grenada residents, but also because I allowed myself to be cared for. I allowed myself to be childlike. I allowed myself to be messy, skin covered with mango most of the day.  And I allowed the intimate time travel of release in my body to carry me to another place, while all the time being fully present, another time, while exercising the particular freedoms of now, a synthesis. I allowed all the ages of myself to meet joyfully. I explored the sweet possibility that Audre Lorde might be my dear relative in more ways than I had imagined.  

But the tragedy of that trip was that no one we met, not even the local writer Cindy McKenzie (that’s my mama’s last name!) had heard of Audre Lorde. Standing there, becoming aware of a silence older than us, we knew it was our responsibility to bring Audre Lorde’s name home, as an African praise poem, to the people who not only shared her blood, but who gave her the space to speak as a daughter of the Caribbean about the love between women, zami, a practice in her lineage. We felt responsible to make the case that our Audre Lorde was of this place. Relevant to every child in Carriacou as all of who she was and not just as a successful American woman poet, not just as an example of her parents’ migrant success. 

I could feel my grief for other people’s silences creeping in. My impatience with other people’s fears. And respect for the quiet freedom loving people have cultivated for centuries.  I felt generations of desire flowing through me. I wanted wave after wave of her name to land back home. To wash the land. Clean it of all sacrifice. I want that for her. I want that for me.

The first time Audre Lorde went to Africa it was with her partner and children. In Ghana she visited Elmina dungeon, DuBois’s grave, the Kumasi fabric markets like I did. The second time she went to Africa it was for work. FESTAC 1977, a conference of Black artists from all over the world. On the airplane she wondered if she could reverse the horrors of the Middle Passage, but Black cultural nationalism and conflicting organizing interests left Lorde and the other members of the delegation replaying the losses of those fathers and mothers of mine, wondering who sold out whom, who survived and through what connections. And that must be part of why Lorde was so attuned to the complexity “between ourselves.” The infinite edges of betrayal available to those who came seeking unity against a common but insidious enemy.

To be at peace in the Caribbean is to balance the trauma of how my ancestors got to these shores from the continent, knowing they would not have been here without a Black betrayal at some important point. Is the continuing possibility of this betrayal why Audre Lorde sometimes let people in the Caribbean think she and her partner Gloria Joseph were sisters, or that she was not a visitor, in Anguilla for example in 1984, but some dear relative a stranger thought she resembled or came to see?

What made it easier to be in St. Croix or even Anguilla than to be Grenada or Barbados long term? The connection there with the family histories of colorism and class? The daughters her father left behind with their mother and kept secret from Audre and her other US born sisters? The complicated claim of the Black traditions indigenous to the Caribbean and yet still layered over the brutal genocide against the indigenous people of these islands? 

And I wonder who I am to speculate, confused as I remain about my own privileged and twice removed relationship to the Caribbean and Africa. And as I sit in this place, as I write in this place, I know this reflective space is only made possible by Audre Lorde and generations of Afro-Caribbean women queer and lesbian writers, writing home from far away. 

It felt more than once moving through each of these Black spaces, like Audre was with me, as if my breathing was a second chance, not just for me, but also for her. As if there was no total end to her attempted diasporic sutures, but instead repeated flashes of consciousness, recurring poetic truth for one moment at a time. The living vulnerability of all of us speaking through shaky voices, as daughters and tentative weavers of these threads. 

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Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is an acclaimed poet and a passionate community cherished scholar of Black feminisms, mothering, daughtering and Afro-Caribbean literature. She is the author of 'Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity' (Duke University Press, 2016), 'M Archive: After the End of the World' (Duke University Press, 2018) and co-editor of 'Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines' (PM Press, 2016). Alexis is visiting Winton Chair in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at University of Minnesota Twin Cities (2017-2019), where she is working with Black feminist performance and theater artists to create embodied activations of her books. Follow her on Twitter @alexispauline.

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