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Audre Lorde's "Afterimages": history, scripture, myth, and nightmare.

Audre Lorde's "Afterimages" (The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde [NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000]: 339) is a complex, multi-layered poem that voices the continuing trauma of one of the most brutal events in the Civil Rights struggle--the murder of Emmett Till. This 14-year old black boy was savagely beaten and killed in the Mississippi Delta in 1955 for allegedly wolf whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. After kidnapping and pistol whipping Till, Bryant's husband Roy and his half brother J.W. Milam shot him in the head, tied a 74-pound cotton gin fan around his neck, and dumped the boy's body into the Tallahatchie River. Determined to publicize the atrocity, Till's mother Mamie insisted on an open casket, and pictures of her son's mangled corpse flooded the media to the horror of Americans, white and black (see Anne Sarah Rubin, "Reflections on the Death of Emmett Till," Southern Cultures 2 [1996]: 45-66). Lorde incorporates but emblematizes these historical events through a series of startling allusions attached to Till, to his executioners, to Carolyn Bryant, and to herself. The opening section of "Afterimages," stressing that Lorde's "eyes are always hungry" for the "visions" of Till's death, prepares readers for "the fused images [that lie] beneath my pain." These "fused images" emerge from Lorde's own nightmare, Scripture, and classical myth.

On one level, Till's death functions as a rite of passage into the heart of darkness for Lorde herself. "I inherited Jackson, Mississippi./ For my majority it gave me Emmett Till." Symbolically, Till was murdered the same summer that Lorde, born in 1934, turned 21; her coming of age is linked to witnessing the afterimages of crime, then and in the future. The immediacy of Till's death makes Lorde the heir to his pain and the inheritor of the necessity for interrogation. At first, she tried to escape from the tragedy; "my eyes averted/from" Till's photos in "newspapers, protest posters magazines"" But the ghost of "this black child's mutilated body" haunted her. Her "majority" propels her into a nightmare, "like a lurch of earth on the edge of sleep," a psychic landscape reminiscent of Adrienne Kennedy's surrealistic plays. Just as Kennedy's autobiography People Who Led to My Plays undergirds her works, "Afterimages" reveals the "internal consciousness of myself"" a phrase from one of Lorde's interviews (qtd. in Conversations with Audre Lorde, ed. Joan Wylie Hall [Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2004]: 102). As Kennedy was, Lorde is tormented by "nightmare rain," disfigured and bloody black bodies, and the fright of raped women. She confesses, "I learned to be at home with children's blood." Graphic details of Till's murder--e.g., his eyes ripped out of his head--transport Lorde into a phantasmagoric world breaking barriers of time and space. Her "visions" with their "flickering afterimages" speak an allegory of pain. Mississippi, 1955 becomes the portal for Till's, and Lorde's, journey into archetype.

Through her nightmare experiences, Lorde becomes Till's mother; "he was baptized my son forever/In the midnight waters of the Pearl," one of the most significant of her fused images. As Till's mother, Lorde is empowered to lament for all black mothers who have lost children. Cassie Premo Steele argues that the last line of the poem ("a woman begins to weep") embraces a larger group of women, including Till's mother, any raped woman, and even Carolyn Bryant herself (We Heal from Memory: Sexton, Lorde, Anzaldua, and The Poetry of Witness [NY: Palgrave, 2004]: 79). But Lorde's symbolic motherhood starkly contrasts with Bryan's who is fused in Lord''s visionary poem to a woman, "tearless and no longer young," whom she sees on television, flooded out of her Jackson home by the Pearl River. "Despair weighs down her voice like Pearl River mud," and her "Two tow-headed children hurl themselves against her/hanging upon her coat like mirrors." These children reflect their mother's plight--"I never knew it could be so hard." Unlike this hapless motherhood, Lorde's description of her son Emmett evokes the solemnity of the Pieta, Mary holding her wounded son, the Christ. In a dark blazon of Till's wounds, Lorde's fused imagery links him to the Crucifixion: "the length of gash across the dead boy's loins/his grieving mother's lamentation/the severed lips, how many burns/his gouged out eyes." Like Christ, Till's "broken body" is resurrected--"Emmet Till rides the crest of the Pearl, whistling/24 years his ghost lay like the shade of a raped woman... [but] now the Pearl River speaks its muddy judgment." The 24 years corresponds to the time that has elapsed between Till's murder in 1955 and the time Lorde wrote his eulogy, but the time frame extends to the ever- present now as "Afterimages" continues to memorialize Till's.

Lorde altered geography to reinforce the Biblical context in which she paints Till's martyrdom. Rather than having his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River, Lorde immerses him in the Pearl River, a name linked with great spiritual worth and one consistent with Till's current role as the black presiding spirit (or genius) of judgment. In this regard, Till is far more than "a disrupter of the peace," as Christopher Metress claims ("'No Justice, No Peace': The Figure of Emmett Till in African American Literature," MELUS 28 [Spring 2003]: 97). Till does not sink below the Tallahatchie/Pearl, as Bryant and Milam intended, but is mounted high above it. In its eulogizing river imagery, "Afterimages" becomes an African American "Lycidas."

If Lorde uses Biblical images to mourn Till, she weaves in classical ones to characterize his executioners through Carolyn Bryant, again represented by the white woman stranded on her rooftop by the flood. Repeatedly, Lorde names the preservation of Bryant's "white womanhood" as the reason for Till's execution. She is "the white girl besmirched by Emmett's whistle" and "a white girl grown older in costly honor." Haunted by Till's death, Carolyn "stands adrift in the ruins of her honor." Historically, Klansmen justified lynching on the grounds of protecting white women's chastity from black males. But Lorde asks us to view such bigotry from a larger, mythic perspective when she observes that Carolyn's "face is flat with resignation and despair/ with ancient and familiar sorrows." The"ancient sorrows" is a powerful image, possibly connecting Carolyn to the doomed Helen of Troy with whom she is tacitly "fused" in "Afterimages." The violation of Helen's honor by the Trojan Paris who stole her led to incalculable and cruel deaths at the hands of the avenging brothers of the House of Atreus, Menelaus and Agamemnon. Correspondingly, in Lorde's poem, the wicked brothers Bryant and Milam exact a horrifying price for Till's supposed violation of Carolyn's honor. Ironically, like Helen, Carolyn launched a thousand memories of terror and bloodshed. "I wade through summer ghosts/betrayed by vision/hers and my own," Lorde wails in her nightmarish frenzy.

Moreover, the "weight of agonies remembered" falls heavy on Carolyn as it did on her classical surrogate. Both Helen and Carolyn were pawns of the men who fight brutally for these women's honor. Yet both women were denied a voice in the history of the event. In neither the Iliad nor the Aeneid is Helen the spokesperson for her own abduction. Through the camera of Lorde's nightmare, Carolyn attempts to voice her plight over the flood"until a man with ham-like hands pulls her aside/snarling' She ain't got nothing more to say!'/ and that lie hangs in his mouth/like a shred of rotting meat"" Carolyn is silenced by her avenging redneck husband. Lorde's graphic image of "rotting meat" may be a slant allusion to the despicable husband's business--Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market. A further fused, classical reference may surface in Bryant and Milam's victory after they "flung [Till] to the Pearl weighted with stone." In Lorde's nightmare eulogy, "they took their aroused honor/back to Jackson/and celebrated in a whorehouse/the double ritual of white manhood/confirmed." Going to a whorehouse to commemorate a woman's honor fits as it condemns Till's executioners. Ironically, Helen of Troy, whose identity may be subsumed in Carolyn's, was cast as a whore by Shakespeare (Troilus and Cressida) and many other writers.

Violations of woman's honor also link Carolyn, strangely enough, with Till in "Afterimages." His tortured body lies "crumpled, and discarded/lying amid the sidewalk refuse/ like a raped woman's face"; earlier, as we saw, he was compared to "the shade of a raped woman." Unquestionably, the young Till was sexually violated--they""ripped his eyes out his sex his tongue," the equivalent of rape. Similarly, in Roy Bryant's perverse view, his wife had been violated. Yet like Till, she is tossed aside by a contemptuous man whose words are like "rotten meat." Reinforcing the fused relationship of a raped black boy with a violated white woman, Lorde uses a key adjective describing them both. Carolyn is "a white woman surveying her crumpled future." Her future, like Till's body reduced to refuse, is "crumpled" or twisted into folds. Carolyn/woman in the flood is folded into Till's history as he is into hers, except that, as "Afterimages" proclaims, he is triumphant in his sacrifice while she remains despondent and in tears.

Philip C. Kolin, University of Southern Mississippi
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Author:Kolin, Philip C.
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Words:1535
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