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On "Coal"

Sagri Dhairyam

"Coal" . . . was, and is, widely read to be affirming an unself-conscious Black essence. . . . The controlling metaphor of coal, staple fuel, celebrates "the total black, being spoken/From the earth's inside," which becomes in its idealized form, the jewel, diamond. In the this reading, the poem's final visionary lines . . . claim their political identity precisely through an empowering biologism. . . . For Black American poets it meant a call to a poetics of Blackness which emphasized the role of poet as activist and leader and the role of poetry as expression of an intrinsically Black vision.

The histories suppressed by this reading, however, are crucial not only because they unsettle the homogeneity of the Black Aesthetic's agendas for change but also because they dispute the primacy granted an essentiallist reading of "Coal.". . .

The opening celebration of the speaker's identity with coal, "the total black" staple fuel dug from the earth and the controlling metaphor of the poem, is no sooner spoken than sabotaged. . . . "There are many kinds of open," the comment immediately following the opening lines, re-marks the ambivalence of their agenda. The line is itself "open," linking its functions to both form and theme, providing ambiguous linkage between initial image of "the total black, being spoken/From the earth's inside" and later reflections on diamond and sound. These reflections reiterate their ambivalence in the negative oppositions they set up between coal and diamond, so likely to be passed over as different forms of the same mineral essence. A diamond signifies luxury and privilege, but coal remains fuel, trope of need and material comfort. That the "diamond comes into a knot of flame" is significant--only the jewel is allowed apotheosis.

The lines following this image remark on coal's exclusion from the "knot of flame" in its speculations on the ways "sound comes into a word, coloured/by who pays what for speaking." The lines' very contiguity indicts diamonds as well as words for their complicity in business transactions of "who pays what for speaking." Words, and by extension the tropes in the poem, are contaminated by their openness, necessary though such openness may be for words to function in language. Such an awareness acknowledges that the initial image of "the total black... from the earth's inside," although celebratory, is also open to connotations of rape and the associated violence of forcible extraction. Earth's "total black... inside" is thus also a feminized trope for the womb, both receptive and violated, that is at the center of the poetic act of extracting meaning. . . .

The poem's final line adjures enigmatic openness, knowing its duplicitous value. In unselfconsciously taking Lorde's "word for jewel in the open light," we accede in the violations perpetrated upon the poet as both Black and woman. But the paradox here is that if we do not perform those necessary violations, we leave her unspeaking in the silent recesses of earth. And such silence leaves Lorde again, as Black, woman, and poet, outside a literary tradition that continues unchallenged. . . . "Coal" uses the rhetoric of the Black Aesthetic to speak Audre Lorde, Black lesbian; within that movement's impetus to carve a niche for Blackness in white tradition, the woman poet negotiates her particular agenda of difference.

Dhairyam, Sagri. "'Artifacts for Survival': Remapping the Contours of Poetry with Audre Lorde." Feminist Studies 18.2 (1992): 229-56.

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