Michael Callon: On "Call"
Audre Lorde's "Call" shoulders the enormous responsibility of heralding the "coming" of Aido Hwedo, a multi-faceted history whose "faces have been forgotten."
The poem features a speaker who is deeply invested in recovering this history, an effort that will require something more than simple remembrance and sentimental nostalgia--a politically charged articulation of what has been lost to time and it’s relevance to the present. As the poem opens with a desire for this "forgotten" history, it carries within its tone issues of culpability, for we inevitably question why and how this particular history was subsumed. Given that Lorde was African-American, such loss resonates with the consequences of slavery, only one of which was the gradual erosion of certain practices, traditions, and even mythologies belonging to distinct African cultures. Lorde has a seemingly impossible task before her: the reclamation of a history subsumed by time. Ultimately, Lorde’s recovery is actually a mixture of unearthing and rewriting that seeks to not only restore what was lost but to also politically restructure it in the service of a progressive feminist program that recognizes and praises black female activists.
I read "Call" as a poem that allows its title to lead into the first line: "Call Holy ghost woman / stolen out of your name / Rainbow Serpent / whose faces have been forgotten" (lines 1-4). At first glance, these opening lines appear to command this enigmatic "Holy ghost woman" to reclaim Aido Hwedo (the "Rainbow Serpent") by "call"ing it forth. However, there is also a sense in which the speaker, who identifies herself as "a Black woman," may be implicated in "the Holy ghost woman." For she later proclaims "and I believe in the holy ghost," which then rhetorically and ideologically connects the speaker to the "Holy ghost woman," who previously appeared distinctly separate from her. Thus, the opening call for Aido Hwedo is one that is actually directed inward by the speaker’s implicated self. Indeed, the speaker’s relationship to this figure is further complicated when we consider the historically vexed relationship between Christianity and slavery.
As it echoes loudly in the signifier "Holy ghost woman," Christianity returns us to considerations of its problematic and conflicted employment during the Transatlantic slave trade: the Bible was often used to cite divine "justification" for slavery and the supposed inferiority of blacks, and it was also used to argue for the necessary abolition of slavery, even while its promise of salvation also became a source of hope for many slaves. (We should also note here that "holy ghost" appears in he poem three times, a number symbolically important in some forms of Christianity—The Trinity of God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost). The result is that the speaker’s heralding of Aido Hwedo is juxtaposed with her relationship to Christianity. Rather than simply substitute one for the other, she moves towards a program of gendered history that embodies the power and political activism of black women like Rosa Parks and Winnie Mandela, and this is an act that requires more than the recovery of Aido Hwedo’s faces and names; it requires an ongoing recognition of those women who are "enduring warring / [and] sometimes outside" this historical entity.
We might take note here that the speaker in "Call" envisions a relationship to the past that parallels the speaker’s desire in Lucille Clifton's "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989," where Clifton visits an old slave plantation and discovers a double error during a tour: slaves of the plantation are not mentioned and the names of female slaves are missing from a preserved inventory. Clifton then urges the slaves to speak from the silence of death and offer their names to her. In Lorde's poem, the forgotten past’s return is imminent and she paradoxically declares that "I have written your names on my cheekbone" (line 20). Clifton's speaker, however, expresses a powerful desire to know names that will mostly likely never be revealed to her. Clifton’s poem closes not with the expectation that the names will be obtained but with the disappointing and reverberating silence of the graveyard. Consequently, her power in the poem stems from her awareness of the missing names and not from an implied or explicit ability to actually restore their identities. The speaker's power in "Call," however, radiates from her position as a prophet/activist that announces the past's inevitable arrival even as she works to salvage it: "Aido Hwedo is coming."
Returning to Lorde, then, a third figure (aside from Aido Hwedo and the "holy ghost woman") that is crucially important to the speaker’s recovery project is the "Mother" who she asks to "loosen my tongue or adorn me / with a lighter burden." These lines grace the first and last stanzas in a way that hints at but does not reveal the initiating cause for the speaker’s efforts to revive Aido Hwedo. This "Mother" appears to be some force that has prompted the speaker to speak life back into Aido Hwedo, and the gendering of this figure is significant in that the speaker, "a Black woman," is being prompted to recuperate "ancient goddesses," even while she offers up women like Thandt Modise, "she who scrubs the capitol toilets," and Fannie Lou Hamer. Such a lineage establishes a powerful matrilineal order in which the past, present, and future are inflections of various black female figures that move specifically within spheres of political self-empowerment.
One might also argue here that the "Mother" is actually Aido Hwedo, calling on the speaker to flesh it in words and give it presence again in the collective psyche. Either way, for the speaker, "call"ing Aido Hwedo goes hand-in-hand with acknowledging legacies of modern women activists. It’s possible that Lorde is constructing her own divine trinity with Aido Hwedo, the "holy ghost woman," and "Mother," entities that are not easily resolved with one another.
The energy and action of the poem coalesces around womanhood. There is no mention of men, except as "sons of my daughters," so the work that is to be done, the recovery project, is solely in the hands of women who can "loosen" their tongues and offer up voices that revive Aido Hwedo. The speaker, and other women like her, are preparing for an engagement that will be fought with "scraps of different histories." In fact, she informs us that "On worn kitchen stools and tables / we are piecing our weapons together" (lines 8-9). It’s through the piecing together of these historical scraps that a new and hybrid history will emerge, one that contains the lost names and faces of Aido Hwedo and that’s also capable of linking, without losing geographical and social specificity, the political activism of women like Assata Shakur, Yaa Asantewa, and Rosa Parks. Furthermore, in the aforementioned lines, kitchens, spaces usually identified with traditional gender roles that restrict women to nurturing and caretaking functions, are turned into rhetorical and intellectual ammunition factories whose products become "weapons" against the tomb-like silence of the forgotten past. Thus, women become history-wielding warriors demanding truth and recognition.
Towards the end of the poem, the speaker becomes a conduit for various voices: "my mother and Winnie Mandela are singing / in my throat" (lines 73-4). This "singing" is a polyphonic testimony to the strength, endurance, and history of black women. This history is not destructively exclusive, because she is endeavoring to exhume a substantial part of it from a tomb of silence ("one iron silence broken") that has significance for all oppressed and marginalized groups. This is not to say that Lorde is making a universal statement in this poem but that speaker’s desire to exhume the past resonates has analogs within the history of other peoples (i.e. some Native Americans born in the later part of the nineteenth century were forced to abandon their native culture at boarding schools). The aforementioned polyphony performs a "call," beckoning the reader to recognize the endeavors and sacrifices of black women ("my whole life has been an altar"), and the ideal response to this "call" would include an awareness of what has been lost to time. Lorde does not seek to define black womanhood in 'Call," rather she works with a silenced history to revivify the historical importance of black women's dedicated activism, and this endeavor is complicated by the historical legacies of biblically supported slavery and cultural loss.