Roy Herndon Smith
The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.
–Audre Lourde, “Power” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/53918/power-56d233adafeb3)
Audre Lourde’s poem, “Power,” is a cry that draws us into the world in which a white policeman shoots and kills a ten-year-old Black child.
Lourde quotes the policeman, who says, “I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else / only the color.” He does not “notice” that the child is a person. The policeman perceives an abstraction, a “color,” the sign of a threat from there, outside himself.
The difference between the poem and the policeman’s statement is “[t]he difference between poetry and rhetoric.” Poetry awakens us to reality as a living, ever-changing mesh of interdependent beings. To receive a poem is to be in and of the world it evokes. Rhetoric seeks to persuade us that a proposition, “the color” justified the killing, is an objective truth that exists apart from us.
In rhetoric, language becomes a tool or a weapon. Lourde describes the outcome of the trial of the policeman; he “was set free” by eleven white male jurors who used rhetoric to convince the one Black female juror to join them in a declaration of his innocence; “they had dragged her … / over the hot coals / of four centuries of white male approval / until she let go / the first real power she ever had / and lined her own womb with cement / to make a graveyard for our children.” Rhetoric—“only the color”—kills, but, before it kills, it works to make its target let go of poetry, the language of the primal power that connects people to each other and the world, the power of co-creativity, of life.
Rhetoric corrupts power, rendering it “useless,” or worse, a poison “pooling,“ until it drives the “disconnected” person who contains it to possess, in a raging, or cold and calculated, internally contradictory, violating attempt to “connect” to another person as a possessable object. The Black teen, rhetorically depersonalized as a Black “beast,” rapes “an 85 year old white woman.” Rhetorical disconnection—”only the color”—begets violent objectification.
The original, uncorrupted power is connection, what Mary Parker Follett calls “power with”–in Lourde’s words, the power to “touch / the destruction / within me” and outside of me, to know, in my body, “the gunshot wounds / and the dead child dragging his shattered black / face off the edge of my sleep.” Another word for this primal power is compassion, the feeling, suffering, and caring with others that makes domesticity—life in bodies, homes, and families. Here, inside the poetry of this concrete reality, we know we must be “ready to kill” ourselves to save our children.