Coal Poem by Audre Lorde Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


“Coal” by Audre Lorde is a poem that talks about the Black Identity and the oppression faced by these individuals. 

About the Poet 

Audre Lorde is an American writer, poet and civil rights activist mostly known for her poems and prose writing. 


Stanza One

Line 1-3


Is the total black, being spoken

From the earth's inside.

The poem begins with a single pronoun as the first verse of the poem. It depicts the poet’s effort for individuality which is visually portrayed by the placement of “I”, singled out in the first verse. It might also show loneliness faced by the poet or the speaker. 

In the next lines, the “I” is linked with “the total black” that is speaking from the “earth’s inside”. These terms refer to Black identity and its core that is as natural as the earth’s inside. 

The “I” may also identify with the black individuals and their emotions and expressions that have been buried underground by the society due to oppression and injustice. It also signifies with the title “coal” which is “black” in colour deep underneath the earth’s surface. 

Line 4-7

There are many kinds of open.

How a diamond comes into a knot of flame   

How a sound comes into a word, coloured   

By who pays what for speaking.

The word “open” in line four refers to the freedom of speech and expression that every person possesses. It’s an open door for everyone including the African American people. 

In the next line, the poet explains how diamonds formed due to heat within the earth’s inside. Similarly, the compares the Black individuals to diamonds signifying the colour of their skin is black as carbon because it comes from within the earth. 

The last two lines of this stanza tells how coloured people often have to pay for what they are speaking. It tells how any sound they make is held against them and they have to suffer the consequences. 

Stanza Two 

Line 8-10

Some words are open

Like a diamond on glass windows

Singing out within the crash of passing sun

The poet repeats how some words are open. In the next lines, there is heavy imagery that shows diamond breaking glass but the noise it creates is as beautiful as a song, hence “singing” is used by the poet. 

This imagery portrays the violence and terrorised black lives to show the oppression faced by these people. 

Line 11-15

Then there are words like stapled wagers

In a perforated book—buy and sign and tear apart—

And come whatever wills all chances

The stub remains

An ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.

Line 11 and 12 might portray buying and selling of books but in a much deeper sense it might mean the buying and selling of people. This reflects the slavery of the past and the buying and selling of African American people. 

The next lines shows the violence and torture that these people faced. “An ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge” precisely paints an image of a person being tortured. 

The poet says how Black people had to go through all the oppression and torture and all that remained of them were the stubs, ie, the bills of transaction. The tooth is what is left of the person. 

Line 16-20

Some words live in my throat

Breeding like adders. Others know sun

Seeking like gypsies over my tongue

To explode through my lips

Like young sparrows bursting from shell.

In the next lines, the poet describes how “some words” live in her throat. This can tell of her inability to speak and express herself fully and the rage this suppression causes her. 

The words that she is suppressing are ready to explode through her lips which the poet compares to the young sparrows that burst out from their shells. This suggests the urge and eagerness that she has to subdue. 

Line 21-22

Some words

Bedevil me.

The poet says how some words harass her. The words that are hers are often used against her and turn on her. Which is why she prefers to not utter a word. 

Line 23-26

Love is a word another kind of open—

As a diamond comes into a knot of flame

I am black because I come from the earth's inside   

Take my word for jewel in your open light.

The poet describes how “love” is another kind of openness, i.e., the freeing nature of love. The poet proclaims her freedom through love. 

The next two lines are reiterated in the poem, but it might mean something else. These lines are now associated with love and therefore “as a diamond comes into a knot of flame” might mean the love that she found in all this misery. 

The power of love to set one free despite being trapped under the societal norms or injustice of the world. “I am black because I come from the earth’s inside” is a confession of the poet’s identity.

In a much deeper sense, the earth’s inside which is now associated with love might refer to the womb from where the poet is born. The womb that has been violated and tortured. 

The last line describes how the words she is speaking now can be taken into open light. This shows her courage and fearlessness towards judgement and oppression.