Audre Lorde, poet and writer (Black History Month)
A self-proclaimed “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde was a Caribbean-American poet, writer, and activist in the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements. Bent Alaska presents her story as part of our celebration of Black History Month 2012, with thanks to GLAAD and the Equality Forum.
A self-proclaimed “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde (born February 18, 1934, died November 17, 1992) was a Caribbean-American poet, writer, and activist in the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements. She was the author of numerous books of poetry and non-fiction prose, and in 1980 helped found Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the world’s first publishing company run by women of color.
Lorde was the third daughter of immigrant parents from Grenada. She grew up in Harlem during the Depression, hearing her mother’s stories about the West Indies. Nearsighted to the point of legal blindness, she was also tongue-tied, and didn’t learn to talk until she learned to read at the age of four. She began writing poetry at age twelve and published her first poem in Seventeen magazine at age fifteen.
In 1954, Lorde attended the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where she solidified her identity as both a poet and a lesbian. She entered the Greenwich Village gay scene after her return to New York in 1955. While continuing her studies, she supported herself through a variety of jobs as a factory worker, ghost writer, social worker, medical clerk, arts and crafts supervisor, and X-ray technician. She received a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in 1959 and in 1961 earned a master’s degree in Library Science from Columbia University.
In 1962, Lorde married Edwin Rollins, a white lawyer, with whom she had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan, before their separation and divorce (finalized in 1975). Meanwhile, she worked as a librarian while continuing to write and publishing poetry in a variety of venues, including Langston Hughes‘ New Negro Poets: U.S.A. (1964), black literary magazines, and foreign anthologies. She was also politically active in the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements.
In 1968, she left her job as head librarian at the University of New York to become a creative writer and lecturer. That year her first volume of poetry, The First Cities, was published with The Poets Press. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, becoming poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Her second volume of poetry, Cables to Rage (1970), mainly written at Tougaloo, is particularly noteworthy for the longest poem in the volume, “Martha” — her first openly lesbian poem to be published. It was at Tougaloo that she met Frances Clayton, a white professor of psychology, who remained her romantic partner through most of her life.
Other volumes followed: From A Land Where Other People Live (1973), New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), Coal (1976), Between Our Selves (1976), and The Black Unicorn (1978). Coal, which compiled poetry from her first two books, was significant as her first volume to be released by a major publisher, W. W. Norton. It thus introduced her work to a larger audience, and also marked the beginning of Lorde’s association with poet and writer Adrienne Rich, who was also published by Norton. The Black Unicorn, also published by Norton, is widely considered Lorde’s most complex and brilliant poetic achievement. Adrienne Rich wrote of it,
Refusing to be circumscribed by any simple identity, Audre Lorde writes as a Black woman, a mother, a daughter, a Lesbian, a feminist, a visionary; poems of elemental wildness and healing, nightmare and lucidity. Her rhythms and accents have the timelessness of a poetry which extends beyond white Western politics, beyond the anger and wisdom of Black America, beyond the North American earth, to Abomey and the Dahomeyan Amazons. These are poems nourished in an oral tradition, which also blaze and pulse on the page, beneath the reader’s eye.
Lorde’s complete poetry is collected in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.
Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and underwent a mastectomy. Six years after her mastectomy, she was diagnosed with liver cancer, from which she would later die. She explored her long battle with cancer in her first prose work, The Cancer Journals (1980), developed from journal entries and essays written between 1977 and 1979. The Cancer Journals was named the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year in 1981.
Other prose works include the “biomythography” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), which chronicled her life beginning with her childhood as the daughter of West Indian immigrants; Sister Outsider (1984), a collection of fifteen essays and speeches in which she addressed sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class; and A Burst of Light (1988), whose title essay explored her diagnosis with liver cancer. A wide-ranging collection of her non-fiction prose is included in I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde (2011).
Rich with introspection, Lorde’s work, both poetry and prose, contains extensive sociopolitical commentary. As a lesbian woman of color Lorde asserted, “I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.” She was a vocal critic of sexism in the black community and of unexamined racism in the feminist movement, famously writing an “Open Letter to Mary Daly” in 1979 (later published in Sister Outsider) challenging lesbian-feminist theologian Mary Daly on white ethnocentrism in Daly’s 1978 book Gyn/Ecology. Lorde also wrote and spoke eloquently about the relationship between supposedly incompatible aspects of her identity, telling Carla M. Hammond in a 1981 interview in the Denver Quarterly,
There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself — whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. — because that’s the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you’ve lost because then you become acquired or bought by that particular essence of yourself, and you’ve denied yourself all of the energy that it takes to keep all those others in jail. Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat…. No matter where we key into it, it’s the same work, just different pieces of ourselves doing it.
In an African naming ceremony shortly before her death, Lorde took the name Gamba Adisa: “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.” She died on November 17, 1992 in St. Croix, where she had been living with Gloria I. Joseph.
Audre Lorde is the namesake of The Audre Lorde Project, founded in 1996, a “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People of Color community organizing center” focusing on the New York City area. Audre Lorde’s life is the subject of the Lambda Literary Award-winning biography Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veaux; a 30-minute “imaginary biopic” by Sonali Fernando, The Body of a Poet: A Tribute to Audre Lorde (1995); a 50-minute documentary, The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde (2002) by Jennifer Abod; and a full-length (90-minute) documentary, A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde (1995) from Third World Newsreel. Watch the trailer: