African American poet, essayist, autobiographer, and activist. Audre Lorde astounded and awakened generations of women with her writing, and her legacy continues to inspire a new generation of young writers today. She was born Audrey Geraldine Lorde in Harlem on February 18, 1934, to Caribbean immigrants Frederic Byron from Barbados and Linda Belmar Lorde from Grenada. Lorde's early childhood had significant ramifications for her later development. Her extreme nearsightedness went undetected until she was almost four years old—a fact that impacted her perception of the world from the time she was a child through her adult life. She recalls that she began talking at age five only when she discovered the magical possibilities of the written word. Her first memories of Catholic school were about knowing how to write her name but being chastised by authoritarian teachers for not following directions. Lorde was a precocious child with an ambiguous relationship to her mother. She states, in her autobiographical Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), “I am the reflection of my mother's secret poetry as well as of her hidden angers.” She recalls the nuns telling her mother not to put heavy clothes on her because then she would not feel the strap they used to punish her. Even before grammar school Audre preferred to drop the “y” from her name, loving the “evenness” of that spelling in relation to her last name.
Lorde began writing poetry in her teens and published her first poem (a love sonnet) in Seventeen magazine while still in high school, but even before that, poetry was central to her life. She attended Hunter High School and graduated from Hunter College in 1959 with a degree in philosophy and literature. She received her master's degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961 and worked as a librarian for several years thereafter. Lorde came of age and discovered the lesbian community both as a student in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she lived for several months, and in Greenwich Village where she lived on her own “proud and poor” for a time. In 1962 she married Edwin Rollins, a legal aide, and had two children with him, Johnathan and Elizabeth. During this time her poems were anthologized in two volumes of black poetry including Langston Hughes's anthology New Negro Poets, and Lorde also left her librarian career to teach creative writing. Lorde's first poetry volume, The First Cities, was published in 1968, and this same year she obtained a National Endowment for the Arts writer-in-residence grant to teach at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where she met her partner, psychotherapist Frances Clayton. Her experience there teaching aspiring but at-risk young black artists was a pivotal experience for Lorde as she began to see the power and possibilities of her art to impact the lives of others, while also more deeply recognizing that to be a black lesbian poet in the 1960s was to endure a triple kind of invisibility.
Lorde divorced her husband in 1970 and moved to Staten Island where she and Clayton raised her children. Between 1970 and 1976, Lorde published four more volumes of poetry and gained greater recognition for her work, including being named Staten Island Community College Woman of the Year. She received the National Book Award in 1974 for From a Land Where Other People Live (1973). At the awards ceremony Lorde's close friend and fellow poet Adrienne Rich read a collective statement of acceptance written by Lorde, Rich, and Alice Walker (all three of whom had been nominated that year), in response to the competitive patriarchal rewards structure of the arts.
In 1974 Lorde made her first trip to Africa with her children. Her seventh poetry volume The Black Unicorn is highly influenced by her experience of the legends and landscapes of Dahomey (now Benin), and many of these poems reference African mythology and female deities and call upon ancestral knowledge as a way to reclaim women's power as warrior and sage. Severed from the ritual language of her foremothers, the poet here creates a new way to honor those ancient traditions through her poetic voice. These poems proclaim sisterhood and female connection now made more realizable through the infusion and creative potential of African myth.
Lorde was keynote speaker and guest lecturer at many conferences and colleges, including being a featured speaker at the first national march for gays and lesbians in Washington D.C., in 1979. Many of her speeches and essays are collected in Sister Outsider (1985). One of Lorde's most important essays, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” was first given at Mount Holyoke College and later published by Crossing Press. In this essay she talks about the danger (and thus the promise) that women's erotic power represents for dominant power relations, and its crucial role in enacting authentic social change. For Lorde, the spiritual (psychic and emotional) should not be separate from the political, and likewise the erotic should not be separate from the spiritual: this erotic power is conceived and realized always in relation to another and can lead to self-realization and attainment of real understanding. Lorde, perhaps more than any other writer of her time, emphasizes the value of feeling and emotion for empowerment. Deriving power from within, she argues, makes us better able to challenge oppression from without. Although Lorde has been criticized by some literary critics of essentialist thought, it is more important to consider her work as one continuous work of poetry with one idea always leading to another, being realized through the process of its articulation. Considered as a whole, Lorde's writing continuously works through contradictions and thus avoids essentialist traps.
A critical moment in Lorde's life came in 1978 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This experience is documented in her first nonfiction book The Cancer Journals published in 1980, the same year in which she was inducted into the Hunter College Hall of Fame. With this text, Lorde brought to light the otherwise hidden epidemic of breast cancer in women, relating both its personal toll and critiquing the sociocultural and environmental factors that underlie its causes. Declaring that “our bodies have an imprint of the connection between work and life,” Lorde empowered other women by not wearing a prosthesis after her mastectomy—transgressing and challenging once again sexist ideas of women's physical appearance. The Cancer Journals marks a shift in Lorde's writing in which the immediacy of priorities and the urgency to be vocal and visible become apparent. Lorde comes to terms with the enormity of the work that still needed to be done and uses the impetus of her own mortality as a source of power in her writing and activism. As Alexis De Veaux states in her 2004 definitive biography of Audre Lorde, “The Impact of cancer performed a transfiguration not only of Lorde's physicality, but of her personality, creativity and social activism” (xii). Lorde aligned her struggle with cancer with struggles against racism, capitalism, and homophobia. Living with cancer, she declared, made her “more able to touch her power because she does not have to reckon with fear.” Indeed survival is a recurring theme in Lorde's work. On the one hand, she recognizes that “we were never meant to survive,” while at the same time she advocates the need to create and to give voice in order to endure. Indeed for Lorde, poetry is “not a luxury” but rather itself a means of survival. Lorde further explores the impact of cancer on her life in A Burst of Light (1988), which won a Before Columbus Foundation Award in 1989. That anthology of interviews and essays by Lorde includes “A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer,” a series of journal entry excerpts written over three years in reaction to being diagnosed with metastasized liver cancer in 1984 two weeks before her 50th birthday.
Lorde's ability and advocacy in making connections among disparate women's communities is legendary. For Lorde, differences of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity make interdependence all the more necessary, and so she adamantly argued that we must move beyond mere tolerance of difference but rather strive to gain an integral understanding of how we differ from and come together with others. This insight in turn will provide yet another source of authority that is enough to challenge power relations of dominance within capitalist patriarchal structures. She pits language and community against fear, arguing that we all must bridge our experiences together manifestly and vocally. In Sister Outsider (1984), Lorde declared that “there are no hierarchies of oppression”; she was one of the first to perceive all oppressions as equally injurious. Eminently quotable, Lorde also declared to progressive feminist communities that “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house,” that is, until each of us recognizes our own part in oppression and strives to build authentic coalitions based on difference, we will be complicit in perpetuating patriarchal power relations. Lorde enacted this belief in both her writing and in activist commitment. Kitchen Table Press exemplifies her philosophy of interdependence and connectedness. Inspired by a conversation between Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith in 1980 about the need for women of color to have access to publishing, the Kitchen Table Press became the first U.S. publishing company run by and for women of color. It was the first to forge connections among Asian, Native, African, and Latina American women regardless of sexual orientation who before that had primarily worked separately in media and publishing.
In 1984 Lorde traveled to Germany as a visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin where she taught seminars on poetry and black women poets. Lorde's visit inspired the publication of the Afro-German anthology Farbe bekennen (translated into English as Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1991) for which she wrote the introduction). Her European tour underscored for her the importance of transnational African women's solidarity and the interwoven struggles of all women throughout the world. Without that union with others, her work was meaningless. And it was this interconnective value that made Lorde's work have profound resonance for women from the United States to Europe to South Africa, Australia, and Cuba. The value of her work is recognized in Jennifer Abod's film The Edge of Each Other's Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde (2002), which documents a four-day Boston conference, “I Am Your Sister: Forging Global Connections across Differences,” where 1,200 women and men and activist youth from 23 countries relied on Lorde's work to examine cross-cultural awareness of race, gender, sexuality, and class divisions.
Lorde's 1982 innovative life narrative, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name altered notions of autobiography. Subtitled “A Biomythography,” this textual memoir explores the mythic and actual parameters of identity formation. Lorde takes Zami, “a Corriacou name given to women who work together as friends and lovers” as a title metaphor for her own name to denote the collective of women within one individual name. In this way, the autobiographical “I” becomes a collective “we,” and she is able to (re)create how other women shaped her identity while simultaneously establishing her own.
Two years after Lorde was diagnosed with metastasized liver cancer, she returned to the Caribbean where she moved to St. Croix with her then partner Gloria Joseph. There she continued her activism and writing while also struggling with her disease. After Hurricane Hugo devastated the Virgin Islands in 1989, Lorde and Joseph published Hell under God's Orders: Hurricane Hugo in St. Croix, Disaster and Survival. Both she and Joseph continued to work with local and international women's organizations. Shortly before she died, Lorde took the African name “Gamba Adisa,” meaning “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Clear.” In 1991 she was named New York State Poet Laureate. Audre Lorde's papers are officially archived at Spelman College in Atlanta.
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