Audre Lorde was born on February 18, 1934 (to November 17, 1992). She was a revered writer, poet, feminist, and activist who famously described herself as a “black, lesbian, feminist, mother, warrior, poet” when introducing her writing to new readers. In an African naming ceremony before her death, she took the name Gamba Adisa, which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.”
Audrey Geraldine Lorde was the daughter of Frederick Byron Lorde and Linda Gertrude Belmar Lorde, Caribbean immigrants from Barbados and Carriacou who settled in Harlem. Lorde’s mother was of mixed ancestry but could pass for white. Lorde’s father was darker than the Belmar family liked, and only allowed the couple to marry because of Byron Lorde’s charm, ambition, and persistence. Nearsighted to the point of being legally blind, and the youngest of three daughters, Lorde grew up hearing her mother’s stories about the West Indies. She learned to talk while she learned to read at the age of four, and her mother taught her to write at around the same time. Lorde wrote her first poem when she was in eighth grade. She chose to drop the “y” from her name while still a child.
Audre Lorde’s first poem to be published was accepted by “Seventeen” magazine when she was still in high school. The poem had been rejected by her school paper, Lorde explains in “Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation,” because her “English teachers…said [it] was much too romantic.” After graduating from Hunter College High School, and experiencing the grief of her best friend Genevieve “Gennie” Thompson’s death, Lorde left her parents’ home, and became estranged from her family.
Audre Lorde attended Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, from 1954 to 1959, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. While studying library science, Lorde supported herself by working various odd jobs such as factory worker, ghost writer, social worker, X-ray technician, medical clerk, and arts and crafts supervisor. Her first lesbian affair was with a coworker at a factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
In 1954, Lorde spent a pivotal year as a student at the National University of Mexico, a period she described as a time of affirmation and renewal in which she confirmed her identity on personal and artistic levels as a lesbian and poet. On her return to New York, Lorde went back to college, worked as a librarian, continued writing, and became an active participant in the gay culture of New York City’s Greenwich Village. She entered the “gay girl” scene but was often the only Black woman in the bars. Lorde recalled that she did not try to build ties to the other three or four Black women in the scene as it seemed to threaten their status as exotic outsiders. Lorde attempted to join the Harlem Writers Guild but the overt homophobia of the group led her to leave.
Lorde furthered her education at Columbia University, earning a master’s degree in library science in 1961. She also worked during this time as a librarian at the Mount Vernon Public Library, and married attorney Edwin Rollins. They divorced in 1970 after having two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan. In 1966, Lorde became head librarian at Town School Library in New York City, where she remained until 1968.
From 1968 onward, Lorde held various academic positions: first, as a lecturer in creative writing at City College and in the Education Department at Herbert H. Lehman College, where she also taught courses on racism; later, as an associate professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she fought for a Black Studies Department. Lorde also taught English at Hunter College, spent six weeks as a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, and became a visiting lecturer throughout the United States. Lorde’s first book of poems, “The First Cities,” was published in 1968.
During her time at Tougaloo College, she met Frances Clayton, a professor of psychology who became her romantic partner until 1989. However, in the late 1970s, Lorde had a brief affair with sculptor and painter Mildred Thompson, whom she met in Nigeria at the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. Their affair ran its course during the time that Thompson lived in Washington, DC. Around 1990, Lorde became involved with Gloria I. Joseph, her partner for the remainder of her life.
Audre Lorde’s second book of poetry, “Cable to Rage,” appeared in 1970. Neither it, nor “The First Cities” contained any lesbian content. In 1971, Lorde publicly read a lesbian love poem for the first time. It was later published in “Ms.” magazine but was rejected by her editor for inclusion in her third volume of poetry, “From a Land Where Other People Live.” This book was nominated for a National Book Award in 1974. Lorde’s next volume of poetry, “Coal,” was published by W. W. Norton. “Coal” and its successor, “The Black Unicorn,” in 1978, were widely reviewed and reached a commercial audience.
Throughout her life, Audre Lorde fought for African American rights both as an activist and as a writer. The political nature of her work is obvious in essays such as “Apartheid U.S.A.” and “I am your Sister,” where, while stressing the need for women to organize across sexualities, she examines the way that Black lesbians are stereotyped by whites as well as by blacks. Lorde’s lesbianism had a major influence on her work. “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” (1982), considered by the writer as a “biomythography,” a synthesis of history, biography, and mythology, and “Sister Outsider” in 1984, a collection of essays widely praised by readers and critics alike, are often included in the curriculum in women studies programs.
As changes occurred in her life, Audre Lorde took her devoted readers along the journey with her. But consistent throughout her remarkable work, Lorde’s voice rings through with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling. “I have a duty,” she stated in an interview, “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.”
Concerned with modern society’s tendency to categorize groups of people, Audre Lorde fought the marginalization of such categories as lesbian and Black woman, thereby empowering her readers to react to the prejudice in their own lives. Lorde’s righteous indignation did not confine itself to racial injustice but extended to feminist issues as well, and occasionally she criticized men, including African American men for their role in the perpetuating of sex discrimination. “As Black people, we cannot begin our dialogue by denying the oppressive nature of male privilege,” Lorde stated. “And if Black males choose to assume that privilege, for whatever reason, raping, brutalizing, and killing women, then we cannot ignore Black male oppression. One oppression does not justify another.”
Intertwined with the affirmations of racial and sexual identities, love remains a constant theme in Lorde’s work. Various forms of love—both lesbian and heterosexual—appear at the center of her texts, particularly her first collections of poetry: “The First Cities,” “The New York Head Shop and Museum,” and “The Black Unicorn.” In her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” she examines the question of loving, and the tremendous power of the erotic. For Lorde, the erotic was a deep enlightening force within women’s lives, a source of power and knowledge. In her poem “The American Cancer Society, or There Is More than One Way to Skin a Coon,” she protested against white America thrusting its unnatural culture on the Black community.
In general, the voices in Lorde’s work challenge the conventions and norms of a racist, heterosexist, and homophobic society, and stress the urgency of fighting against inequality. From her first texts, the poet reiterates her sexual identity, and reaffirms her literary as well as social space. In Lorde’s poetry, essays, interviews, and fiction, she articulates a political discourse that underscores the oppression suffered by Black lesbians. In her essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde attacked the underlying racism of feminism, describing it as unrecognized dependence on the patriarchy. She argued that, by denying difference in the category of women, feminists merely passed on old systems of oppression, and that, in so doing, they were preventing any real, lasting change.
“My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds. [Senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity…or even about sex. It is about revolution and change,” she said. Continuing, she adds, “Helms represents white patriarchal power…[and he] knows that my writing is aimed at his destruction, and the destruction of every single thing he stands for.”
In 1980, together with Barbara Smith and Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher specifically dedicated to furthering the writings of Black feminists. Lorde would also become increasingly concerned over the plight of Black women in South Africa under apartheid, creating Sisterhood in Support of Sisters there, and remaining an active voice on behalf of these women throughout the remainder of her life. In addition to her service as an editor of the lesbian journal “Chrysalis,” Audre Lorde also served as the State Poet of New York from 1991 until her death.
During the time period of 1984 to 1992, Lorde spent an expansive amount of time in Berlin, Germany, doing activist work with the Afro-German population. She was originally invited to be a guest professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute of North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin in 1984. In 2012, filmmaker Dagmar Schultz released his documentary about those years, titled “Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992.”
In addition to her poetry, Lorde was noted for her eloquent prose, one example of which was her courageous account of the often agonizing struggle to overcome breast cancer and mastectomy. “The Cancer Journals” was her first major prose work, and discussed Lorde’s feelings about this fierce warrior’s long battle with her own mortality. Her struggle against cancer began with her first diagnosis of breast cancer in 1978, and her subsequent mastectomy. “The Cancer Journals,” published in 1981, won the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award. Even as she articulates her greatest fears, and the possibility of dying without having said the things she as a woman and an artist needed to say, she also gave readers a unique insight into her bravery and strength.
At the relatively young age of 58, Audre Lorde would succumb to the ravages of liver cancer on November 17, 1992, at her home in Saint Croix, after a long 14-year struggle with the disease.
Lorde was the subject of the documentary “A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde” that shows Lorde as an author, poet, human rights activist, feminist, and lesbian. She was also featured in Jennifer Abod’s documentary “The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde,” which uses footage from the four-day conference called “I Am Your Sisters: Forging Global Connections Across Differences,” held in Boston in 1990. Lorde received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle in 1992. Publishing Triangle subsequently instituted the Audre Lorde Award to honor works of lesbian poetry, in 2001. In 1997, Norton released their posthumous volume, “The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.”
We remember Audre Lorde in appreciation of her contributions to American writing and scholarship, for using her creative talent to confront and address the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and for her many contributions to our community.