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Lorde, Audre 1934–1992

Audre Lorde 19341992

Poet fiction and nonfiction writer, activist

Daughter of Immigrants

Struggle with Cancer Finds Its Way into Print

Returning to her Familys Homeland

Selected writings


Poet, essayist, and lecturer Audre Lorde spent a lifetime exploring the pleasures and pain of being a black woman in America. Lordes was an essential voice in African American letters. Her work bravely confronted some of the most important crises in American society: racism, homophobia, the in-sensitivity of the health care system, relations between the sexes, and parenthood. Fellow author Jewelle Gomez noted in Essence magazine that Lordes work in several genres was a mandate to move throughvictimization and create independent standards that will help us live full and righteous lives.She was a figure all women could use as a grounding when they fought for recognition of their worth. At the time of her death in 1992, Audre Lorde was poet laureate of New York Statean honor bestowed upon her the prior year.

Lorde first made her literary name as a member of the black arts movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Along with other writers such as Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka, Lorde used poetry to confront both the joy she found in her intimate and familial relationships as well as her rage against the racism and discrimination she faced in her daily life. A unique blend of personal ruminations and reflections on global social issues, her writings deal with such topics as her own homosexuality, her role as a parent, her unresolved feelings toward her mother, and the significance of Africa as a cultural and psychic fatherland for black Americans. Gomez wrote of Lorde: There was an undeniable link between all parts of her selffeminist, Black woman, lesbian, activist, artist, friend, teacher and mother. Her insistence on being seen for her whole self and refusal to let one aspect of her being dominate or obscure the other made Audre Lordes work and life an invaluable gift and a persistent necessity.

Daughter of Immigrants

Lorde was born and raised in New York Citys Harlem, but her parents both retained links with their Caribbean island home. Her father was from Barbados and her mother from Grenada. Before she was born, her parents left the economically depressed conditions on Grenada to move to New York City. The poet told Progressive magazine: My mother had sisters working in New York. The dream in those days was to make some money in New York and return to the islands to open a little store or business. My

At a Glance

Born Audre Geraldine Lorde, February 18, 1934, in New York, NY; died of cancer, November 17, 1992, in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands; daughter of Frederic Byron (a real estate broker) and Linda (Belmar) Lorde; married Edwon Ashley Rollins (an attorney), March 31, 1962 (divorced, 1970); children: Elizabeth, Jonathan. Education: Attended National University of Mexico, 1954; Hunter College (now Hunter College of the City University of New York), B.A., 1959; Columbia University, M.L.S., 1961. Politics: Radical.

Librarian in New York City, 1961-68; writer and lecturer, 1968-92. Professor of English and creative writing at City College of the City University of New York, 1968-70, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 1970, and Hunter College, 1980-93; Thomas Hunter Distinguished Professor at Hunter, 1987-93. Cofounder, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1980, and Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa (a political committee).

Selected awards: National Endowment for the Arts grants, 1968 and 1981; National Book Award nominee for poetry, 1974, for From a Land Where Other People Live; Borough of Manhattan Presidents Award for literary excellence, 1987; American Book Award, 1989, for A Burst of Light; Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, 1991 (recipient becomes poet laureate of New York); several honorary degrees.

parents came to New York, and then came the Depression and babiesI was born in 1934.

Lorde and her sisters grew up in an apartment at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. Her father found work as a real estate broker, and frugal living enabled him to send his daughters to Catholic school. Lorde recalled that she loved to read and often memorized passages of poetry that she found relevant to her experience. When other peoples poetry no longer corresponded to the depths of her own feelings, she began to write herself. I wrote poetry in the seventh or eighth grade and loved music, she told Progressive. Some teachers encouraged me, and I expressed a lot of things about how I felt. I was one of the editors of our high-school magazine and wrote a love sonnet for the magazine. But a teacher said it couldnt be published. So I submitted it to Seventeen magazine and it was published there.

After graduating from New Yorks Hunter High School in 1951, Lorde spent a few years working in Manhattan and traveling in other parts of North America. A pivotal experience occurred when she visited Mexico and saw a more tolerant racial climate. Id always had the feeling I was strange, different, that there was something wrong with me, she told Progressive. In Mexico I learned to walk upright, to say the things I felt. I became conscious that I hadnt the courage to speak up. Lorde returned to New York and earned a bachelors degree at Hunter Collegenow a part of the City University of New York. She then took a masters degree in library science at Columbia University, finishing her studies in 1961.

Audre Lorde might have drifted into the financially comfortable, relatively obscure work of a community librarian. Instead she became engaged as a political activist, a feminist, and a writer. She married a white Brooklyn attorney in 1962 and lived with him for eight years before divorcing. Both Lorde and her husband remained actively involved with their son and daughter, who were born during this period.

Lorde began giving poetry readings and publishing her verse in the late 1960s, a very important time in the evolution of black American letters; a number of articulate, passionate poets and lecturers used their writings as a means to explore themes such as racism and empowerment. Lorde was among those who wrote and spoke openly about issues such as lesbianism, womens rights, and bigotry. Early poems such as The American Cancer Society or There Is More Than One Way to Skin a Coon and The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches deal with white Americas not-so-subtle attempts to eradicate black culture.

Gomez vividly remembered Lordes contribution to the black arts movement. Activists, students and neighborhood folks flocked to church basements, community centers and theaters looking to the rhythm of poets like Nikki Giovanni, Jayne Cortez, Amiri Baraka and Audre for inspiration while we shaped our newly rediscovered black identities. Audrewas the vision for our new beginning.

Her fame as a poet well established by the mid-1970s, Lorde began a long teaching career in a series of American universities, culminating in her being named Thomas Hunter Professor of English at Hunter College. Her third book of poetry, From a Land Where Other People Live, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1974 and is still considered one of the landmark works of black literature from the 1970s.

Struggle with Cancer Finds Its Way into Print

Late in 1978 Lorde was stricken with breast cancer. She was 44 at the time. The experience of undergoing a mastectomy brought her into contact with a whole new realm of feminist problems: against the advice of the health care workers who attended her, she refused to wear a prosthesis that would help to mask the results of the surgery. Instead she spoke and wrote openly about her operation in an attempt to share her particular experience with other women facing the same disease. At a time when one woman in ten might expect to contract breast cancer, Lordes was among the pioneering written works about the personal, emotional side of the ordeal. Her book on the subject, The Cancer Journals, was published in 1980 and remains in print today.

Her first illness opened new paths of self-expression for Lorde. Although she continued to write and publish poetry, she also finished a novel/memoir in 1982 entitled Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. In addition, she contributed numerous essays on political and health care topics to left-wing and black-audience periodicals. Recognizing that other women writers needed a forum for their works, Lorde helped to launch Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980 and a political committee called Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa. She remained active with both ventures until her death.

On February 1, 1984two weeks before her 50th birthdayLorde was diagnosed with liver cancer. The condition is very serious and usually results in death within two years. Once again Lorde was confronted with an American medical establishment with its routines and callous disregard for feelings. Doctors told her to have surgery right away; otherwise she would soon die a terribly painful death. In her 1988 book A Burst of Light, Lorde chronicled her decision not to accept the strategy of her New York tumor specialist, as well as her subsequent treatment in Europe with homeopathic medicine and meditation. Out of this personal fight came political policy, wrote Gomez. Her ground-breaking book, written relatively early in her struggle with cancer, helped to restimulate the feminist movements attention to womens health care.

Lorde underwent experimental treatment in Germany and Switzerland, and she lived much longer than American doctors had predicted. One lasting ramification of her health problems was a change in her home address. A resident of New York City most of her life, she decided to move to the United States Virgin Islands, where the warmer weather might be more congenial to her cure. For the remainder of her life she traveled between her home in St. Croix and destinations in America at which she taught, lectured, or engaged in her political or publishing activities.

Returning to her Familys Homeland

Reflecting on her return to her Caribbean roots, Lorde told Progressive: One of the salvations of the Virgin Islands is the recognition of these islands connection to Caribbean life. At the same time, the Virgin Islands are in a very anomalous position. They are a colony receiving manna from the United States, but on the other hand the United States puts us down. We are neither fish nor fowl. Actually, that is a favorite position of mine, the outsiderthere is strength in that, you can see both directions at once.

Lorde continued writing and speaking on important political and social issues as her health deteriorated yet again in the late 1980s. Following the devastation caused to St. Croix by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, she helped organize relief efforts in the American cities where she was so well known. She taught at Hunter College as often as she could, and she received honorary doctorate degrees from several colleges, including Oberlin and Haverford. Also in 1989 her work A Burst of Light won the American Book Award for nonfiction.

Perhaps the highest honor bestowed upon Lorde came in 1991. That year she won New Yorks Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, an award that recognizes the recipient as poet laureate of New York State. The honor came even as Lorde was struggling with spreading cancer and kidney disease, but she was pleased nonetheless. In an interview granted shortly before her November 1992 death from cancer-related causes, Lorde told Progressive: Poetry is the conflict in the lives we lead. Poetry as an art intensifies ourselves, alters and underlines our feelings. It is most subversive because it is in the business of encouraging change.

In her book The Cancer Journals, Lorde wrote of black women: We have been sad long enough to make this earth either weep or grow fertile. Through her own distinguished body of work, Audre Lorde nurtured that fertilityin herself and in other women of all races and creeds.

Selected writings

The First Cities (poetry), Poets Press, 1968.

Cables to Rage (poetry), Broadside Press, 1970.

From a Land Where Other People Live (poetry), Broadside Press, 1973.

The New York Head Shop and Museum (poetry), Broadside Press, 1974.

Coal (poetry), Norton, 1976.

Between Our Selves (poetry), Eidolon, 1976.

The Black Unicorn (poetry), Norton, 1978.

The Cancer Journals (nonfiction), Spinsters Ink, 1980.

Chosen Poems Old and New, Norton, 1982.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (fiction), Crossing Press, 1982.

Sister Outsider (nonfiction), Crossing Press, 1984.

Our Dead Behind Us (poetry), Norton, 1986.

A Burst of Light (nonfiction), Firebrand Books, 1988.

Also author of fiction under pseudonym Rey Domini; contributor to poetry anthologies and magazines.



Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.

Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1989, pp. 364-66.

Christian, Barbara, editor, Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, Pergamon, 1985.

Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday, 1984.

Hall, Donald, editor, Claims for Poetry, University of Michigan Press, 1982, pp. 282-85.

Tate, Claudia, editor, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1984.


American Poetry Review, March/April 1980, pp. 18-21.

Denver Quarterly, Spring 1981, pp. 10-27.

Essence, January 1988, pp. 46-48,107,112; May 1993, pp. 89-90, 142-43.

New York Times, November 20, 1992, p. A-23.

Progressive, January 1991, pp. 32-33.

Utne Reader, March/April 1993, p. 20.

Anne Janette Johnson

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Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde

The African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992) wrote poetry exploring the relationships between lovers, children and parents, and friends in both a very personal and a socially relevant manner. She was a feminist poet who challenged racial and sexual stereotypes.

Audre Lorde was born in Harlem on February 18, 1934, to West Indian immigrants Frederick Byron and Linda Belmar Lorde. She was an introverted child who did not speak until she was five years old. When she began to communicate, she answered questions with poetry that she had memorized. The limitations of her poetic store forced her at 12 or 13 to compose her own verse.

Lorde attended a Catholic elementary school where she was the first African-American student. She suffered in an environment hostile to her own culture. The nuns, for instance, complained her braids, typical of most little African-American girls, were inappropriate for school.

At Hunter College High School she met Diane DiPrima, who like Lorde was already interested in being a poet. At 15 her first published poem, a tribute to her first love, appeared in Seventeen magazine because the adviser for the high school paper found it too romantic. While in high school Lorde also participated in John Henrik Clark's Harlem Writers' Guild. She credits John Clark, a African-American nationalist, with teaching her about Africa despite his distrust of her interracial and bohemian interests. In 1951 Lorde enrolled at Hunter College. After several years of working at odd jobs and attending classes, she received her B.A. in English literature and philosophy in 1959. In 1954 she had spent a year at the National University of Mexico.

In 1961 Lorde received a Master's in library science from Columbia University and worked as a librarian in the Mount Vernon Public Library (1960-1962), St. Clare's School of Nursing (1965-1966), and The Town School (1966-1968). In 1962 she married a white attorney, Edwin Ashley Rollins, and subsequently had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan.

In 1967 Diane DiPrima urged her to prepare a manuscript for a first book to be published by Poets Press. Before The First Cities (1968) appeared in print, Lorde was offered a six-weeks' poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, an experience that was pivotal. It was her first trip to the Deep South and her first time teaching. Tougaloo exposed Lorde to an almost all-African-American environment in 1968 when African-American students were becoming militant. There she wrote all the poems of Cables to Rage (1970), realized teaching was far more fulfilling than library work, and met Frances Clayton, a white woman who later became her live-in lover when her children were seven and eight.

On her return to New York Lorde decided to end her marriage and embarked on a teaching career which included a year in the SEEK program of the City University of New York, a pre-baccalaureate program for disadvantaged students; a brief stint at Lehman College where she taught white education students a course on racism; about ten years (1970-1981) as an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and a full professorship at Hunter College from 1981 into the 1990s.

Lorde's poetry reflected the many contradictions of her life. She wrote a complex verse which was both intensely personal and militantly social. Perhaps the majority of her poems dealt with the emotions, both subtle and fierce, of relationships between lovers, children and parents, and friends. Often this work was nonracial in its presentation. At the same time, Lorde, whose politics reflected a paradoxical mixture of interracial socialism and African-American cultural nationalism, was acutely attuned to the oppressive conditions of American contemporary society. Her poetry was often aimed to slay the dragons of sexism and racism.

Much of Lorde's work concentrated on the victims of American urban life; the children destroyed by neglect and violence; and African-American women, who she felt were devalued by everyone including African-American men. Two of her most memorable poems were "Power, " which responded with rage to the killing of a ten-year-old boy by a New York policeman who was acquitted of murder, and "Need: A Choral Poem, " a striking piece in which the first person voices of two African-American women murdered by African-American men alternate with a chorus (Chosen Poems, Old and New [1982] ). The latter poem revealed a skill for dramatic rendering which is clear in other poems, such as "Martha" in Cables to Rage (1970), a poem which depicted the nightmarish recovery of a former lover who almost dies in a fatal car accident. Other poems, such as "Coal" in Coal (1976), were densely metaphoric.

Lorde's other works include From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), a volume which introduced the use of African mythology for feminist purposes in one poem, "The Winds of Orisha." (Lorde had originally included a lesbian erotic poem, "Love Poem, " but removed it when Dudley Randall, the publisher of Broadside Press, naively expressed puzzlement about its meaning. In this volume the poem "For Each of You, " a message to African-American people, concluded:

   Speak proudly to your children
   wherever you may find them. Tell them
   you are the offspring of slaves
   and your mother was a princess in darkness.

New York Head Shop and Museum (1974) explored the harsh conditions of urban life. Between Ourselves was published in 1976, and The Black Unicorn (1978) exploited further a pantheon of Yoruba goddesses in the service of feminism. Our Dead Behind Us (1986) and Sister in Arms (1985) were continuations of Lorde's unique blend of the personal and political.

Lorde's prose includes Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (1979); The Cancer Journals (1980), a record of her courageous struggle against breast cancer; Zami: A New Spelling of my Name (1982), an autobiography about growing up in the 1950s that Lorde called a biomythology, " "a fiction"; Sister Outsider (1984); and A Burst of Light (1988).

Lorde died on November 17, 1992 losing her 14-year battle to breast cancer. The New York state poet laureate, died at her home in the fashionable Judith's Fancy section of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She had spent seven years on the island, where she was known by an African name, Gamba Adisa, which reflected her advocacy of pan-African issues.

In June 1996, Lorde's life was committed to film. Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson's biographical film "A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, " was made for the "Point Of View" series.

The film traced Lorde's life from birth through her battle with cancer. Griffin and Parkerson stitched together Lorde's many lives, from raising her two children to be "warriors, " to speaking at rallies, to leading university poetry workshops. Part of the stitching includes a brilliantly edited soundtrack of Lorde's voice, period sounds and music montages.

The film explored Lorde's attraction to the underground lesbian subculture of downtown New York when it was tiny, quiet and suppressed in the 1950s. Before American politics hit the streets, Lorde found being black, female and lesbian made her "triply invisible." Lorde tells Griffin and Parkerson her life was fundamentally changed witnessing civil rights clashes in the Deep South firsthand while teaching at Mississippi's Tougaloo College in the watershed year of 1968. Poetry, she realized, had to become public, political and expressive of change as much as of inner sensibilities.

Her colleagues Sonia Sanchez and Adrienne Rich perhaps best explained what made Lorde's evolution special. Like Neruda and Whitman before her, Lorde melded a passionate, erotic vision with an eloquent, bluesy verbal music toward explicit political ends.

Lorde's last battle was with breast cancer for 14 years, and the camera followed her from robust health until she was bald and raspy-voiced, though still talkative. Before she died, Lorde told the filmmakers something which encapsulates her personality: As motivation during cancer therapy, she would envision her cancer cells as white South African policemen. Apartheid's battle, at least, was finally won.

Further Reading

Lorde appears in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Poets Since 1955 (Volume 41). For further biographical and critical information, see also Lorde, Sister Outsider (1984); Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers At Work (1983); Mari Evans, Black Women Writers 1950-1980 (1984); Gloria T. Hull, "Living on the Line: Audre Lorde and Our Dead Behind Us" in Changing Our Own Words (1989); and Chinosole, "Audre Lorde and Matrilineal Diaspora" in Wild Women in the Whirlwind (1990). Also see Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1992; LosAngeles Times, November 19, 1992; and June 21, 1996, (Home Edition). □

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