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Lorde, Audre (Geraldine)

LORDE, Audre (Geraldine)

Born 18 February 1934, New York, New York; died 17 November 1992, Christiansted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands

Wrote under: Giamba Adisa, Rey Domini

Daughter of Frederick Byron and Linda Gertrude Belmar Lord; married Edward Rollins, 1962 (divorced 1970); children: Elizabeth, Jonathan

Born in Harlem of Barbadian and Grenadian parents (her father was a real estate broker), Audre Lorde, one of three sisters, overcame muteness and sight problems to become one of the most eloquent, outspoken, and visionary poets, teachers, and orators of her times. Her writing was inseparable from her life as a "Black Lesbian, Feminist, mother, lover, warrior poet doing her work."

While a student at Hunter College High School Lorde joined the Harlem Writers' Guild founded by John Henrick Clarke, where she met Langston Hughes, Rosa Guy, and others. Her poems were published in the Harlem Writers' Quarterly and Seventeen magazine. After studying at the National University of Mexico in 1954, Lorde received her B.A. in American literature from Hunter College in 1959 and her M.L.S. from Columbia University in 1960. She married Edward Rollins in 1962; they divorced eight years later.

Lorde worked as a librarian for eight years before beginning her teaching career at Tougaloo College. Subsequently she taught at Herbert Lehman College and at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and at Atlanta University. In 1987 Lorde became Thomas Hunter Professor of English at Hunter College.

Lorde's poetry expresses her profound interest in the power of difference, the responsibility of the individual in the community, women loving women, connections among people of African descent, and the bond between parents and children. A recurring theme in all of Lorde's writing is breaking silence and speaking out. In "A Litany for Survival" (from The Black Unicorn, 1978), a rich and lyrical work considered to be a high point of her poetic achievement, she writes, "And when we speak we are afraid / our words will not be heard, / nor welcomed / but when we are silent / we are still afraid. / So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive." Lorde developed a new fictional form, the biomythography, an amalgam of fiction, biography, and myth in her 1982 work Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. The book remains one of the most powerful and provocative evocations of black lesbian life.

Lorde battled serious health problems beginning in the late 1970s and incorporated those struggles into her work, challenging traditional Western notions about illness and women's ability, responsibility, and right to make decisions regarding their health. The Cancer Journals (1980), named the 1981 Gay Book of the Year by the American Library Association, was Lorde's first book-length prose work and greatly expanded her readership.

Lorde never shied away from facing difficult and painful subjects. Sister/Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984) includes both the essay "Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger" and "Manchild," in the same volume, the latter discussing her long interracial relationship with Frances Clayton, with whom Lorde raised her two children. In the poem "Sisters in Arms" from Our Dead Behind Us (1986) she explores what it means for black women to live and love within the horror and obscenity of the South African apartheid regime. The title essay in A Burst of Light (1988) is subtitled "Living with Cancer." Despite, or perhaps because of all that she experienced, Lorde had a remarkable ability to communicate her great compassion and generosity of spirit through her writing.

Lorde's work has had wide impact as evidenced by the many awards and honors she received during her energetic and prolific career. Her third book of poetry, From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), received a nomination for the National Book Award; A Burst of Light won the 1989 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award. Lorde was named state poet of New York (1991-93) by Governor Mario Cuomo and the New York State Writers Institute, and received the Astrea Foundation's Sappho Award and the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in Gay and Lesbian Literature, presented by the Publishing Triangle. (She accepted the award and declined the money.) In addition, she received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1968, 1990), and was the inspiration for the Audre Lorde Women's Poetry Center at Medgar Evers College, as well an international feminist "celeconference," called "I Am Your Sister," based on the principles of her work, held in Boston in October 1990. Lorde has also received honorary degrees from Oberlin College (1989) and Haverford College (1990).

Lorde's commitment to justice and empowerment for all was expressed through her involvement in the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the lesbian and gay rights movement, and the international antiapartheid movement. She served on the editorial boards of the Black Scholar, Amazon Quarterly, and was a founding member of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press; SISA (Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa); and the St. Croix Women's Coalition. Lorde played a key role in the development of the Afro-German Movement and in the publication of Farbe Bekennen (Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, 1992) for which she provided the introduction. Her work has been translated into many languages and she lectured, read, and taught throughout the U.S. and around the world. Lorde died in St. Croix, in the home she had shared for many years with her companion, Dr. Gloria I. Joseph.

The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (1997) brings together her poems just as they appeared in the original volumes of which all but one, Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New, Revised (1992), is out of print. In instances where poems were revised or retitled and published in later volumes, the original version and the revision are both printed. These 12 volumes indicate her significant contribution to literature. The themes of silence and the power of words in her early poem, "Cole," recur and evolve so that stronger, bolder themes emerge: eroticism, lesbianism, racism, injustice, feminism, social change, cancer, and death. They show, according to Anna Louise Keating in Women Reading Women Writing: Self Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde (1996) as in all her work, "the transformational possibilities achieved through writing." Her language—its images, music, and complexity—reveals a beauty and ache achieved only by major poets.

Since Lorde's death in 1992, criticism of her work has centered on her autobiographical prose including Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and The Cancer Journals. This focus reveals the concerns about identity, technology, society, and spirituality at the end of the 20th century. As a poet who also writes prose, her writing, says Jeanne Braham in "A Lens of Empathy," has "the power to speak to a wide readership [who] may be effected through metaphor's power to universalize and particularize simultaneously."

Other Works:

The First Cities (1968). Cables to Rage (1970, reprinted 1972). New York Headshop and Museum (1974, 1977, 1981). Between Ourselves (1976). Coal (1976). The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (pamphlet, 1978). Chosen Poems Old and New (1982). Undersongs: Chosen Poems Old and New Revised (1992). The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance (1993).

Contributed to APARTHEID USA (1985). Lesbian Travels: A Literary Companion (1998). Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Barker 1961-1978 (1978). Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices (1991).

Bibliography:

Bunkers, S. L. and C. A. Huff, eds., Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays on Women's Diaries (1996). Davenport, D., Four Contemporary Black Women Poets: Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Sherley Anne Williams (dissertation, 1985). Evans, M., ed., Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation (1984). Keating, A. L., Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde (1996). Tate, C., ed., Black WomenWriters at Work (1983). Zimmerman, B., Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969-1989 (1990).

Reference works:

Black American Writers Past and Present (1975). Black American Women in Literature: A Bibliography, 1976-1987 (1989). Black Women in America (1993). CANR (1989). CLC (1981). DLB (1985). FC (1990). Facts on File, Encyclopedia of Black Women in America (1996). MTCW (1991). NBAW (1992).

Other references:

Advocate (29 Dec. 1992, obituary). American Literary History (Winter, 1994). Booklist (19 Aug. 1997). Callaloo (special section, 1991). Colby Library Quarterly (March 1982). DAI (Jan. 1987). Essence (December 1984). NYT (20 Nov. 1992, obituary). A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde (film, 1994). Before Stonewall: The Making of the Gay and Lesbian Community (video, 1986).

—KATE RUSHIN,

UPDATED BY KAREN MCLENNAN

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