Lorde, Audre Geraldine
Lorde, Audre Geraldine
Born Audrey Geraldine Lorde, she was the youngest of four daughters of Linda Belmar and Frederic Byron Lorde, natives of the West Indies who lived in New York City and whose longing for home figured strongly in Lorde’s perception of herself as an outsider. Her parents both worked to support the family, her father first as a laborer, then in real estate. Her mother also worked as a laborer and then became a homemaker. Lorde read and wrote at an early age but did not speak until she was five years old. She claimed that the sadness and silence of her parents—particularly her mother—influenced her choice to express herself in verse. Poor eyesight and a spunky attitude led to her placement in parochial schools. She attended Hunter College High School where a classmate was Diane Di Prima, who later helped to launch Lorde’s first books. Her first published poem was in Seventeen magazine, after her high-school teacher criticized it as too romantic.
Lorde worked her way through Hunter College with a series of jobs, working in factories, as an X-ray technician, medical clerk, arts-and-crafts supervisor, social worker, and ghostwriter. She spent a year (1954) at National University in Mexico, where she had a significant early lesbian affair.
Upon her return to New York City she threw herself into the gay-girl culture of Greenwich Village, which was then largely white. She also had some contact with the Harlem Writers Guild, which she found homophobic. Both of these groups, while important to her sense of self, also served to reinforce her feeling that she was an outsider.
After graduating with a B.A. degree from Hunter in 1959 she went on to earn an M.L.S. degree from Columbia University in Harlem in 1961. She worked as a librarian through the 1960s, first in the suburban Mount Vernon Public Library (1961–1963) and then as head librarian of the Town School Library in New York City (1966–1968). During these years she also surprised her friends by marrying an attorney, Edward Ashley Rollins, on 31 March 1962. This marriage ended in 1970 and she never spoke or wrote about it. She had two children from that union who gave her a central and defining role, that of mother.
In 1968 Lorde’s first book, The First Cities, was published. That year she also received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant to teach a six-week poetry work-shop at Tougaloo College in Mississippi where she met her future longtime companion, Frances Clayton. The experience of working with serious young black students and living in the tense atmosphere of the Deep South during the civil rights era proved profoundly moving, and she wrote most of the poems for her next book, Cables to Rage (1970), during this brief stay. After her return to New York City she taught courses on poetry at City College and on racism at John Jay and Lehman Colleges in addition to writing and giving public lectures. She received a Creative Artists Public Service Grant in 1972 and her third book, From a Land Where Other People Live, published in 1973, was nominated for a National Book Award. She received the 1974 Creative Arts Public Service Book Award for Poetry for her fourth book, New York Head Shop and Museum, a political, rhetorical work that marked a departure from her earlier poetry. In 1975 she was named Woman of the Year by Staten Island Community College.
Her friendship with Adrienne Rich, a fellow feminist and lesbian poet, led to Lorde’s first publication with a major publishing house. W. W.Norton brought outCoal in 1976, adding some new poems to a compilation of previously published work and introducing her to a much broader public. In The Black Unicorn (1978), Lorde examined African mythology and its relevance and relationship to the dispersal of her people.
Although Lorde identified herself first and foremost as a poet, she is also remembered as a fierce black feminist. Books such as the nonfiction Sister Outsider (1984) and the essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” became core readings in many women’s studies curricula. She is also known to the wider public for her writings on her fourteen-year struggle with various forms of cancer: The Cancer Journals (1980) and A Burst of Light (1988). In The Cancer Journals she urged women who had also undergone mastectomies to see themselves as warriors and to bear their scars proudly. In the last decades of her life she traveled and spoke throughout the world. She cofounded the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press with Barbara Smith in 1981. She also was a founder of Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa and a featured speaker at the first national march for gay and lesbian liberation in Washington, D.C., in 1979.
In 1981 Audre Lorde received a second NEA grant. She also returned to Hunter College, where she was a professor of English from 1980 to 1987 and Thomas Hunter Professor from 1987 to 1988. In 1985 Hunter dedicated the Audre Lorde Women’s Poetry Center. Lorde received the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit in 1991, which accompanied her new title of poet laureate of New York State.
She received honorary doctorates from Hunter, Oberlin, and Haverford Colleges, and served on the board of the Feminist Press in New York City. She spent the last years of her life in the Caribbean, settling with her companion, Gloria I. Joseph, in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, There, Lorde was known by her African name, Gamba Adisa, meaning “warrior: she who makes her meaning clear.”
Always an imposing presence, in her later years, with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, she lost weight, but never stature. To the end she continued to write and speak out against racism, homophobia, and sexism. The original breast cancer metastasized and spread throughout her body. She died of liver cancer in St Croix.
Biographies of Lorde are in Darlene Clark Hine, Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (1993), and Valerie Smith, Lea Baechler, and A. Walton Litz, eds., African-American Writers (1991). She is also included in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 41 (1985) and numerous volumes of the Contemporary Authors series. An obituary is in the New York Times (20 Nov. 1992). A film, Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, was produced by Ada Griffin and Michelle Parkerson in 1994; Griffin and Parkerson spent eight years collaborating with Lorde in the creation of this film.
Pamela Armstrong Lakin