Lorde, Audre 1934–1992
Audre Lorde 1934–1992
Poet fiction and nonfiction writer, activist
Poet, essayist, and lecturer Audre Lorde spent a lifetime exploring the pleasures and pain of being a black woman in America. Lorde’s 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 Lorde’s work in several genres was “a mandate to move through…victimization 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 State—an 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 self—feminist, 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 Lorde’s work and life an invaluable gift and a persistent necessity.”
Lorde was born and raised in New York City’s 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 President’s 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 babies—I 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 people’s 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 couldn’t be published. So I submitted it to Seventeen magazine and it was published there.”
After graduating from New York’s 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. “I’d 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 hadn’t the courage to speak up.” Lorde returned to New York and earned a bachelor’s degree at Hunter College—now a part of the City University of New York. She then took a master’s 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, women’s 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 America’s not-so-subtle attempts to eradicate black culture.
Gomez vividly remembered Lorde’s 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. Audre…was 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.
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, Lorde’s 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, 1984—two weeks before her 50th birthday—Lorde 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 movement’s attention to women’s 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.
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 outsider—there 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 York’s 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 fertility—in herself and in other women of all races and creeds.
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
Lorde, Audre 1934–1992
Lorde, Audre 1934–1992
(Rey Domini, Audre Geraldine Lorde)
PERSONAL: Born February 18, 1934, in New York, NY; died of liver cancer November 17, 1992, in Chris-tiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands; daughter of Frederic Byron (a real estate broker) and Linda Gertrude (Belmar) Lorde; married Edwin 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." Religion: Society of Friends (Quaker).
CAREER: Mount Vernon Public Library, Mount Ver-non, NY, librarian, 1961–63; Town School Library, New York, NY, head librarian, 1966–68; City University of New York, lecturer in creative writing at City College, 1968, lecturer in education department at Herbert H. Lehman College, 1969–70, associate professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, beginning 1970, professor of English at Hunter College, Thomas Hunter Professor, 1987–88. Distinguished visiting professor, Atlanta University, 1968; poet-in-residence, Tou-galoo College, 1968. Lecturer throughout the United States. Founder of Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts grants, 1968 and 1981; Creative Artists Public Service grants, 1972 and 1976; National Book Award nominee for poetry, 1974, for From a Land Where Other People Live; Broadside Poets Award, Detroit, 1975; Woman of the Year, Staten Island Community College, 1975; Borough of Manhattan President's Award for literary excellence, 1987; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1989, for A Burst of Light; Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, poet laureate of New York, 1991; Lambda Literary Awards, Lesbian Poetry, 1993, for Undersong and 1994, for The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance.
The Cancer Journals (nonfiction), Spinsters Ink (Denver, CO), 1980.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (fiction), Crossing Press (Santa Cruz, CA), 1982.
Sister Outsider (nonfiction), Crossing Press (Santa Cruz, CA), 1984.
A Burst of Light, Firebrand Books (Ithaca, NY), 1988.
Need: A Chorale for Black Women Voices, Women of Color Press (Brooklyn, NY), 1990.
The First Cities, introduction by Diane di Prima, Poets Press (Ogden, UT), 1968.
Cables to Rage, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1970.
From a Land Where Other People Live, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1973.
The New York Head Shop and Museum, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1974.
Coal, Norton (New York, NY), 1976.
Between Our Selves, Eidolon (Westport, CT), 1976.
The Black Unicorn, Norton (New York, NY), 1978.
Chosen Poems Old and New, Norton (New York, NY), 1982.
Our Dead behind Us, Norton (New York, NY), 1986.
Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New, Norton (New York, NY), 1992.
The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.
Poetry anthologized in: Langston Hughes, editor, New Negro Poets, USA, University of Indiana Press (Bloomington, IN), 1962; P. Breman, editor, Sixes and Sevens, Breman Ltd. (London, England), 1963; R. Pool, editor, Beyond the Blues, Hand & Flower Press (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 1964; G. Menarini, editor, I Negri: Poesie e Canti, Edizioni Academia (Rome, Italy), 1969; C. Major, editor, New Black Poetry, International Press (Somerville, MA), 1969; T. Wilentz, editor, Natural Process, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1970; T. Cade, editor, The Black Woman, American Library Publishing (Sedona, AZ), 1970; and Soul-Script, edited by J. Meyer, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY). Contributor of poetry to periodicals, including Iowa Review, Black Scholar, Chrysalis, Black World, Journal of Black Poetry, Transatlantic Review, Massachusetts Review, Pound, Harlem Writers' Quarterly, Freedomways, Seventeen, and Women: A Journal of Liberation.
Conversations with Audre Lorde, edited by Joan Wylie Hall, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2004.
Contributor of fiction, under pseudonym Rey Domini, to Venture magazine. Editor, Pound magazine (Touga-loo, MS), 1968; poetry editor, Chrysalis and Amazon Quarterly.
SIDELIGHTS: Audre Lorde was a poet, novelist, essayist, and activist of distinction. As Irma McClaurin-Allen, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography noted, "Lorde is probably best known as a feminist poet; yet her contributions to the new black poetry movement cover a wide range of themes. Black pride, black love, and black survival in an urban environment are recurring motifs; and the image of the city, in all of its destructive grandeur, dominates many of her poems." A self-styled "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her poetry, and "indeed all of her writing," according to contributor Joan Martin in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, "rings with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling." Concerned with twentieth-century American society's tendency to categorize groups of people, 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. While the widespread critical acclaim bestowed upon Lorde for dealing with lesbian topics made her a target of those opposed to her radical agenda, she continued, undaunted, to express her individuality, refusing to be silenced. As she once told interviewer Charles H. Rowell in Callaloo: "My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds…. [Conservative U.S. Senator] Jesse Helms's objection to my work is not about obscenity … or even about sex. It is about revolution and change…. 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." Fighting a battle with cancer that she documented in her highly acclaimed Cancer Journals, Lorde died of the illness in 1992.
Born in New York City of West Indian parents, Lorde came to poetry in her early teens, through a need to express herself. Her 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 explained in Black Women Writers, because her "English teachers … said [it] was much too romantic." Her mature poetry, published in volumes including New York Head Shop and Museum, Coal, and The Black Unicorn, was sometimes romantic also. Often dealing with her lesbian relationships, her love poems have nevertheless been judged accessible to all by many critics. In Martin's words, "one doesn't have to profess heterosexuality, homosexuality, or asexuality to react to her poems…. Anyone who has ever been in love can respond to the straightforward passion and pain sometimes one and the same, in Lorde's poems."
While Lorde's love poems composed much of her earliest work, her experiences of civil unrest during the 1960s, along with Lorde's own confusion over her sexuality—a bisexual, she married in 1962 and had two children before divorcing and making a renewed commitment to her female lovers—created a rapid shift to more political statements. As Jerome Brooks reported in Black Women Writers (1950–1980), "Lorde's poetry of anger is perhaps her best-known work." In her poem "The American Cancer Society, or There Is More than One Way to Skin a Coon," she protests against white America thrusting its unnatural culture on blacks; in "The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches," she likens blacks to cockroaches, hated, feared, and poisoned by whites. Poetry critic Sandra M. Gilbert remarked that "it's not surprising that Lorde occasionally seems to be choking on her own anger … [and] when her fury vibrates through taut cables from head to heart to page, Lorde is capable of rare and, paradoxically, loving jeremiads."
Lorde's anger did not confine itself to racial injustice but extended to feminist issues as well, and occasionally she criticized African-American men for their role in the perpetuation of sex discrimination: "As Black people, we cannot begin our dialogue by denying the oppressive nature of male privilege," she once stated in Black Women Writers. "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."
Of her poetic beginnings Lorde once commented in Black Women Writers: "I used to speak in poetry. I would read poems, and I would memorize them. People would say, well what do you think, Audre. What happened to you yesterday? And I would recite a poem and somewhere in that poem would be a line or a feeling I would be sharing. In other words, I literally communicated through poetry. And when I couldn't find the poems to express the things I was feeling, that's what started me writing poetry, and that was when I was twelve or thirteen." As an adult, her primary poetic goal remained communication. "I have a duty," she stated later in the same publication, "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 un-mitigating pain." As a mature poet, however, rather than relying solely on poetry as a means of self-expression Lorde often extracted poems from her personal journals. Explaining the genesis of "Power," a poem about the police shooting of a ten-year-old black child, Lorde discussed her feelings when she learned that the Officer involved had been acquitted: "A kind of fury rose up in me; the sky turned red. I felt so sick. I felt as if I would drive this car into a wall, into the next person I saw. So I pulled over. I took out my journal just to air some of my fury, to get it out of my fingertips. Those expressed feelings are that poem."
In addition to race problems and love affairs, another important theme that runs through many of Lorde's poems is the parent-child relationship. Brooks saw a deep concern with the images of her deceased father in Lorde's "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" which carries over to poems dealing with Africa in The Black Unicorn. According to Brooks, "the contact with Africa is the contact with the father who is revealed in a wealth of mythological symbols…. The fundamental image of the unicorn indicates that the poet is aware that Africa is for her a fatherland, a phallic terrain." Martin, however, took a different view: "Lorde is a rare creature…. She is the Black Unicorn: magical and mysterious bearer of fantasy draped in truth and beauty." Further, Martin found the poet's feelings about her mother to be more vital to an understanding of her works. In many of Lorde's poems, the figure of her mother is one of a woman who resents her daughter, tries to repress her child's unique personality so that she conforms with the rest of the world, and withholds the emotional nourishment of parental love. For example, Lorde tells us in Coal's "Story Books on a Kitchen Table": "Out of her womb of pain my mother spat me/ into her ill-fitting harness of despair/ into her deceits/ where anger reconceived me." In The Black Unicorn's "From the House of Yemanja," the mother's efforts to shape the speaker into something she is not do not quench the speaker's desire for the mother's love: "Mother I need/ mother I need/ … I am/ the sun and moon and forever hungry." "Balled from Childhood" in The New York Head Shop and Museum is Lorde's depiction of the ways in which a child's hopes and dreams are crushed by a restrictive parent. After the mother has made withering replies to her child's queries about planting a tree to give some beauty to their wasteland surroundings, the child gives up in defeat, saying: "Please mommy do not beat me so!/ yes I will learn to love the snow!/ yes I want neither seed nor tree!/ yes ice is quite enough for me!/ who knows what trouble-leaves might grow!"
As Martin noted, however, Lorde's ambivalent feelings about her mother "did not make [her] bitter against her own children when circumstances changed her role from that of child to mother." Coal includes the poem "Now That I Am Forever with Child," which discusses the birth of Lorde's daughter. "I bore you one morning just before spring," she recounts, "my legs were towers between which/ A new world was passing./ Since then/ I can only distinguish/ one thread within runnings hours/ You, flowing through selves/ toward You."
In addition to her poetry, Lorde was noted for eloquent prose, one example of which was her courageous account of her agonizing struggle to overcome breast cancer and mastectomy, published as The Cancer Journals. Her first major prose work, The Cancer Journals discuss Lorde's feelings about facing the possibility of death. Beyond death, Martin asserted, Lorde feared "she should die without having said the things she as a woman and an artist needed to say in order that her pain and subsequent loss might not have occurred in vain." Recounting this personal transformation was, for Lorde, of primary importance; as AnaLouise Keating noted in Journal of Homosexuality, "For Lorde, self-expression and self-discovery are never ends in themselves. Because she sees her desire to comprehend her battle with cancer as 'part of a continuum of women's work, of reclaiming this earth and or power,' she is confident that her self-explorations will empower her readers." Her Journals also reveal Lorde's decision not to wear a prosthesis after her breast was removed. As Brooks pointed out, "she does not suggest [her decision] for others, but … she uses [it] to expose some of the hypocrisies of the medical profession." Lorde summarized her attitude on the issue thus in the Journals: "Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of 'Nobody will know the difference.' But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other." Martin concluded: "The Cancer Journals affords all women who wish to read it the opportunity to look at the life experience of one very brave woman who bared her wounds without shame, in order that we might gain some strength from sharing in her pain."
Lorde's 1982 novel, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, was described by its author as a "biomythography, combining elements of history, biography and myth," and Rosemary Daniell, in the New York Times Book Review, considered the work "excellent and evocative…. Among the elements that make the book so good are its personal honesty and lack of pretentiousness, characteristics that shine through the writing, bespeaking the evolution of a strong and remarkable character." Daniell said that, throughout the book, Lorde's "experiences are painted with exquisite imagery. Indeed, her West Indian heritage shows through most clearly in her use of word pictures that are sensual, steamy, at times near-tropical, evoking the colors, smells—repeatedly, the smells—shapes, textures that are her life."
In the late 1980s Lorde and fellow writer Barbara Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which was dedicated to furthering the writings of black feminists. Lorde also became increasingly concerned over the plight of black women in South Africa under apartheid, creating Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa and providing an active voice on behalf of these women throughout the remainder of her life. Indeed, Lorde addressed her concerns to not only the United States but the world, encouraging a celebration of the differences that society instead used as tools of isolation. As Allison Kimmich noted in Feminist Writers, "Throughout all of Audre Lorde's writing, both nonfiction and fiction, a single theme surfaces repeatedly. The black lesbian feminist poet activist reminds her readers that they ignore differences among people at their peril…. Instead, Lorde suggests, differences in race or class must serve as a 'reason for celebration and growth.'"
Lorde fought cancer for much of her later life; she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and then in 1984 with liver cancer. Opting for a non-traditional treatment for the latter, she sought help in homeopathy and also moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands for its warmer climate. She continued to work and speak publicly until her death in 1992. Among the works of her last years was the National Book Award-winning collection of essays, A Burst of Light. The year of her death saw publication of Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New and the following year the collection The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance was published. Reviewing the latter book, a contributor for Publishers Weekly commented that Lorde's verses "have always melded the political and lyrical worlds, the ordinary and the luminous, addressing controversial topics." For this contributor, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance "is no exception."
In 1997 The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde appeared, gathering work that spanned almost three decades. For Library Journal's Ina Rimpau, this collection affirmed the fact that Lorde battled "passionately and urgently throughout her oeuvre" for social justice. Reviewing the same volume in Booklist, Patricia Monaghan noted that Lorde's "reputation has continued to grow" since her death. Though Monaghan found some "patchy sections" in the overall work, she went on to conclude that for Lorde's finest verses, "—strong, vibrant, and wild—she will continue to be sought out." Jewelle Gomez, a fellow writer, noted in Essence magazine at the time of Lorde's death that the writer's work in a variety of genres was "a mandate to move through … victimization 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."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Addison, Gayle, editor, Black Expression, Weybright & Talley (New York, NY), 1969.
Bigsby, C.W.E., editor, The Black American Writer, Penguin (New York, NY), 1969.
Christian, Barbara, editor, Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, Pergamon (New York, NY), 1985.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 18, 1981, Volume 71, 1992.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets since 1955, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.
Draper, James P., editor, Black Literature Criticism, Volume 2, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1984.
Gay and Lesbian Biography, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Keating, AnaLouise, Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldua, and Audre Lorde, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1996.
Kester-Shelton, Pamela, editor, Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Kosek, Jane Kelly, editor, Poetry Criticism, Volume 12, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Tate, Claudia, editor, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum (New York, NY), 1984.
American Book Review, October-November, 1993, p. 15.
American Poetry Review, March-April, 1980, pp. 18-21.
Booklist, August, 1997, Patricia Monaghan, review of The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, p. 1871.
Callaloo, winter, 1986, pp. 192-208; 1987; winter, 1991, pp. 83-95.
Colby Library Quarterly, March, 1982, pp. 9-25.
Denver Quarterly, spring, 1981, pp. 10-27.
Essence, January, 1988; May, 1993, Jewelle Gomez, "Audre Lorde: Passing of a Sister Warrior," p. 89; March, 1999, Catherine M. Brown, "Reflections on a 'Black, Militant, Lesbian Poet'," p. 68.
Explicator, fall, 1998, Thomas Dilworth, "Lorde's 'Power'," p. 54.
Journal of Homosexuality, Volume 26, numbers 2-3, pp. 181-194.
Library Journal, August, 1997, Ina Rimpau, review of The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, p. 92.
Ms., September, 1974.
Negro Digest, September, 1968.
New York Times Book Review, December 19, 1982, Rosemary Daniell, review of Zami.
Poetry, February, 1977.
Publishers Weekly, July 19, 1993, "The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems, 1987–1992," p. 240.
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, summer, 1981, pp. 713-36.
Audre Lorde Home Page, http://www.lambda.net/∼maximum/lorde.html/ (August 12, 2004).
Audre Lorde Project Web site, http://www.alp.org/ (August 12, 2004).
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  ). 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.
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). □
Lorde, Audre 1934–1992
Audre Lorde was born in Harlem, New York City, on February 18 to Linda and Byron Lorde, Caribbean immigrants. The youngest of three daughters she was raised in a strict household. In 1951 she enrolled in Hunter College. In 1952 she began to define herself as a lesbian. Lorde married Edwin Rollins, a white man, in 1962; they had a son and a daughter. After their separation in the late 1960s, Lorde and her children lived with Frances Clayton, a white female psychologist.
In her career, as in her life, Lorde actively resisted categorization. Referring to herself as a "black, feminist, lesbian, mother, poet warrior," she consistently challenged all definitions of identity (De Veaux 2004, p. 367). She stretched the limits of several literary genres, publishing ten volumes of poetry, two noted collections of essays and speeches, and one biomythography titled Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). She blurred the boundaries between the personal and the political by mining her experiences in her work.
Lorde published her first book of poetry, The First Cities, with the Poets Press in 1968. Her third collection of poetry, From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), was nominated for a National Book Award for poetry in 1974. Lorde accompanied the prize-winning poet Adrienne Rich (b. 1929) on stage when she accepted the award. As part of her acceptance speech, Rich read a feminist manifesto that she, Lorde, and novelist Alice Walker (b. 1944), a conominee, drafted together.
In her poetry Lorde explores relationships between women. Her work examines the power of voice, language, silence, and anger. After a visit to Africa in 1974, her work took on a diasporic dimension as she embraced her west-African cultural heritage. Lorde also published poems that explicitly depicted intimate same-sex encounters between women. Her decision to remove a poem with a lesbian speaker, Love Poem, in From a Land Where Other People Live, was the result of a homophobic response from Broadside Press' black male publisher, Dudley Randall (1914–2000). She included the poem in her fourth collection, New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), which was also published by Broadside Press. In 1991 Lorde became the first African-American woman to be named New York State Poet.
Through her essays and speeches, Lorde made a significant contribution to the development of feminist theory. In The Uses of the Erotic (1978), Lorde posited a theory of sexuality as a creative force in women's lives. In this speech she argues that many feminists distanced themselves from the power of female sexuality because, throughout history, white, European and North American, masculine definitions of the erotic disempowered women by objectifying their bodies. Lorde argues that feminists must claim the erotic as an empowering connection between work and life. In one of her most popular essays, Poetry is Not a Luxury (1977), Lorde argues that poetry can help women to claim their subversive, creative power and, in doing so, help them realize social change: "The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free" (Lorde 1984, p. 38). Positioning herself on the margins of the feminist movement's second wave, she challenged white, middle-class feminists to acknowledge their privileged positions in an inherently racist and classist society and realize the importance of difference. In The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House (1979), she persuades white feminists to take a more inclusive stance toward acknowledging the multiplicity of women's experiences in their theoretical articulations. From the margins of the black community Lorde's essays and speeches questioned the role of women, gays, and lesbians within that community.
In The Cancer Journals (1980) Lorde chronicled her experiences as a breast cancer patient. The essay collection garnered the Book Award from the American Library Association Gay Caucus in 1981. Critics argue that her reflections have made a crucial impact on breast cancer patients' perceptions of themselves as survivors. When the cancer returned Lorde reflected on her experience in another collection titled A Burst of Light (1988). Lorde spent her final years in St. Croix with her companion and caretaker, Gloria Joseph. She died on November 17. Her final collection of poems, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance (1993), was published posthumously.
De Veaux, Alexis. 2004. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York: W. W. Norton.
Knopf-Newman, Marcy Jane. 2004. Beyond Slash, Burn, and Poison: Transforming Breast Cancer Stories into Action. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Lorde. Audre. 1980. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Spinsters, Ink.
Lorde. Audre. 1982. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press.
Lorde, Audre. 1988. A Burst of Light: Essays. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.
Lorde, Audre. 1997. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. New York: W. W. Norton.
Cherise A. Pollard