Lorde, Audre

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LORDE, Audre

LORDE, Audre (b. 18 February 1934; d. 17 November 1992) writer, activist.

Born in Harlem at the height of the Great Depression, Audre Lorde was the youngest of three daughters of immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Grenada. Startled by the unexpected and blatant racism they encountered in the United States, her parents attempted to shield their children by never mentioning it. Rejected and isolated in her predominantly white Catholic elementary school, Lorde handled racism alone. In high school she found a few friends but Genevieve, the only other black student was her best friend. "Genny" committed suicide at age sixteen. For the next four years, Lorde wrote a memorial poem to her each spring, and in speeches and writings throughout her life, mourned her loss. Five of the twenty-five poems in her first book are written to Genny. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (1997) contains ten of her eleven books of poetry (Under-song [1992] is not included) .

At four years of age Lorde spoke her first words: "I want to read." (Tate, p. 23). She began writing in a journal when she was about twelve (an almost daily habit

throughout her life), and when she was fifteen, her first love poem (to a boy) was published in Seventeen magazine. Her first book, The First Cities (1968), brought her to the attention of feminists, who invited her to read the work to female audiences, thus launching her into women's movement activities, where she became a spokeswoman and bridge builder. She was also invited to become a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo, an historically black college in Mississippi, where she discovered her passion for teaching, and in 1968 began her lifelong career as a professor of literature at City College in New York (CCNY).

Lorde married Edward Rollins, a white lawyer, in 1962. They had two children, Elizabeth (b. 1963) and Jonathan (b. 1965). Her poem, "And what about the Children," is an ironic statement about relatives' "dire predictions," "wild grim speculations," and comments on the texture of their hair (The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, p. 45). Lorde separated from Rollins in 1970 and divorced him a few years later. By then she had entered a partnership with Frances Clayton, a white professor whom she had met at Tougaloo college, and who "othermothered" Lorde's children equally. In the mid-1980's Lorde moved to St. Croix to live with her final partner, Gloria I. Joseph, Ph.D., who described herself in the same manner as Lorde did: a black woman of West Indian parentage, born and raised in the United States. Lorde died there in 1992 of breast cancer, which had metastasized to her liver.

Lorde's influence within women's movement politics was huge and immediate; her charismatic speaking and writing filled an obvious but unarticulated need for just such a black feminist presence. Women of all colors considered her their own, and she willingly became anchor and bridge, encouraging everyone's contributions to the movement, urging women not to fear, but rather to discover one another's differences so that they could be shared and used productively for collective growth. "Embrace difference" became her mantra. Lorde's embrace of her "black," her "woman" and her "lesbian" selves was in keeping with the identity politics of the time. "The personal is political" meant that as marginalized people began to voice respect for their own identity, they would embrace their right to struggle against the powers that held them down. A 1978 statement by a black women's collective states, "the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression" (Combahee River Collective, p. 16). But where many people addressed their struggles separately, according to the group they were working with (race, or gender, or sexual orientation or class), Lorde submerged none, carrying all of her identities into whichever group she was working with, declaring that differences were valuable tools to share and that grappling with the differences would strengthen each struggle. Her lifelong interactions with white women were advantageous also, allowing her to interrelate unabashedly: critiquing, loving, castigating, urging, and embracing—in the same way she desired to be treated herself.

She treated black men whom she engaged about sexism in the same manner. Her stinging rebuke to a black sociologist who had attacked black feminists appeared in the Black Scholar (1979); it was the leadoff essay among those by several women who were invited to respond in the following issue, among them June Jordan and Ntozake Shange. Her rebuke to James Baldwin in 1985 was equally firm but gentler in tone, perhaps resulting from her understanding that Baldwin was not hostile to women or black feminism but simply unaware of the United States feminist movement and the battles it generated, having spent a decade in Europe. In a "conversation" in Essence, a black women's magazine, she admonished him that his silence and that of other prominent black men about the violence against black women by black men, including murder and rape, gave tacit consent to the violence, and was destroying black communities. The previous year she had written that "sexual hostility against black women is practiced not only by the whole racist society but implemented within our black communities as well. It is a disease striking the heart of black nationhood, and silence will not make it disappear" (Sister Outsider, pp. 119-120).

Aware of her attraction to women from a young age, Lorde moved beyond "cuddling and kissing"(Zami, p.19) when she was eighteen. Challenged and seduced by a woman friend and co-worker at her temporary job in Connecticut, she proved to both the young woman and herself that she was a more-than-adequate, naturally "dykely" lover (Zami, pp. 135–140). Thereafter, Lorde reveled in her lesbian sexuality, considering it a central force driving her literary work, providing energy for her various life activities, and shaping her roles in three intersecting U.S. social movements of the 1950s to 1990s: black liberation, women's liberation, and black lesbian and gay liberation. Lorde had published overtly lesbian love poems since 1970 (see, for example, Cables to Rage, pp. 51, 53), but they were not widely distributed. The 1974 publication of her explicitly sexual "love poem" in Ms. Magazine, however, brought her lesbianism dramatically front and center in a nationwide venue. Her lesbianism might have been less problematic in black liberation circles had she practiced but not preached it, as many black women did. However, by determining to focus consistent attention on lesbianism as an identity equal to "black" and "woman," she forced friction within the groups she entered, creating dialectical exchanges that helped expand the demand for a more inclusive vision within each of the three movements.

Lorde's involvement in gay liberation was focused more on black lesbian and gay liberation than on the largely white gay/lesbian liberation movement. After the Stonewall Riots (1969), gay liberation groups proliferated throughout the country. In Washington, D.C., black gay men broke away from the predominantly white gay group in the 1970s, forming The National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays (NCBLG) in 1978. In 1979 NCBLG held a National Conference for Third World Lesbians and Gays to coincide with the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Lorde electrified six hundred lesbians and gay men of color with her keynote speech and became a standard bearer for various ethnic groups that were mobilized by the conference. Latinos, American Indians, and Asians formed separate mixed-gender groups of lesbians and gay men that would also work in coalition with the other groups of color on certain issues, including socializing men of color in learning how to share power with women; combating racial/ethnic discrimination by the predominantly white gay and lesbian community in gay nightclubs and restaurants; and insisting on an equal place on the stage as speakers and presenters at public events, as well as participation in planning such events. Third World lesbians and gays would coalesce with the larger gay and lesbian community on issues that affected them all, such as legislative initiatives, protests against sodomy laws, actions for AIDS funding, and achieving and maintaining abortion rights. Lorde joined the board of NCBLG, while remaining "cheerleader" for all the groups. NCBLG became defunct in 1991. Many black gay feminist men, including Joseph Beam, editor of In the Life, the first anthology of writing by black gay men, and award-winning filmmaker Marlon Riggs explicitly acknowledged and followed her courageous example. Audre Lorde organizations, awards, and scholarships proliferate; a film, A Litany for Survival and a video, The Edge of Each Other's Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde are widely used; and her books are reprinted, translated, and taught in classrooms worldwide.


Bowen, Angela. Who Said It Was Simple: Audre Lorde's Complex Connections to Three U.S. Liberation Movements, 1952–1992. Ph.D. diss., Clark University, 1997.

Combahee River Collective. "A Black Feminist Statement." In But Some of Us Are Brave. eds. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith. New York: Feminist Press, 1982.

Lorde, Audre. The First Cities (New York: Poets Press, 1968). New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

——. Cables To Rage (London: Paul Bremer, 1970). New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

——. From A Land Where Other People Live (Detroit: Broadside, 1973). New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

——."Love Poem." Ms. Magazine 2, no. 8 (1974): 53.

——. New York Head Shop And Museum (Detroit: Broadside, 1974). New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

——. Between Our Selves. Point Reyes, Calif.: Eidolon, 1976, 1997.

——. Coal. New York: W.W. Norton, 1976, 1997.

——. The Black Unicorn. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978, 1997.

——. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1980.

——. Chosen Poems: Old And New. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982, 1997.

——. Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name. (Watertown: Persephone, 1982). Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1997.

——. Sister Outsider: Essays And Speeches. Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press. 1984.

——. Our Dead Behind Us. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986, 1997.

——. A Burst Of Light. Ithaca: Firebrand, 1988.

——. Undersong: Chosen Poems, Old and New, Revised. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

——. The Marvelous Arithmetics of Difference. New York: W.W. Norton , 1993.

——. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum Press, 1984.

Angela Bowen

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