Lorde, Audre (1934–1992)

views updated

Lorde, Audre (1934–1992)

American poet, essayist, and activist now acknowledged as one of the foremost feminist voices of the 20th century, whose work confronts issues of identity, racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Name variations:also published under the name Rey Domini, a Latinate version of Audre Lorde, and later, sometimes known by the African name, Gamba Adisa. Pronunciation: Aw-dree. Born Audrey Geraldine Lorde on February 18, 1934, in New York, New York; died of cancer in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, on November 17, 1992; daughter of Frederick Byron Lorde (a real estate broker) and Linda (Belmar) Lorde; attended National University of Mexico, 1954; Hunter College, B.A., in 1959; Columbia University. M.L.S., in 1961; married Edward Ashley Rollins (an attorney), on March 31, 1962 (divorced); life partner of Frances Clayton; children: Elizabeth Rollins and Jonathan Rollins (both born in the mid-1960s).

Worked at Mount Vernon Public Library (1960–62), and St. Claire's School of Nursing as a librarian (1965–66); was head librarian of the Towne School library (1966–68); invited to Tougaloo, a black college in Jackson, Mississippi, to teach her first poetry workshop (1967); met Frances Clayton who became her life partner; published The First Cities with Poet's Press (1967); joined the faculty of City College of the City University of New York as a lecturer in creative writing (1968); was a lecturer in the education department of Herbert H. Lehman College (1969–70); taught as associate professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (1970–80); read Love Poem at a public reading and published it in Ms. (1971); traveled to Dahomey, in South Africa with her children (1974); published The Black Unicorn (1977); delivered her essay, "The Translation of Silence into Action," at the MLA Convention (1977); diagnosed with breast cancer (1978); published The Cancer Journals (1980); became a founding member of The Kitchen Table Press (1980); began to teach as a professor of English at Hunter College of CUNY (1980); taught for a semester at the Free University in Berlin, Germany (1984) where she also pursued alternative responses to the cancer with which she was to struggle for the rest of her life; moved to St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands (1987), saying that she needed to be where it was warmer and where being Black was not an anomaly; in the wake of Hurricane Hugo (1989), wrote a fierce response to U.S. handling of aid relief for the islands; wrote Today Could Be the Day in which she connects an unblinking acknowledgement of her own impending death with a deep love of the sensual, immediate world (April 22, 1992); died (November 17, 1992) and the poem was published in Ms. the following spring, an assertion in her own words of her continued presence among us.

Selected awards and honors:

Walt Whitman Citation of Merit (1991, making Lorde the Poet Laureate of New York); The American Book Award for A Burst of Light (1989); The Manhattan Borough President's Award for Excellence in the Arts (1988); National Endowment for the Arts Writing Grant (1968, 1981); Woman of the Year Award, Staten Island Community College (1975); Honorary Commission, Governor of Louisiana (1973); and honorary doctorates from Hunter, Oberlin, and Haverford colleges, and the University of Osnabruck in Germany.


The First Cities (introduction by Diane Di Prima, Poet's Press, 1968); Cables to Rage (Broadside Press, 1970); From a Land Where Other People Live (Broadside Press, 1973); The New York Head Shop and Museum (Broadside Press, 1974); Coal (Norton, 1976); Between Ourselves (Eidolon, 1976); The Black Unicorn (Norton, 1978); Chosen Poems Old and New (Norton, 1982); Our Dead Behind Us (Norton, 1986); Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New (Norton, 1992); The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance (Norton, 1993).


The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (The Crossing Press, 1978); The Cancer Journals (Spinsters Ink, 1980); Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Crossing Press, 1982); Sister Outsider (Crossing Press, 1984); I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities (Women of Color Press, 1985); Turning the Beat Around: Lesbian Parenting (1986); Burst of Light (Firebrand Books, 1988); Need: A Chorale for Black Women's Voices (Women of Color Press, 1990).

"My words will be there," Lorde wrote in a characteristically courageous and understated promise. She was a child who didn't speak until she was four, and then began to speak, and think, in poetry. The Harlem of Lorde's childhood was ethnically diverse and racially oppressive. There was not a lot of room for a shy, passionate, black girl to figure out who she was. As she grew, Lorde says, she "looked around … and there was no one saying what I wanted and needed to hear." When she was 13 she began to write, and so began her lifelong pursuit both to speak to the truths she knew, and to stand as an agent for change. Even before she knew it consciously, Lorde was an individual who resisted categorization. Insisting upon the diversity and complexity of her own self, Lorde frequently introduced herself as a "Black, Lesbian, Feminist, warrior, poet, mother doing my work." Her different parts were not paradoxical fragments, but integrated parts of a whole individual.

In her autobiographical novel (or biomythography), Zami, Audre Lorde begins with an act of renaming. Born Audrey Geraldine Lorde in 1934, she re-wrote herself as Audre Lorde in first grade because she liked the symmetry. This is a poet's metaphor for her life's work: continuous and powerful acts of naming and renaming both herself and the world as she saw it. In her lifetime she was many people: Zami, a Cariacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers; Audre, not Audrey; Rey Domini, a Latin version of Audre Lorde; Gamba Adisa, an African name; and The Black Unicorn—rare, beautiful, "impatient," and transformative. As a writer, she learned to take her feelings and experiences, her pain, anger, and love, and place them inside a language that seems charged with possibility and hope. That her words are here, that she was willing to acknowledge sisterhood with anyone who would genuinely enter the sphere of her conversation, is the gift she has left for future generations.

Linda Belmar Lorde and Frederick Byron Lorde came to the United States from Grenada in 1924. She was 27, he 26; they had been married just a year. They settled in Harlem, New York City, never intending to spend the rest of their lives in America. But theirs is a familiar story of immigrant aspiration, the Depression, and American racism. In the opening pages of Zami, Lorde describes the difficult work of their early years. The only jobs were menial, and the hiring practices were racist. Byron first got a job as a laborer in the old Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and Linda worked there as a chambermaid. When the hotel was closed for demolition, Linda eventually got a job as a scullery maid in a teashop because her skin coloring was "light" and the manager mistook her for "Spanish." She was fired in 1928 when her more darkly complected husband stopped to pick up her uniforms and the manager realized she was black.

Throughout her childhood, Lorde experienced life in two separate, nearly incompatible worlds. Her parents, who "spoke with one unfragmentable and unappealable voice," kept their dream of "home" alive through stories and food, ritual, and the "voice" of the West Indies. They made decisions in patois when they wanted to exclude their American-born daughters. Lorde remembers the sensuality and poetry of phrases like "raise your zandalee" (a massage), and foods like "bluegoe" and "sapadilla." At the same time, everyday reality was the gray concrete and high-rise tenements of urban New York.

All of Lorde's writing is highly metaphoric. Though she is a deeply personal writer for whom politics and moral choice can never be separated from private experience, she is not confessional, as the term is understood to refer to writers who use the intimate materials of their lives as subject. Zami, which chronicles Lorde's childhood through her early 20s (and which is the primary source for autobiographical data from that period) was written in 1982. It is a reflective, mature work—the poet's voice speaking through prose. It is this voice that shapes the conundrum of Lorde's experience of "home": the cold, urban landscape where she was often lonely and misunderstood on the one hand, and her imagined home island of Cariacou, where women lived and loved among other women, towards which Audre yearned though she could never find it on a map.

Audre's first sentence, at the age of four, was "I want to read." The youngest of three girls, she was a difficult child: legally blind, silent, moody, and awkward. The world that books opened to her was a revelation. Still, her early school experience was rocky. She was not expected to excel, so exceeding any assignment, or a teacher's expectations, brought swift punishment or humiliation. She was sent home in disgrace the first day of first grade because she wrote her entire name across two pages of her composition book, rather than sticking with the A her teacher required. And home brought little sympathy. For Lorde's mother who was trying to get by in an alien world, Audre's nonconformity was painful and troublesome. Even a shift to her sisters' more challenging Catholic school didn't erase the difficulties. The school world remained divided by race and class—or "brownies" (bad) and "fairies" (good). Lorde was generally a "brownie" with all the negative connotations it implied. Elections for class president in sixth grade put a cap on these experiences. The seat was to have gone to the best student in the class, and that was Audre, with the highest grade-point average. She was crushed when a favorite white girl won. But her pain and humiliation, her declaration that "it wasn't fair" elicited a beating from her mother, who daily had to face the fact that she could not protect her children from the effects of racism.

This helplessness in the face of institutionalized racism was made even more clear during a family trip to Washington, D.C., when Lorde was in eighth grade. Audre's older sisters were to have gone with their class until a teacher explained to them that they would not be "comfortable" on such a trip, a euphemism that put the blame for racism—exclusion from the hotel and restaurants the class would patronize—squarely on the shoulders of the victims. The Lorde family decided to go on their own. Lorde

says of her parents, "American racism was a new and crushing reality that [they] had to deal with every day of their lives once they came to America. They handled it as a private woe, … and never once gave it a name." But though she describes her parents' silent struggle with some empathy, what Lorde remarked in the nation's capital was its metaphoric whiteness: the whiteness of the buildings, of the light, of the ice cream they were never served, and of those who were privileged who denied her family. She describes the trip as the "summer she left childhood."

Audre Lorde's relationship with her father (who would die when she was 18 and far from home) is described by Jerome Brooks as "a vital presence in her life." He is invoked over and over again in her work in "a spiritual effort to reach [him], to be transformed into him." Lorde's affinity and longing for her father is part metaphoric, in that she depicts him mythically as Africa, her homeland, in The Black Unicorn. This is the place, Brooks suggests, to which she must come if she is to be fully all her selves. Brooks also argues that Lorde's father represented the solid "intellectual and moral" vision that centered her sense of the world. In Zami, Lorde implies that her father, who shared his decisionmaking power with his wife when tradition dictated it was his alone, was profoundly moral. She also felt most identified with and supported by him as she writes in Inheritance—His: "I owe you my Dahomian jaw/ the free high school for gifted girls/ no one else thought I should attend/ and the darkness we share."

Lorde's relationship with her mother appears to have been more complicated. In Zami, she ties her love of the sensuous to her mother's body and language, and to the imagined homeland of Cariacou where strong women lived and worked together. But while Linda could "pass for white" in a racist world, her youngest, nonconformist daughter could not. This was to be a deeply troubling issue for Audre. In a world where "black" means "bad," what did this mean about her? It was a question her mother had no means to answer. Lorde recognizes in her mother a female sensuality and power that is central to her understanding of herself, and that she connects to her West Indian and African heritages. But at the same time she describes herself as the dark daughter her mother would not, or could not, love and accept.

My mother had two faces and a frying pot
Where she cooked up her daughters
Into girls
… two faces and a broken pot
where she hid out a perfect daughter
who was not me
—From the House of Yemenja

As a little girl, Lorde remembers people spitting on her as she held her mother's hand and they walked down the street. Linda's response was to complain about stupid people "spitting into the wind." It was too painful to speak directly to the viciousness of everyday racism. But it was an issue that mother and daughter would struggle over, as Lorde grew into a writer who would say, "I'm not going to be more vulnerable by putting weapons of silence into my enemies' hands." West Indian daughters are expected to follow their mothers' examples as they prepare for their adult lives. But in Zami, Lorde remarks that what her mother knew didn't always fit with their American lives. The silence with which Linda handled the pain of racism could not be her daughter's way. In a later interview/conversation with Adrienne Rich , Lorde would say, "I didn't deal all that well with how strong my mother was inside of me."

At Hunter High School ("the free high school for gifted girls"), Audre Lorde made friends with the other bright outcasts. They named themselves "The Branded"; they wrote stories and poetry, and they played at being on the fringes of society, though Lorde was the only black member. It was in this group that Lorde first experienced the full, intoxicating pleasures of female friendship. Diane Di Prima , who would later publish Lorde's first volume of poetry, The First Cities, was a member of that group. This was a time of personal growth and experimentation. Lorde was the editor of the school's literary magazine. She had a best friend, Genny. She also published her first poem in Seventeen magazine after her teachers had rejected it as sentimental (it was a love poem about her then boyfriend). But life at home had become a battle, or in Lorde's words, "a West Indian version of the Second World War." Audre's need for privacy and understanding clashed with her parents' open-door policies and strictness. Her best friend's suicide and her mother's apparent lack of empathy precipitated her leaving home as soon as she graduated from high school. The period immediately following was grueling and lonely. Lorde worked at two or three low-paying jobs while trying to go to school and to write. A brief affair ended in pregnancy and abortion. At that time, abortion was still illegal and cost 300 impossible dollars for none but the crudest of medical care. Lorde survived it, but the semester was a blur as she passed her classes, struggled to write, attended the Harlem Writers Guild, sold blood, sold her typewriter in an effort to continue. Of that time, she says, "I never re-read what I was writing." Finally, in 1952, Lorde abandoned school and moved to Connecticut to take a job in a factory.

Factory work earned Lorde 90 cents an hour. As a member of the union, she would have earned $1.15 (then the minimum wage), but black workers were fired before they were eligible to join. Perhaps ironically, Connecticut was for Lorde the site of two serious awakenings. The first was political. The white clerk in the newly renamed Crispus Attucks Center could not help her find a good job, but that paradox is multiplied by Lorde's later awareness that she did not even know that a black man, Crispus Attucks, had been the first man to die in the Revolutionary War. "I wondered what kind of history I had been taught," Lorde wondered, as irony piled upon irony. The only work she could find involved radiation and chemicals and no health regulations. Eventually the tips of her fingers darkened from exposure. Out of this misery, though, came her second awakening when she fell in love with a woman and began her first lesbian relationship.

During the difficulties of Connecticut, Lorde always promised herself Mexico. In 1954, she went. Suddenly, she says, she felt "visible," as she moved through streets filled with other people with brown faces. "I felt myself unfolding like some large flower." Mexico was also a time of awakening. Lorde registered at the university in Mexico City, rented a little apartment in Cuernevaca, and made friends with other women. Of her writing, she says, "For the first time I had an insight into what poetry could be. … my words could recreate feeling." This emphasis on the relationship between language and feeling is a connection that Lorde would later return to many times in interviews and essays. In Mexico, Lorde also met Eudora, an older woman who had lost a breast to cancer years before. Eudora became Lorde's mentor and lover, telling her "to write poems" and offering an intimacy and sexuality that was nurturing and new. Metaphorically, Lorde centers self-knowledge and self-love in this relationship of a younger woman loving and being loved by an older woman scarred by cancer. Zami was written when Lorde was already struggling with her own cancer; this section of the book seems healing, as if self were reaching out to self in love and acknowledgment.

Back in New York City, knowing she loved women, Lorde returned to college, continued writing, and joined the "gay-girl" scene in the Village. As always, though, she had to struggle with the needs of the different groups with which she was connected to deny one or more aspects of who she was. The "gay-girl" scene was predominantly white. The Harlem Writers Guild was predominantly male. There Lorde experienced the old dynamics of her family life: she was good, she was special, if only she'd clean up her act. After she finished her degree at Hunter College, Lorde attended Columbia University, earning her master's of library science in 1961.

Though she does not speak of it in any detail, Audre Lorde married Edward Rollins, a white attorney, in 1962. They had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan. She remembers the early '60s as many working mothers might—a kind of blur of working (in her case as a librarian), child care, negotiation with a partner, writing, and, in her case, political activism. Out of this time, however, came the offer to teach a poetry workshop at Tougaloo, a black college in Mississippi, in 1967. The teaching was a revelation. Lorde and her students immersed themselves in poetry. She says she learned from them. The First Cities had just come out to good reviews, and her life was changing. At Tougaloo, Lorde also met and fell in love with Frances Clayton , the woman who would eventually become her life partner.

Silence has never brought us anything of worth.

—Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

After Tougaloo, Lorde recognized her need to teach. Students have described her tremendous warmth and openness, her fierce passion for language and honesty, and her willingness to really listen to their words. She was also willing to confront difficult subjects, for instance teaching courses in race relations in the late 1960s and '70s. As her teaching career developed, she was also writing and publishing regularly. In 1974, Audre Lorde traveled to Dahomey, Africa, with her children, noting that the year she was born was the year of the last three Dahomian Amazons—warrior women from a culture to which she drew in poetry lines of connection. (See Amazon Army of Dahomey.) The Black Unicorn, Lorde's seventh collection of poetry, met critical acclaim. In it, the lyric and mythic descriptions of Africa are integrated with poems of social and political protest, descrying the deaths of black children by white policeman, the loss of black men to racist violence, and the destructiveness of internalized forms of racism that can turn people against themselves. Friend and poet Adrienne Rich celebrates "the complexity of her vision, her moral courage, and the catalytic passion of her language."

In 1978, Audre Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy. Despite so intimate a pain and loss, she chose not to be silent. The Cancer Journals are in fact partly an indictment of the medical and larger communities that demand the wounded be silent. Told that she ought to wear her (white) prosthesis for the morale of the doctor's office, Lorde tells us that she is a warrior, that her wound is honorable. The Cancer Journals is a courageous personal and political description of a battle. From it, Lorde emerges a survivor, still, as she would say, stronger for all her parts.

For the next 14 years, Lorde would continue to write, to love, and to respond fully and honestly to the needs of the world around her. In 1980, while she was still recovering from the initial cancer, Lorde was a founding member of The Kitchen Table Press, a publishing house in the service of the voices of women writers who were and are too often overlooked by mainstream publishers and publications. She also helped to establish the St. Croix Women's Coalition, an advocacy group concerned with domestic violence. When she traveled to Germany seeking alternative treatments for her cancer, Lorde also taught a course on African-American women poets at the Free University in Berlin and began the process of compiling Farbe Bekennen, an anthology of writings by black German women. After a second surgery for cancer, Audre Lorde moved to St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1987, saying that she needed to be warmer. In interviews, she suggests that this is a form of re-integration with her mother's original island home that never was pictured on a map. In St. Croix, Lorde continued to be active socially, artistically, and politically. Until she died on November 17, 1992, Lorde never was silent, choosing instead always to find those parts of herself that were useful in the expression of what she saw and knew to be true.

For Audre Lorde, poetry, sexuality, moral vision, and the world we live in were all inseparable. Just before her first cancer, she described the realm of the erotic "as power, … something deeply spiritual and female, … the 'yes' within ourselves." Moving from that "yes" is her poetry, "the way we give name to the nameless so it can be thought." On the day her tiny obituary appeared in The New York Times, there were also stories of police brutality in Africa, genocide in Somalia, and an op-ed piece titled "The Bigotry Trade." These are just some of the issues Audre Lorde spoke to in her lifetime. It is to the good of all "that her voice was here." But it is a voice that asks for ours to join in. Lorde's "poetry is not a luxury"; it is a way of speaking a vision that is moral because it resists categorization to include all our parts.


"Audre Lorde" in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 18. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

"Audre Lorde: A Special Section," in Callaloo. Vol. 14, no. 1. Winter 1991.

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984.

Homans, Margaret. "Audre Lorde," in African American Writers. Edited by Valerie Smith. NY: Scribner, 1990.

Lorde, Audre. The Black Unicorn. NY: W.W. Norton, 1978.

——. The Cancer Journals. Argyle, NY: Spinsters Ink, 1980.

——. Sister Outsider. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984.

——. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1982.

suggested reading:

Bell-Scott, Patricia. Life Notes: Personal Writings by Contemporary Black Women. NY: W.W. Norton, 1994.

Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria Anzaldua. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Woman of Color. NY: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983.

Munt, Sally, ed. New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Readings. NY: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Nelson, Emmanuel S. Critical Essays: Gay and Lesbian Writers of Color. NY: Haworth Press, 1993.

Singer, Bennett L. Growing Up Gay/ Growing Up Lesbian: A Literary Anthology. NY: New Press, 1994.

related media:

Abod, Jennifer, and Angela Brown. A Radio Profile of Audre Lorde (audiotape), Cambridge, MA: Profile Productions, 1988.

Lorde, Audre. To Be Young, Lesbian, and Black in the 50's (1 cassette), interview with Helene Rosenbluth, Los Angeles, CA: Pacifica Tape Library, 1983.

National Women's Studies Association. Reading Their Work: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich (2 cassettes), College Park, Maryland, 1988.

Singer, Suzanne. Gamba Adisa. A Third World Newsreel Production, 1996.

Susan Perry Morehouse , Associate Professor of English, Alfred University, Alfred, New York