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Audre Lorde's Life and Career


Beverly Threatt Kulii (BK), Ann E. Reuman (AR),
and Ann Trapasso (AT)

American writer Audre Lorde names herself as "a black feminist lesbian mother poet" because her identity is based on the relationship of many divergent perspectives once perceived as incompatible. Thematically, she expresses or explores pride, love, anger, fear, racial and sexual oppression, urban neglect, and personal survival. Moreover, she eschews a hope for a better humanity by revealing truth in her poetry. She states, "I feel have a duty 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 unmitigating pain." Lorde was a prolific writer who continually explored the marginalizations experienced by individuals in a society fearful of differences. (BK)

Recognizing that "imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness" (The Cancer Journals, 1980), Audre Lorde claimed and celebrated all of her selves in order that others could come to find their own voices. Her poetry and prose demonstrate that we need not be afraid of difference, that difference can be a creative force for change. At the forefront of black feminist thought, her work has contributed to an analysis of the interlocking nature of all oppression. As activist and poet, she worked to challenge and transform power relations. (AT)

Audrey Geraldine Lorde was born in New York City to laborer Frederic Byron and Linda Belmar Lorde, immigrants from the West Indies who had hoped to return until the depression dashed their plans. (BK)

The third and youngest daughter of Linda Gertrude Belmar and Frederic Byron Lorde, Audre Geraldine was born tongue-tied and so nearsighted that she was considered legally blind. She grew up in Harlem during the Depression, hearing her mother's stories about the West Indies. She learned to talk while she learned to read, at the age of four. Her mother taught her to write during this time and Audre "did not like the tail of the Y hanging down below the line in Audrey" and so would omit it; she "love[d] the evenness of AUDRELORDE" (Zami, 1982). This early incident reveals the importance of naming and self-definition to Lorde, themes that she develops in her later writings.

Influenced by her mother's "special and secret relationship with words" (Zami), Audre appreciated poetry and used it to communicate with others. She said: "Words had an energy and power and I came to respect that power early. Pronouns, nouns, and verbs were citizens of different countries, who really got together to make a new world" (Karla M. Hammond, Denver Quarterly, Spring 1981). If asked how she was feeling, Audre would reply by reciting a poem. When the poems could no longer express what she wanted to say, at about age twelve or thirteen, she began to write her own. Her poetry was "very important to [her] in terms of survival, in terms of living" (Hammond, Denver Quarterly). She explained, "I loved poetry, and I loved words. But what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That's the beginning of social protest" (Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work, 1983). She saw this tradition of confronting pain and learning from it as particularly African and manifest in the best African-American literature.

Educated at Catholic grammar schools, she faced "patronizing" racism at St. Mark's School and "downright hostile" racism at St. Catherine's School (Zami). At Hunter High School she found a "lifeline" in a "sisterhood of rebels" who were also poets. (AT)

She wrote her first poem when she was in the eighth grade. Rebelling at the isolation and strict rules of her parents, she befriended others at Hunter High School who were also viewed as outcasts. (BK)

Writing poetry no longer felt like "a secret and rebellious vice" but "an ordinary effort" (Zami). She became literary editor of the school arts magazine and her first love poem was published in Seventeen. (AT)

After graduating from high school, she attended Hunter College from 1954 to 1959, graduating with a bachelors degree. While studying library science, Lorde supported herself working various odd jobs: factory worker, ghost writer, social worker, X-ray technician, medical clerk, and arts and crafts supervisor. In 1954, she spent a pivotal year as a student at the National University of Mexico, a period described by Lorde as a time of affirmation and renewal because she confirmed her identity on personal and artistic levels as a lesbian and poet. On her return to New York, Lorde went to college, worked as a librarian, continued writing, and became an active participant in the gay culture of Greenwich Village. Lorde furthered her education at Columbia University, earning a master’s degree in library science in 1961. During this time she also worked as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library and marred attorney Edward Ashley Rollins; they later divorced in 1970 after having two children, Elizabeth and Johnathan. In 1966, Lorde became head librarian at Town School Library in New York City where she remained until 1968. (BK)

Lorde’s poetry was published regularly during the 1960s: in Langston Hughes's 1962 New Negro Poets, USA, in several foreign anthologies, and in black literary magazines. During this time she was politically active in the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements. (AT)

A turning point for Lorde was the year 1968. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and in spring of 1968 she became poet in residence at Tougaloo College, a small historically black institution in Mississippi. Her experiences as both teacher and writer of poetry virtually changed Lorde's life. (BK)

She discovered that teaching is similar to writing: "Both became ways of exploring what I need for survival" (Tate, Black Women Writers at Work). At Tougaloo she met her companion of many years, Frances Clayton. (AT)

Her first volume of poetry, The First Cities (1968), was published by the Poet's Press and edited by Diane di Prima, a former classmate and friend from Hunter High School. This volume was cited as an innovative and refreshing rhetorical departure from the confrontational tone prevalent in African American poetry at the time. Dudley Randall, fellow poet and critic, asserted in his review of the book that "[Lorde] does not wave a black flag, but her blackness is there, implicit, in the bone." Lorde's second volume, Cables to Rage (1970), which was mainly written during her tenure at Tougaloo, addresses themes of love, betrayal, childbirth, and the complexities of raising children. It is particularly noteworthy for the poem "Martha" in which Lorde poetically confirms her homosexuality: "we shall love each other here if ever at all." (BK)

Her experience as a poet in residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi (her first trip to the Deep South, her first workshop situation with young African American students, her first time away from her children) and the circumstances that followed her stay there (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Robert Kennedy's death, a close friend's accident) made her see the shortness of life and the necessity for immediate action. The pieces in her second volume of poetry reflect this urgency and the function, for Lorde, of art to protest if not change destructive social patterns.

Rooted in her anger at the racism and sexism that have marked the history of the United States, the poems in Cables to Rage introduced themes that carried through much of Lorde's work: violence, hunger, cloaks of lies, dishonest silences, struggle for voice, faith in the capacity to love, growth through dreams, desperate hope and defiance amid dying and loss, and painful birthing. Recurrent in these poems are images of shedding and of fiery renewal: obsolete or false coverings (snakeskin, cocoon, weeds, dead poems) must be stripped and discarded so that the new can grow. While many African American poets of her time focused on black nationalism and urban realism, Lorde placed relationships amid global concerns and gave voice to what many had rejected, hidden, or ignored. "Martha," for instance, Lorde's first overtly lesbian poem to be published and the longest piece in the volume, was strategically centered in Cables to Rage. A writer who saw herself in relational dialogue with the rest of the world, Lorde explained that her work owed much to her ancestors, to the love and support of women, and to African and African American artists, and she insisted in her poetry and prose that without community, coalition across differences, and freedom from all oppression, there is no true liberation at all. (AR)

Her next volume of poetry, From A Land Where Other People Live (1973), was published by Broadside Press. There exists obvious personal and poetic growth in her expanding thematic scope and vision of worldwide injustice and oppression. Her subtle anger is fully developed yet she addresses other important concerns: the complexities surrounding her existence as an African American and as a woman, mother, lover, and friend. Anger, terror, loneliness, love, and impatience illuminate the pages of From a Land Where Other People Live as Lorde's personal experiences have now become universal. This volume was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry in 1973.

Lorde's New York Head Shop and Museum (1974) examines political and social issues and was often characterized as her most radical poetry yet. In this volume, Lorde takes the reader on a visual journey through her native New York City while presenting poetic images of urban decay, neglect, and poverty that confront its inhabitants every day. Lorde believed that political action was the necessary ingredient for change: "I have come to believe in death and renewal by fire." Occasionally, New York Head Shop and Museum resembles the rebellious yet proud tone of many black poets of the 1960s.

Coal (1976) introduced Lorde to a wider audience because it was her first volume to be released by a major publisher, W. W. Norton. This volume compiles poetry from her first two books, The First Cities and Cables to Rage, but is significant also because it began Lorde's association with Adrienne Rich, one of Norton's most acclaimed poets, who introduced her to a larger white audience. Coal contains many themes similar to those found in New York Head Shop and Museum and demonstrates her superb metaphorical craft. In the title poem "Coal" she asserts and celebrates her blackness. Lorde is painfully aware that many strangers overlook her blackness by "cancelling me out." Many of her poems in Coal are also an indictment of an unjust society that allows women to be treated unfairly, sometimes brutally, and this acknowledgment by Lorde intensifies her plea for cooperation and sisterhood among women.

Lorde's seventh book of poetry, The Black Unicorn (1978), also published by Norton, is widely considered the most complex yet brilliant masterpiece written during her prolific literary career. In this volume, Lorde spans three centuries of the black diaspora to reclaim African mythology as the basis for her themes about women, racial pride, motherhood, and spirituality. She also affirms her lesbianism and political concerns. Poet Adrienne Rich wrote: "Refusing to be circumscribed by any simple identity, Audre Lorde writes as a Black woman, a mother, a daughter, a Lesbian, a feminist, a visionary." In this remarkable work, Lorde opens up the myths of Africa to America readers and calls upon the female African gods to grant her wisdom, strength, and endurance. (BK)

The Cancer Journals, published in 1980 by Spinsters Ink, was the first major prose work of African American poet and essayist Audre Lorde as well as one of the first books to make visible the viewpoint of a lesbian of color. In this collection, Lorde challenged traditional Western notions of illness and advocated women's ability, responsibility, and right to make decisions about their health.

A three-part piece developed from journal entries and essays written between 1977 and 1979, The Cancer Journals chronicles Lorde's experiences with her mastectomy and its aftermath. The first section of the book, "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action," is a short address that was delivered by Lorde on a lesbians and literature panel of the Modern Language Association in 1977, soon after she had recovered from surgery that discovered a benign breast tumor. The second chapter, subtitled "A Black Lesbian Feminist Experience," frankly describes the emotions experienced by one without role models through the course of diagnosis, surgery, and recovery. Central to this section is Lorde's recognition of her fierce desire to survive, to be a warrior rather than a victim, and her acknowledgment of the network of women whose love sustained her. The last chapter, entitled "Breast Cancer: Power vs. Prosthesis," traces the development of Lorde's decision not to wear a prosthesis, a cosmetic device that she felt placed profit and denial of difference over health and well-being.

In each of the sections of the book, Lorde sought the strength that could be found at the core of the experience of cancer. Balancing her "wants" with her "haves," she used this crisis to change patterns in her life. Rather than ignoring pain and fear, she acknowledged, examined, and used them to better understand mortality as a source of power. This tendency to face and metabolize pain Lorde saw as a particularly African characteristic. Death, she realized, had to be integrated with her life, loving, and work; consciousness of limitations and shared mourning of her loss increased her appreciation of living. Underlining the possibilities of self-healing, specifically the need to love her altered body, Lorde further stressed the importance of accepting difference as a resource rather than perceiving it as a threat. Perhaps most crucially, Lorde realized through the experience of cancer the necessity of visibility and voice. Seeing silence as a tool for separation and powerlessness, she understood the important function of her writing not only to free herself of the burden of the experience but also to share her experiences so that others might learn. Survival, she wrote, is only part of the task; the other part is teaching.

In 1981, The Cancer Journals won the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award. In 1982, Lorde published Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, a "biomythography" that she claimed was a "lifeline" through her cancer experience. Six years after her mastectomy, Lorde was diagnosed with liver cancer, the meaning of which she explored in the title essay of A Burst of Light (1988). That The Cancer Journals, Zami, and A Burst of Light, the three works that perhaps most directly reveal Lorde's deeply felt vulnerabilities and affirmations, were all published by small feminist presses and neglected by mainstream publishing firms attests to the work still to be done. (AR)

Poems from Lorde's first five volumes of poetry, The First Cities (1968), Cables to Rage (1970), From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), New York Headshop and Museum (1974), and Coal (1976), were collected in Chosen Poems--Old and New (1982), along with several new poems. Poems from The Black Unicorn (1978) were not included in this volume because Lorde felt the sequence, which felt like a conversation between herself and an ancestor Audre, could not be broken. Gloria Hull describes her poetry as "basically a traditional kind of modernist free verse--laced with equivocation and . . . allegory." The poems focus on the particular and personal while exploring political implications and making global connections. Lorde's voice calls us to witness violence, comprehend oppression, recognize differences, honor ancestors, celebrate love, nurture children, and visualize possibilities. (AT)

In Our Dead Behind Us (1986) Lorde shows herself to be "a mature poet in full command of her craft" (Phillips, Times Literary Supplement, 15-20 April 1988). An updated edition of Chosen Poems entitled Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New (1992) offers some new poems and stylistic revisions of many others. Many would consider Lorde one of the finest contemporary poets, yet her poetry has received mixed reviews. Lorde herself agrees with Gloria Hull's assessment: "Readers who--by whatever means of experience, empathy, imagination, or intelligence--are best able to approximate Lorde's own positionality most appreciate her work." (AT)

As a noted feminist, Lorde painstakingly struggled against the limitations of the label, insisting that feminism is important to all factions of African American life. As a perceived outsider on many fronts, Lorde believed that bringing together divergent groups can only strengthen and heal a torn society: "When I say I am a Black feminist, I mean I recognize that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my Blackness as well as my womanness, and therefore my struggles on both these fronts are inseparable." These views are explored further in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984), published by Crossing Press. This nonfiction collection explores the fear and hatred existing between African American men and women, feminists, or lesbians and the challenge between African American women and white women to find common ground. Another crucial area of emphasis presented in Sister Outsider is the isolation found among African American women and their subsequent rejection of each other’s trust, friendship, and gifts. (BK)

Lorde died on 17 November 1992 in St. Croix, where she had been living with Gloria I. Joseph. She expressed this hope for her last poetry collection, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance- Poems 1987-1992 (1993): "I want this book to be filled with shards of light thrown off from the shifting tensions between the dissimilar, for that is the real stuff of creation and growth." (AT)

Before she died, Lorde in an African naming ceremony took the name Gambda Adisa, meaning Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known. (AR)

Audre Lorde, who wrote at a feverish pace throughout her literary career, remains an influential and serious talent. To Lorde, her writing was more than a choice or a vocation. It was a responsibility that was necessary for her survival and the survival of others. Her emotional precision blends rage, anger, and destruction with a luminous vision of hope, love, and renewal. (BK)

Note: This biographical collage weaves together writing by several critics. The comments on Cables to Rage and The Cancer Journals are by Ann E. Reuman, from The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, 1997 by Oxford University Press, as are Beverly Threatt Kulii’s comments. Ann Trapasso’s passages are from The Oxford Companion to Women’s Literature in the United States, 1995 by Oxford University Press.


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