She was a compelling and unforgettable woman who made a lasting legacy on feminism.
She was “Sister Outsider”, always evolving, commanding and creating an aura that set her apart from all the feminists of her era.
She was Audre Geraldine Lorde, and she was one of a kind.
Here is her story.
Audre Geraldine Lorde (b. February 18, 1934 – d. November 17, 1992), radical feminist, poet, writer, civil rights activist. Among mid- to late-twentieth-century writers, few so completely challenged attempts at facile categorization as did Audre Lorde. Her challenge took the interesting and powerful form of embracing all the categories into which she herself fit or could be made to fit. “I am a Black lesbian feminist poet,” she said, “and I am your sister.”
Audre Lorde was born in Harlem. Her parents, Frederic Byron and Linda Bellmar Lord, had come to New York from their home country of Grenada and for many years firmly believed that they would one day go home. When, during the Great Depression, they realized that they would never go back, a permanent sorrow entered their household. Their nostalgia for the country of their birth provided the background of Ms. Lorde’s childhood. For this young New York girl, there was an island in the West Indies—an island she had never seen—that she was expected to think of as home.
One of Ms. Lorde’s books, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), presents a clear picture of her early life. A fictionalized biography—or biomythography, as she called it—the work graphically retells racist incidents the author suffered as a child. It also describes with wonder her discovery of language and its power. At an early age, she began to use the latter as a tool to resist and even manipulate racist attitudes.
The strictness of her parent’s home, along with her own sense of herself as an outsider, led Ms. Lorde into rebellion as a teenager. She sought out others who felt as she did, and she found them at Hunter College High School. One such companion, later so important, was the poet Diane Di Prima. After graduation from high school, Ms. Lorde moved to her own apartment and began to support herself. The jobs she was able to find were low-paying and unsatisfying. She endured great loneliness because of her inability to find a world in which she felt at home. It was during this time that she had her first lesbian affair, in Connecticutt, while she was working in a factory.
Another affair with a woman, in Mexico in 1954, led Ms. Lorde into the Greenwich Village :gay girl” scene. It was the closest she had come to a sense of belonging, and she found it in a sea of almost entirely White faces. This irony, and the conflict it aroused in her, provoked years of thinking, writing, and feeling. At this time, she also went to college and began to work as a librarian, and she wrote poetry.
The poetry led Ms. Lorde, for a time, to involvement with the Harlem Writers Guild. Its members, including Langston Hughes, were the vanguard of a growing movement in Black American literature. Here was another possible home for the aspiring young writer. Mr. Hughes himself showed an interest in her work. Yet, according to Ms. Lorde, the homophobia of the Guild members alienated her once again.
In 1959 Ms. Lorde received her BA from Hunter College. In 1960, she was awarded an MLS from Columbia University’s School of Library Science. For a number of years, Ms. Lorde wrote poetry and worked as a librarian, eventually becoming head librarian at the Town School in New York. She also married and had two children. The marriage and its circumstances are not recorded in Ms. Lorde’s writing and therefore little is know of it. Then, in 1968, the Poet’s Press scheduled The First Cities, her first book of poetry, for publication. Her old high school friend, Diane Di Prima, was instrumental in its publication. At about the same time, Ms. Lorde was invited to Tougaloo College, in Mississippi, to be poet-in-residence.
Ms. Lorde was at Tougaloo for only six weeks, but during that time her life changed suddenly and radically. The public had begun to recognize her work; she was teaching poetry at an historically black institution, an empowering experience she later described with great emotion in her poem “Blackstudies”; and she met and initiated a romance with Frances Clayton, the woman with whom she would share the rest of her life.
Upon her return to New York City, Ms. Lorde continued teaching. She gave courses in writing at City College and on racism at Lehman College and John Jay College. Her second book of poetry, Cables to Rage, was published in 1970. In 1971, she read publicly for the first time a lesbian love poem. The same poem was published later in Ms. It was not, however, included in her next volume of poetry, From a Land Where Other People Live, having been rejected by the editor of that volume. In 1917, the book was nominated for a National Book award, bringing Ms. Lorde greater recognition for her work and, after two more publications with small presses, a contract with W.W. Norton.
Norton brought out Coal (1976), a collection of new poems and poems selected from her first two, hard-to-find books, and emblazoned with a jacket blurb written by Adrienne Rich, at that time one of Norton’s most prominent poets. The association between Ms. Lorde and Ms. Rich continued over the years. The Black Unicorn, widely considered Ms. Lorde’s most important work, appeared in 1978. In the summer of 1981, Ms. Rich published an interview with Ms. Lorde in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, thereby introducing her to a large White readership.
The Black Unicorn was probably Ms. Lorde’s most successful poetic attempt to merge her different worlds. In it she used the image of the unicorn (which she believed Europeans took from the African agricultural goddess ChiWara, a one-horned antelope) to explore the influences of African and European cultures upon each other. She plumed the sexual significances of the symbol, pointing out how the European myth divides meaning into the masculine, the phallic horn, and the feminine, the pale virgin who alone can tame the animal. In contrast, African culture combines those meanings to emphasize the power of growth.
With the appearance of The Black Unicorn, Ms. Lorde became an acknowledged, widely reviewed poet. Critical articles began to be written about her work. her prose, too, though published by small presses, began to command attention and respect. Published in 1982, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name was reviewed in the New York Times. A different audience grew out of what would become her most famous and well-known work, a collection of essays entitled Sister Outsider (1984). It was widely adopted in Women’s Studies courses and quickly achieved the status of a feminist classic.
During the 1970s, Ms. Lorde traveled in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and Russia, In 1980, her autobiographical work The Cancer Journals was published. In it, she described her feelings during and after her affliction with breast cancer. The experience had added yet one more identity to her long list. In another prose work, A Burst of Light (1988), she recounted her decision not to undergo further surgery after a return of the disease and her experience with alternative methods of treatment. Despite her illness, Ms. Lorde traveled extensively, teaching and giving readings. She died November 17, 1992.
The stubborn reality of her own experiences and her own feelings served as the basis of Ms. Lorde’s worldview. When political oversimplification collided with her personal affections and loyalties, she saw a reason to challenge the politics, as in her essay “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response.” In that work, she explores among other issues, the meaning of being a lesbian and a mother in a culture that often refuses to accept that combination.
Ms. Lorde’s focus as a writer and as a person was to strive for unity by embracing diversity. She challenged all political and social actions that arbitrarily separate one individual from another, that exclude and ostracize. She did this by fervently defending the individual’s right to define herself and her possibilities. In her poetry she created a world of eroticism, sensuality, and symbolism that, ultimately, aspired to the same goal.
Homans, Maragret. “”Lorde, Audre Grealdine.” Black Women in America, Oxford University Press, 2005, pgs. 299- 301.
- A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde (1995) Documentary by Michelle Parkeson.
- The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde (2002). Documentary by Jennifer Abod.
- Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 (2012). Documentary by Dagmar Schultz.
NOTABLE, QUOTABLE AUDRE GERALDINE LORDE: