Audre Lorde: Overview

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Author: Judith C. Kohl
Date: 1997
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 2,612 words

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About this Person
Born: February 18, 1934 in New York, New York, United States
Died: November 17, 1992 in Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands
Nationality: American
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Lorde, Audrey Geraldine; Adisa, Gamba; Domini, Rey
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An international political and social activist, Audre Lorde used transforming incidents in her life to craft her essays and poetry and, in turn, to recreate herself; hence, the truth of her often quoted, I cannot be categorized.” Nonetheless, recognizing through experience the reality of world wide societal categorizations which marginalized, Lorde's confrontation of racism, sexism, and homophobia empowered those many women experiencing personal violence or battling cancer and especially, Black women, women of color, and lesbians. A sister/outsider” as a Black lesbian, Lorde's dialogue insisted on inclusion and breaking silences; she contributed generously to build a global women's collective. In 1991 after receiving the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit in Albany, Lorde, speaking as state poet for the State of New York, raised her familiar question What does it mean for a Black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, poet, mother to live in a world full of the most intense contradictions?” The documentary A Litany for Survival filmed from 1986 to 1992 conceived by Ada Gay Griffin and directed by Michelle Parkerson records Audre Lorde's own life and work as an answer.

Words Get Her High

Born 18 February 1934, in New York City, Audre Geraldine Lorde was the third daughter born to Linda Balmar and policeman and real estate owner Frederic Byron Lorde, West Indians who emigrated from Grenada to Harlem where, Robert Ridinger asserts in The Gay & Lesbian Literary Companion, the young Audre was raised to fit the mold of many young woman maturing in that metropolitan area.” Lorde's upbringing included Catholic schools, where she says, being smart was sometimes not as important as being good, and I was really bad” (Litany). Nevertheless, Lorde, whose near blindness until fitted with glasses at age three or four forced her to observe the world at close range, early on discovered a love of language, especially of poetry. Words would get me high”; she especially liked the love poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay and would often quote lines of memorized poetry in response to others' questions.

Lorde began writing poetry at twelve or thirteen because I had a need inside of me to create something that was not here” (Litany). At Hunter High School, one poem was considered much too romantic” for inclusion in the school paper. She triumphed when the poem was published in Seventeen (April 1951).

Two weeks after high school graduation, Lorde moved to her own apartment on the Lower East Side; she started classes at Hunter College, had a brief affair which resulted in a terminated pregnancy, and tried various jobs, including factory worker, nurse's aide and domestic cleaner. In 1954, Lorde abandoned the very white gay girl” scene in Greenwich Village to study at the National University of Mexico where for the first time she was surrounded by brown-skinned people and, most important for her poetry, discovered that words could re-create rather than create her emotional world. Returning to New York, Lorde published La Llorono” in Venture under the pseudonym Rey Domini (Audre Lorde in Latin). The mythical story captures the complex relationship with her mother which is also evident in Black Mother Woman” in From a Land Where Other People Live (1973). With Zami: A New Spelling of My Name; A Biomythography (1982), Lorde acknowledges the strong influence of her mother's recounts of her island life (Zami” is a Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers,” Lorde writes) and stresses the importance of learning from the continuity of historical roots, particularly from other cultures. In this autobiographical novel infused with myth, Lorde traces her adolescence and growing self-awareness and with her lyrical, vivid descriptions breaks the silence about lesbian lovemaking. In Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States, Elaine Upton identifies Martha” in Cables to Rage (1970) as an early overtly lesbian poem” (318). In 1972, Lorde read Love Poem” in an Upper West Side coffeehouse no longer worrying who knew that she had always loved women, as she told Adrienne Rich in An Interview” first published in Signs (1981); after the poem's publication in Ms, she posted it on the English Department bulletin board at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she was teaching. But Lorde was not always overtly a lesbian.

By 1959, Lorde had earned a B.A. in literature and philosophy from Hunter College where she edited the student magazine Echo and met a lifelong friend, historian Blanche Wiesen Cook. By the late 1960s, Cook and her partner Clare Coss formed part of Lorde's women's support network joining her in numerous political and personal activities. After earning a M.L.S. at Columbia University, Lorde served as a librarian at the Mount Vernon [N.Y.] Public Library and the Town School Library in New York City.

Learning from the 1960s”

Lorde's marriage in 1962 to attorney Edwin Ashley Rollins shocked the women who loved her. But as Cook suggests in Litany, women, especially lesbians, married at that time. As Lorde says, to be a Black woman poet in the 1960s was to be invisible, really invisible ... triple invisible as Black, lesbian and feminist” (Litany”). Before the interracial couple divorced in 1970, two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan, added "lesbian mother" to Lorde's many dimensions. She raised her children as warriors, not cannon fodder,” Jonathan attests, she never let us get away with not fighting” (Litany). Lorde's essay Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist's Response” collected in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984) offered understanding to other lesbian mothers facing their sons' manhood. In Turning the Beat Around: Lesbian Parenting 1986” (A Burst of Light), she reflects on learning to control her Black woman's pent up anger and guide her children towards self definition. The dialogue continued in the 1993 Ms article Raising Sons.”

Earlier, however, in 1968, amidst her collapsing marriage, Lorde began to achieve some recognition: she won a NEA grant and her first book of poetry, The First Cities (1968) was published just after she spent six weeks as poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College, a Black college in Mississippi. Despite her fears, Tougaloo's nurturing environment provided Lorde with her first opportunity to work with Black people. She identified their need for strong Black people” under their own definitions and offered them her strength and honesty. Most of the poems in Cables to Rage were written at Tougaloo. When Lorde left Tougaloo she knew that being a librarian was not enough—she had to teach. She also knew that Frances Clayton, whom she met there, would be a permanent part of her life. For nineteen years, Clayton shared Lorde's house on Staten Island as lover and co-mother to Lorde's children. Martin Luther King's assassination, announced while she listened to her former Tougaloo students in a concert at Lincoln Center, galvanized her resolve to become more involved.

The publication of her first poetry collection The First Cities precipitated another important decision: Lorde began teaching, at first holding several part time positions. She accepted Mina Shaughnessy's invitation to teach in the pre-baccalaureate SEEK writing program at City College. Again terrified, Lorde taught her students as well as herself; with them, she learned prose writing. Teaching Race and the Urban Situation” in the Education Department at mostly white Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York helped Lorde clarify her responsibility to Black students, especially to Black women.

Next, she successfully petitioned John Jay College to offer a course on racism as well as a remedial writing course using creative writing. At John Jay, as an open lesbian in the Black community, Lorde again used honesty and openness in heading off her critics. In Learning from the 60s” (Sister Outsider) and again in Litany, Lorde stresses that differences must be respected and used for change, a directive she followed in and out of the classroom. With her induction into the Hunter College Hall of Fame in 1980 Lorde capped a distinguished teaching career within the City University of New York. After a decade at John Jay, she moved to Hunter College and subsequently held the Thomas Hunter Professorship; in 1985 students and friends dedicated the Audre Lorde Women's Center on her alma mater's campus.

Teaching a New Generation

Over the next decade Lorde's work as teacher, contributor to journals and poetry editor of Chrysalis and Amazon Quarterly placed her in the forefront of feminist voices within the academy. In 1972 and again in 1976, she won Creative Artists Public Service Grants. The first supported preparation of From A Land Where Other People Live, nominated for the National Book Award along with work by Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich. When Rich received the award she accepted for all three in the name of all women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world” (Russell 202). In 1975 Lorde won the Broadside Press Poet's Award and Staten Island Community College named her Woman of the Year. Continuing to teach at John Jay College, Lorde published additional volumes of poetry and essays, including the political poetry in New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), Between Ourselves (1976), Coal (1976), and The Black Unicorn (1978). She delivered papers, such as The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action” at the Modern Language Association's Lesbian and Literature” panel in 1977. The Out and Out pamphlet Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, first delivered at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at Mount Holyoke in 1978, asserts the erotic as the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge” (Sister Outsider, 56). In the late 1970s, Lorde and Barbara Smith co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in a fusion of politics and art to further women of color's liberation.

Lorde kept personal journals; they provided seeds” for poems, such as Harriet,” Suckle,” and The Litany for Survival” all found in Black Unicorn. Considered Lorde's most mature poetry the volume has as central motifs the ancient women of Dahomey and repression as a means of control. Notes from a Trip to Russia” records her observations from the 1976 Africa-Asian Writers Conference in Moscow. This and others of her essays and addresses from 1976 to 1983 are collected in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984). The book is a classic in women's studies courses and takes its name from a poem in Black Unicorn Sister Outsider” which, as Barbara Christian notes in The Women's Review of Books (1984), is a compression of most of Lorde's concerns.

Breaks Another Taboo

The journal entries also proved the source for another book. In 1978, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer and, thus, began a fourteen year battle. The Cancer Journals (1980), even with its title, meets the disease and the medical profession head on. Lorde documents her mastectomy and subsequent decision not to implant a prosthesis. By now, the formerly tongue-tied” Lorde could skillfully use language to record the roller coaster ride of her emotions and her outrage at medical assumptions and women's lack of choices. The book won Book of the Year for 1981 from the American Library Association's Gay Task Force. Again Lorde's honest voice led the way in writing about taboo subjects. Her courage and forthrightness about cancer empowered other women to do the same. Paul Russell accurately notes, Lorde was a fierce truth speaker who influenced a whole generation to see with new eyes” (Gay 100 202).

As one expects, cancer did not slow Audre Lorde. If anything, as Jonathan Rollins says of his mother, her life took on a kind of immediacy; there was a change in the tone of her writing” (Litany). On her fiftieth birthday, she wrote in her journal essay A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer”: Cheers to the years! Doing what I like to do best” (A Burst of Light 53); she was at the University of Ohio addressing the Black students. With Gloria I. Joseph, Lorde co-mothered Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa (SISA). By March 1984, however, doctors were urging a liver biopsy; she refused the invasive surgery.

In Living on the Line,” Gloria T. Hull observes that Place is central in Lorde's work.” Indeed, Audre cared deeply about people and the global environment. She traveled to reach across differences, especially internationally. May and June 1984 found her in Berlin teaching a course on Black American women poets and leading a workshop in English. She introduced German women of the Diaspora to the word Afro-German” and encouraged them to organize. Eventually they published Farabe Bekennen (Showing Our Colors). She read her poetry in Switzerland. While in Berlin she sought advice and treatment from an anthroposophic doctor which continued yearly until shortly before her death. In 1984, Lorde was awarded the Borough of Manhattan President's Award for Literary Excellence. Indefatigable, she visited women writers in Cuba and in August 1985, delivered The Language of Difference” as the keynote address at a Woman's Writing Conference in Melbourne, Australia, incorporated in the journal essay A Burst of Light” from A Burst of Light (1989) which won the American Book Award.

By November 1985, however, a second anthroposophic doctor recommended Lorde seek treatment at the Lukas Klinik in Arlesheim, Switzerland, where, accompanied by Frances Clayton, Lorde accepted the diagnosis and challenge of living with metastasized cancer. As she said: Battling cancer is very, very much to me like battling racism, like battling sexism. I often visualize it in very political terms ... [I visualize] cancer cells as white South African policemen” (Litany).

In 1986 in St. Croix, Lorde participated in The Ties that Bind,” a conference on Caribbean women and in Bonnieux, France, met with the Zamani Soweto Sisters from South Africa as part of her ongoing work with SISA. As guest professor at the University of Berlin in 1989, Lorde continued her work with Afro-German women. In 1990 Lorde's life and work were honored and celebrated when over a thousand women from twenty three countries gathered for the I Am Your Sister” conference in Boston. Nnosing Ellen Kuzwayo, a member of the South African Parliament, addressed Audre, You have sent your message just through your love, your warmth and everything a human being in the leadership should have” (Litany). Other accolades included The Walt Whitman Citation of Merit in 1991 and appointment as the Poet Laureate of New York State by then-Governor, Mario Cuomo. In St. Croix, The Pan African Support Group organized the ceremony at which Lorde received the name Gamba Adisa meaning warrior, one who give meaning to her words.” She continued to write poetry, many collected in The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems 1987-1992 (1993), for as she wrote to women: Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our experience” (Sister Outsider, 37).

She danced until the end; the final poem in the collection is The Electric Slide Boogie” dated 3 January 1992.

Lorde died on 17 November 1992, in St. Croix where she lived with her companion Dr. Gloria I. Joseph. Since then, the documentary A Litany for Survival” has been released and in the summer of 1994, the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute saluted her with the exhibit Transcending Silence: The Life and Poetic Legacy of Audre Lorde.” The political legacy of Audre Lorde, as friend Blanche Wiesen Cook reminded at the memorial service held at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 18 January 1993, is for each of us to dedicate our lives to activism ... so that we may reclaim and re-vision the world” (Transcending Silence 8).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420005072