Nearly every article on poet and activist Audre Lorde makes use of her self-description: “I am a Black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, poet, mother doing my work.” Lorde valued identity as a source of her work, and said, “My poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds.” Regarding identity, Lorde considered herself a “continuum of women,” “a concert of voices,” and spoke of putting parts of herself to work for other parts in the service of her vision. Critic Pamela Steed Hill wrote, “Her work is both staunchly political and direly personal as she addresses the issues of women’s and gay rights,” as well as racism and, later, her battle with cancer. “But these subjects, vital as they are, do not define the real heart of Lorde’s creative inspirations as a poet. Her work often explores relationships between people.”
Lorde was born in Harlem New York to Caribbean immigrants. As a young woman, she used poetry as communication, reciting poems in response to questions, and began to write when she couldn’t find the poems to explain her feelings. She earned a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961, married and had 2 children shortly after, and divorced in 1970. After that, she committed to two successive long-term lesbian relationships.
In 1987, Lorde moved to St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. Her home, which she shared with her partner, was among the many destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989. In response to her and the island’s experience after the storm, she wrote several poems, such as the startling and moving “Restoration: A Memorial 9/18/91,” which includes the lines:
“Somewhere it is Tuesday
in the ordinary world
into compelling tasks
our bodies learn to perform
quite a bit of the house is left
our bedroom spared
except for the ankle-deep water
and terrible stench.”
She also published the essay “Of Generators and Survival–Hugo Letter,” which detailed her home’s wreckage and included scathing criticism of the US government’s inadequate humanitarian response to the disaster.
Her poetry was published regularly throughout the 1960s, and she authored over a dozen poetry collections, a memoir of her experience with cancer, a “biomythographic” novel, and a collection of essays and speeches. She also founded Kitchen Table Women of Color Press and attended numerous workshops conferences and panel discussions as a keynote speaker. She received numerous awards and grants for her work, and taught at colleges in the US and Germany.
She was deeply involved with various political movements, and was a figurehead in the movements for racial equality and justice, feminism and gay rights. She viewed the different causes as overlapping and inseparable, and often criticized the movements for their reluctance to accept others who were the victims of different prejudices, arguing that, in order to succeed in the fight for equality, all oppressed people must join together to understand their differences and use them as bridges rather than barriers. Her impassioned message of understanding and inclusiveness radiates from her work.
Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and had a mastectomy. Teaching at the the time, she chose not to have a biopsy and instead employed homeopathic treatments. In 1984, she found out that the cancer metastasized to her liver, and she died of cancer in Germany in 1992, working and writing up until her death. Her words and work remain as empowering and inspiring now as ever, as the movements to which she dedicated her life continue today.
Her activism was inextricably tied to her writing. In her 1977 essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” she wrote, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”
Themes Lorde fearlessly addresses in her poetry and writings include:
- racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and elitism
- violence motivated by discrimination, including police brutality
- motherhood, parent/child, and other relationships
- daily life
- domestic and international contemporary events
- African mythology
While she considered herself to be primarily a poet, Lorde also published essays and appeared as the keynote speaker at numerous conferences. She also wrote many open letters in response to current events, such as national and international crises, events within the activist community, and the violent deaths of well-known figures, unknown African-American women and other victims of hate crimes. A few of the victims of these crimes reappeared in several poems and writings. Among them: Clifford Glover, a 10-year-old boy shot to death by a police officer whom a jury found not guilty, and Patricia Cowan, a young African-American mother and actress who was brutally murdered in 1978 by a African-American man after showing up to audition for his play. Lorde also mentions in her writings personal acquaintances, public figures, fellow writers and activists. Ideas and phrases recur across formats in her work.
Central to Lorde’s philosophy is her “theory of difference,” which she detailed in many of her speeches and essays:
- “[Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism and homophobia are] forms of human blindness [that] stem from the same root—an inability to recognize the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening to the defined self, when there are shared goals. … It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going to as spoils to the victor or the stronger. So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a larger slice of the one pie.” (“Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving: ”)
- “And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own. For instance, ‘I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing—their experience is so different from mine.’ Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust? Or another, ‘She’s a white women, and what could she possibly have to say to me?’ Or, ‘She’s a lesbian, what would my husband say, or my chairman?’ Or again, ‘This woman writes of her sons and I have no children.’ And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other.” (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”)
- “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.” (“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House“)
Fellow Eleventh Stack blogonaut and poetry expert, Don, said of Lorde, before our 3 Poems By Discussion on her work last week, “Her pacing is impeccable – a strong, powerful stride forward -Her poems always seem like dispatches from the front, every inch of love and dignity fought for, tough grueling battles, but always fought from the center of love, love is always the touchstone and bitterness never gains any purchase. For her, the political is what it should always be, personal, grounded in humanness. An outstanding woman and poet.”
To listen to some recordings of Lorde’s powerful, inspiring readings of her poetry and speeches, go to creativecommons.org and search for “Audre Lorde” or check out the audiobook Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work. Also available in CLP’s collection is her biography, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde.