Today, as part 3 of this June remembrance, let’s talk about a poet and activist, Audre Lorde. Lorde was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Lorde’s work is still incredibly relevant today.
Lorde was born on February 18th, 1934 in New York City. Her childhood had its hardships. Although a bright child – learning to read and write by age 4 – she struggled with parents who worked a lot. Even when they were home, they were distant and cold. Her parents spent a lot of time working but they still faced poverty.
From a young age, Lorde fell in love with poetry. She felt more comfortable expressing herself in poetry. She once said that she thought in poetry, saying that it was easier, she would even answer questions in recited poems. Lorde often said that she felt like an outsider no matter what group she was in. Her bright mind persisted through high school. She went to an advanced high school and had a poem published in Seventeen Magazine while there.
After high school, she attended the National University of Mexico in 1954 for just one year. Her year in Mexico a huge part of her becoming. It was there she realized she was a poet and lesbian. After that, she came back to New York and attended Hunter College. During her college years, she was an active part in the gay scene in Greenwich Villiage in NYC. She worked as a librarian and continued her poetry. In 1959 she graduated but continued her education at Columbia University for a master’s in library science.
In the ’60s was when Lorde’s work became a regular in literary magazines around the world. Her work was fueled by how she looked at the outside world. She was an active participant in the civil rights, feminist, and anti-war movements. In the 60’s she married a white gay man, Edward Rollins. The two actually had two children (Elizabeth and Jonathan) before the two divorced in 1970.
In 1968, Lorde left NYC to work as a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Much like her time in Mexico, this was a huge year for her. There she began to devote herself. Before she felt she had to live up to a “crazy and queer” identity but in Mississippi, she settled. Lorde focused on her poetry and the true art form of writing poetry. In the same year, Lorde published her first volume of poetry, The First Cities (1968). This book was introspective. She wrote a number of poems for her next book, Cables to Rage (1970) while in Mississippi. In this one, she addressed her sexuality and talked about a plethora of deep emotions; betrayal, love, birth.
Lorde’s next book didn’t come out until 1973 and it was called Land Where Other People Live (1973). In this collection, Lorde’s emotions only seem to grow more urgent. She expresses her battle with her identity and anger with social injustice, she expresses her anger and loneliness.
Although Lorde delves into politics in her previous book, New York Head Shop and Museum (1974) dives into Civil rights and poverty and has been known as her most political book.
In 1976, Lorde released Coal (1976) which helped bring her work to more people. The book was published by a bigger name and it helped her become a powerful voice in the Black Arts Movement. There are some poems from her first two books but Coal overall ties her ideas and beliefs together. It voices her anger with racial injustice, her pride in her black identity, and demand for intersectional feminism. Lorde quickly published Between Our Shelves (1976) and Hanging Fire (1978).
Her next poetry book The Black Unicorn (1978) is where Lorde talks of African female deities of warrior strength, fertility, and creation. She describes her connection with them and the strength they give her.
In 1978, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer. She moved for a moment from writing poetry to write prose. She wrote about her experiences in a collection called The Cancer Journals (1980.)
Lorde wrote more than that. She also wrote Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), a deep dive into her past that talks about her self-awareness and sexuality. Then in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984), Lorde shares the struggles of oppressed people for the masses to read. She pushes for unity between different races, communities coming together to build a better world. It is a book that is very relevant today.
1984 brought Lorde to Berlin where she helped kick-start a black movement in Germany. She mentored those oppressed in West Berlin and taught them how to ride up and make an impact without violence. Her time there was actually turned into a documentary in 2011 called “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992”.
Also in 1984, Lorde was informed that her cancer metastasized to her liver.
In 1988, A Burst of Light (1988) was published as her last published work hiring her life.
In her final years, Lorde was living on the island of St. Croix with her life partner Dr. Gloria I. Joseph. Shortly before her passing, in an African naming ceremony, she chose the name Gamba Adisa meaning “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Know” and in life, she did just that. At the age of 58, on November 17th, 1992, Audre Lorde died of breast cancer.
In 2017, a book of essays and poems by Lorde was published posthumously. The book is called Your Silence Will Not Protect You (2017). The book talks about putting action behind your words, silence is violence, and communication between white and black women.
In the world today, we can take note of Lorde’s teachings. She preached unity, equality, and importantly JUSTICE. She fought for a better world and used words, instead of violence, to teach. With what is going on right now, we need her leadership. Even after all of this time, every one of her lessons and essays is relevant. Her work goes further than the LGBT community. She was out and proud of who she was and she wasn’t afraid to fight for her right to live. Lorde was driven and passionate. We all need to take note.
Thank you, Audre.
“What I leave behind has a life of its own. I’ve said this about poetry; I’ve said it about children. Well, in a sense I’m saying it about the very artifact of who I have been.” (x)
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