Audre Lorde (/ /; born Audrey Geraldine Lorde, February 18, 1934 – November 17, 1992) was an African American writer, feminist, womanist, lesbian, and civil rights activist. As a poet, she is best known for technical mastery and emotional expression, particularly in her poems expressing anger and outrage at civil and social injustices she observed throughout her life. Her poems and prose largely dealt with issues related to civil rights, feminism, and the exploration of black female identity. In relation to white feminists in the United States, Lorde famously said, “the master's tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Life and work
Lorde was born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants from Barbados and Carriacou, Frederick Byron Lorde (called Byron) and Linda Gertrude Belmar Lorde, who settled in Harlem. Lorde's mother was of mixed ancestry but could pass for white, a source of pride for her family. Lorde's father was darker than the Belmar family liked, and they only allowed the couple to marry because of Byron Lorde's charm, ambition, and persistence. Nearsighted to the point of being legally blind, and the youngest of three daughters (two older sisters, Phyllis and Helen), Audre Lorde grew up hearing her mother's stories about the West Indies. She learned to talk while she learned to read, at the age of four, and her mother taught her to write at around the same time. She wrote her first poem when she was in eighth grade.
Born Audrey Geraldine Lorde, she chose to drop the "y" from her first name while still a child, explaining in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name that she was more interested in the artistic symmetry of the "e"-endings in the two side-by-side names "Audre Lorde" than in spelling her name the way her parents had intended.
Lorde’s relationship with her parents was difficult from a young age. She was able to spend very little time with her father and mother, who were busy maintaining their real estate business in the tumultuous economy after the Great Depression, and when she did see them, they were often cold or emotionally distant. In particular, Lorde’s relationship with her mother, who was deeply suspicious of people with darker skin than hers (which Lorde’s was) and the outside world in general, was characterized by “tough love” and strict adherence to family rules. Lorde’s difficult relationship with her mother would figure prominently in later poems, such as Coal’s “Story Books on a Kitchen Table.”
As a child, Lorde, who struggled with communication, came to appreciate the power of poetry as a form of expression. She memorized a great deal of poetry, and would use it to communicate, to the extent that, “If asked how she was feeling, Audre would reply by reciting a poem.” Around the age of twelve, she began writing her own poetry and connecting with others at her school who were considered “outcasts” as she felt she was.
She attended Hunter College High School, a secondary school for intellectually gifted students, and graduated in 1951.
In 1954, she spent a pivotal year as a student at the National University of Mexico, a period she described as a time of affirmation and renewal, during which she confirmed her identity on personal and artistic levels as a lesbian and poet. On her return to New York, she attended Hunter College, graduating class of 1959. There, she worked as a librarian, continued writing and became an active participant in the gay culture of Greenwich Village. She furthered her education at Columbia University, earning a master's degree in Library Science in 1961. She also worked during this time as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library and married attorney Edwin Rollins; they divorced in 1970 after having two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan. In 1966, Lorde became head librarian at Town School Library in New York City, where she remained until 1968.
Lorde’s time at Tougaloo College, like her year at the National University of Mexico, was a formative experience for Lorde as an artist. She led workshops with her young, black undergraduate students, many of whom were eager to discuss the civil rights issues of that time. Through her interactions with her students, she reaffirmed her desire not only to live out her “crazy and queer” identity, but devoted new attention to the formal aspects of her craft as a poet. Her book of poems Cables to Rage came out of her time and experiences at Tougaloo.
From 1977 to 1978 Lorde had a brief affair with the sculptor and painter Mildred Thompson. The two met in Nigeria in 1977 at the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77). Their affair ran its course during the time that Thompson lived in Washington, D.C.
Audre Lorde battled cancer for fourteen years. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and underwent a mastectomy. Six years later, she was diagnosed with liver cancer. After her diagnosis, she chose to become more focused on both her life and her writing. She wrote The Cancer Journals, which won the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award in 1981. She featured as the subject of a documentary called A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, which shows her as an author, poet, human rights activist, feminist, lesbian,  She is quoted in the film as saying: "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."
From 1991 until her death, she was the New York State Poet Laureate. In 1992, she received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle. In 2001, Publishing Triangle instituted the Audre Lorde Award to honour works of lesbian poetry.
Lorde died of liver cancer on November 17, 1992, in St. Croix, where she had been living with Gloria I. Joseph. She was 58. In an African naming ceremony before her death, she took the name Gamba Adisa, which means "Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known".
Lorde focused her discussion of difference not only on differences between groups of women but between conflicting differences within the individual. "I am defined as other in every group I'm part of," she declared. "The outsider, both strength and weakness. Yet without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression". She described herself both as a part of a "continuum of women" and a "concert of voices" within herself.
Her conception of her many layers of selfhood is replicated in the multi-genres of her work. Critic Carmen Birkle wrote: "Her multicultural self is thus reflected in a multicultural text, in multi-genres, in which the individual cultures are no longer separate and autonomous entities but melt into a larger whole without losing their individual importance." Her refusal to be placed in a particular category, whether social or literary, was characteristic of her determination to come across as an individual rather than a stereotype. Lorde considered herself a "lesbian, mother, warrior, poet" and used poetry to get this message across.
Lorde's poetry was published very regularly during the 1960s — in Langston Hughes' 1962 New Negro Poets, USA; in several foreign anthologies; and in black literary magazines. During this time, she was also politically active in civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements.
In 1968, Lorde published The First Cities, her first volume of poems. It was edited by Diane di Prima, a former classmate and friend from Hunter College High School. The First Cities has been described as a "quiet, introspective book," and Dudley Randall, a 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".
Her second volume, Cables to Rage (1970), which was mainly written during her tenure as poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, addressed themes of love, betrayal, childbirth, and the complexities of raising children. It is particularly noteworthy for the poem "Martha," in which Lorde openly confirms her homosexuality for the first time in her writing: "[W]e shall love each other here if ever at all."
Nominated for the National Book Award for poetry in 1973, From a Land Where Other People Live (Broadside Press) shows Lorde’s personal struggles with identity and anger at social injustice. The volume deals with themes of anger, loneliness, and injustice, as well as what it means to be an African-American woman, mother, friend, and lover.
1974 saw the release of New York Head Shop and Museum, which gives a picture of Lorde’s New York through the lenses of both the civil rights movement and her own restricted childhood: stricken with poverty and neglect and, in Lorde’s opinion, in need of political action.
Despite the success of these volumes, it was the release of Coal in 1976 that established Lorde as an influential voice in the Black Arts Movement (Norton), as well as introducing her to a wider audience. The volume includes poems from both The First Cities and Cables to Rage, and it unties many of the themes Lorde would become known for throughout her career: her rage at racial injustice, her celebration of her black identity, and her call for an intersectional consideration of women’s experiences. Lorde followed Coal up with Between Our Selves (also in 1976) and Hanging Fire (1978).
In Lorde’s volume The Black Unicorn (1978), she describes her identity within the mythos of African female deities of creation, fertility, and warrior strength. This reclamation of African female identity both builds and challenges existing Black Arts ideas about pan-Africanism. While writers like Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed utilized African cosmology in a way that “furnished a repertoire of bold male gods capable of forging and defending an aboriginal black universe," in Lorde's writing "that warrior ethos is transferred to a female vanguard capable equally of force and fertility.”
Lorde's poetry became more open and personal as she grew older and became more confident in her sexuality. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Lorde states, "Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought…As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring ideas." Sister Outsider also elaborates Lorde's challenge to European-American traditions.
The Cancer Journals (1980), derived in part from personal journals written in the late seventies, and A Burst of Light (1988) both use non-fiction prose to preserve, explore, and reflect on Lorde's diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from breast cancer. In both works, Lorde deals with Western notions of illness, treatment, and physical beauty and prosthesis, as well as themes of death, fear of mortality, victimization versus survival, and inner power.
Lorde’s deeply personal novel Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), described as a “biomythography,” chronicles her childhood and adulthood. The narrative deals with the evolution of Lorde's sexuality and self-awareness.
In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984), Lorde asserts the necessity of communicating the experience of marginalized groups in order to make their struggles visible in a repressive society. She emphasizes the need for different groups of people (particularly white women and African-American women) to find common ground in their lived experience.
In 1980, together with Barbara Smith and Cherríe Moraga, she co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher for women of color. Lorde was State Poet of New York from 1991 to 1992.
Her writings are based on the "theory of difference," the idea that the binary opposition between men and women is overly simplistic; although feminists have found it necessary to present the illusion of a solid, unified whole, the category of women itself is full of subdivisions.
Lorde identified issues of class, race, age, gender, and even health – this last was added as she battled cancer in her later years – as being fundamental to the female experience. She argued that, although differences in gender have received all the focus, it is essential that these other differences are also recognized and addressed. "Lorde," writes the critic Carmen Birkle, "puts her emphasis on the authenticity of experience. She wants her difference acknowledged but not judged; she does not want to be subsumed into the one general category of 'woman.'" This theory is today known as intersectionality.
While acknowledging that the differences between women are wide and varied, most of Lorde's works are concerned with two subsets that concerned her primarily—race and sexuality. In Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson’s documentary A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, Lorde says, "Let me tell you first about what it was like being a Black woman poet in the ‘60s, from jump. It meant being invisible. It meant being really invisible. It meant being doubly invisible as a Black feminist woman and it meant being triply invisible as a Black lesbian and feminist".
In her essay "The Erotic as Power," written in 1978 and collected in Sister Outsider, Lorde theorizes about the Erotic as a site of power for women only when they learn to release it from its suppression and embrace it. She proposes that the Erotic needs to be explored and experienced wholeheartedly, because it exists not only in reference to sexuality and the sexual, but also as a feeling of enjoyment, love, and thrill that is felt towards any task or experience that satisfies women in their lives, be it reading a book or loving one's job. Women have experienced difficulties when trying to embrace erotic as a source of power because it has been misnamed by men and mistaken for pornography . However, the erotic as power allows women to use their knowledge and power to face the issues of racism, patriarchy, and our anti-erotic society.
Contemporary feminist thought
Lorde set out to confront issues of racism in feminist thought. She maintained that a great deal of the scholarship of white feminists served to augment the oppression of black women, a conviction that led to angry confrontation, most notably in a blunt open letter addressed to the fellow radical lesbian feminist Mary Daly, to which Lorde claimed she received no reply. Daly's reply letter to Lorde, dated 4½ months later, was found in 2003 in Lorde's files after she died.
This fervent disagreement with notable white feminists furthered Lorde's persona as an outsider: "In the institutional milieu of black feminist and black lesbian feminist scholars [...] and within the context of conferences sponsored by white feminist academics, Lorde stood out as an angry, accusatory, isolated black feminist lesbian voice".
The criticism was not one-sided: many white feminists were angered by Lorde's brand of feminism. In her 1984 essay "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," Lorde attacked underlying racism within feminism, describing it as unrecognized dependence on the patriarchy. She argued that, by denying difference in the category of women, white feminists merely furthered old systems of oppression and that, in so doing, they were preventing any real, lasting change. Her argument aligned white feminists who did not recognize race as a feminist issue with white male slave-masters, describing both as "agents of oppression."
Lorde's comments on feminism
In Audre Lorde’s “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” she writes: “Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.” More specifically she states: “As white women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone, then women of color become ‘other’.” Self-identified as “a forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two,” Lorde is considered as “other, deviant, inferior, or just plain wrong” in the eyes of the normative “white male heterosexual capitalist” social hierarchy. “We speak not of human difference, but of human deviance,” she writes. In this respect, Lorde’s ideology coincides with womanism, which “allows black women to affirm and celebrate their color and culture in a way that feminism does not.”
Audre Lorde and womanism
Audre Lorde’s criticism of feminists of the 1960s identified issues of race, class, age, gender and sexuality. Similarly, author and poet Alice Walker coined the term "womanist" in an attempt to distinguish black female and minority female experience from "feminism". While "feminism" is defined as "a collection of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women" by imposing simplistic opposition between "men" and "women," the theorists and activists of the 1960s and 1970s usually neglected the experiential difference caused by factors such as race and gender among different social groups.
Womanism and its ambiguity
Womanism’s existence naturally opens various definitions and interpretations. Alice Walker’s comments on womanism, that “womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” suggests that the scope of study of womanism includes and exceeds that of feminism. In its narrowest definition, womanism is the black feminist movement that was formed in response to the growth of racial stereotypes in the feminist movement. In a broad sense, however, womanism is “a social change perspective based upon the everyday problems and experiences of black women and other women of minority demographics," but also one that "more broadly seeks methods to eradicate inequalities not just for black women, but for all people” by imposing socialist ideology and equality. However, because womanism is open to interpretation, one of the most common criticisms of womanism is its lack of a unified set of tenets. It is also criticized for its lack of discussion of sexuality.
Lorde actively strived for the change of culture within the feminist community by implementing womanist ideology. In the journal “Anger Among Allies: Audre Lorde’s 1981 Keynote Admonishing the National Women’s Studies Association,” it is stated that Lorde’s speech contributed to communication with scholars’ understanding of human biases. While “anger, marginalized communities, and US Culture” are the major themes of the speech, Lorde implemented various communication techniques to shift subjectivities of the “white feminist” audience. Lorde further explained that “we are working in a context of oppression and threat, the cause of which is certainly not the angers which lie between us, but rather that virulent hatred leveled against all women, people of color, lesbians and gay men, poor people—against all of us who are seeking to examine the particulars of our lives as we resist our oppressions, moving towards coalition and effective action.”
Audre Lorde and critique of womanism
A major critique of womanism is its failure to explicitly address homosexuality within the female community. Very little womanist literature relates to lesbian or bisexual issues, and many scholars consider the reluctance to accept homosexuality accountable to the gender simplistic model of womanism. According to Lorde’s essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” “the need for unity is often misnamed as a need for homogeneity.” She writes, "A fear of lesbians, or of being accused of being a lesbian, has led many Black women into testifying against themselves.”
Contrary to this, Audre Lorde was very open to her own sexuality and sexual awakening. In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, her famous "biomythography" (a term coined by Lorde that combines "biography" and "mythology") she writes, “Years afterward when I was grown, whenever I thought about the way I smelled that day, I would have a fantasy of my mother, her hands wiped dry from the washing, and her apron untied and laid neatly away, looking down upon me lying on the couch, and then slowly, thoroughly, our touching and caressing each other’s most secret places.” According to scholar Anh Hua, Lorde turns female abjection—menstruation, female sexuality, and female incest with the mother—into powerful scenes of female relationship and connection, thus subverting patriarchal heterosexist culture.
With such a strong ideology and open-mindedness, Lorde’s impact on lesbian society is also significant. An attendee of a 1978 reading of Lorde's essay “Uses for the Erotic: the Erotic as Power” says: “She asked if all the lesbians in the room would please stand. Almost the entire audience rose.”
The Callen-Lorde Community Health Center is an organization in New York City named for Michael Callen and Audre Lorde, which is dedicated to providing medical health care to the city's LGBT population without regard to ability to pay. Callen-Lorde is the only primary care center in New York City created specifically to serve the LGBT community.
The Audre Lorde Project, founded in 1994, is a Brooklyn-based organization for queer people of color. The organization concentrates on community organizing and radical nonviolent activism around progressive issues within New York City, especially relating to queer and transgender communities, AIDS and HIV activism, pro-immigrant activism, prison reform, and organizing among youth of color.
- Lorde, Audre (1968). The First Cities. New York City: Poets Press. OCLC .
- Lorde, Audre (1970). Cables to Rage. London: Paul Breman. OCLC .
- Lorde, Audre (1973). From a Land Where Other People Live. Detroit: Broadside Press. ISBN 9780910296977.
- Lorde, Audre (1974). New York Head Shop and Museum. Detroit: Broadside Press. ISBN 9780910296342.
- Lorde, Audre (1976). Coal. New York: W. W. Norton Publishing. ISBN 9780393044461.
- Lorde, Audre (1976). Between Our Selves. Point Reyes, California: Eidolon Editions. OCLC .
- Lorde, Audre (1978). Hanging Fire.
- Lorde, Audre (1978). The Black Unicorn. New York: W. W. Norton Publishing. ISBN 9780393312379.
- Lorde, Audre (1980). The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books. ISBN 9781879960732.
- Lorde, Audre (1981). Uses of the Erotic: the erotic as power. Tucson, Arizona: Kore Press. ISBN 9781888553109.
- Lorde, Audre (1982). Chosen Poems: Old and New. New York: W. W. Norton Publishing. ISBN 9780393300178.
- Lorde, Audre (1983). Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press. ISBN 9780895941220.
- Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press. ISBN 9780895941411. (reissued 2007)
- Lorde, Audre (1986). Our Dead Behind Us. New York: W. W. Norton Publishing. ISBN 9780393303278.
- Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books. ISBN 9780932379399.
- Lorde, Audre (1993). The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance. New York: W. W. Norton Publishing. ISBN 9780393035131.
- Lorde, Audre (2009). I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195341485.
- Book chapters
- Lorde, Audre (1997), "Age, race, class, and sex: women redefining difference", in McClintock, Anne; Mufti, Aamir; Shohat, Ella, Dangerous liaisons: gender, nation, and postcolonial perspectives, Minnesota, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 374–380, ISBN 9780816626496.
- "Interview with Audre Lorde," in Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, ed. Robin Ruth Linden (East Palo Alto, Calif. : Frog in the Well, 1982.), pp. 66–71 ISBN 0-960-36283-5 OCLC 7877113
- Documentary by Michelle Parkeson.
- . Documentary by Jennifer Abod.
- . Documentary by Dagmar Schultz.