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Audre Lorde described herself as ”a black lesbian feminist mother lover poet.” She asserted all these identities, and explored their intersections, in powerful works of poetry, autobiography, and social criticism. Her consistently radical, occasionally strident voice helped call attention to the complexities of privilege and oppression in American society, and to the importance of recognizing and celebrating cultural differences.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Audrey Geraldine Lorde was born in Harlem, New York City, on February 18, 1934, the third daughter in a Caribbean immigrant family. (She dropped the Y from her first name in her childhood.) As a young child, she was very nearsighted, and did not speak until the age of four or five. She noted that she did not ”really” speak until she ”started reading and writing poetry.” Often she would recite lines of poetry instead of expressing herself in her own words. She began composing poems herself at age twelve or thirteen.
Lorde encountered racism while attending Catholic schools in New York, but found her social niche at Hunter High School, where she became literary editor of the school arts magazine. She published her first poem in Seventeen magazine, although her English teachers considered her work much too romantic.” Lorde went on to Hunter College in New York, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1959. She spent one year as a student at the National University of Mexico, a period that literally broadened her horizons and helped her affirm her identity.
After college, Lorde completed a master’s degree in library science at Columbia University in 1961, and took various odd jobs to support her education. She then accepted a job at the Mount Vernon Public Library, and in 1962 she married attorney Edwin Rollins. They divorced in 1970 after having two children. From 1966 to 1968, Lorde was head librarian at Town School Library in New York City; patrons knew her as the ”librarian who wrote.” She published poetry in numerous literary magazines and anthologies in the 1960s, and was involved in civil-rights and feminist activism.
Coming Out and Opening to the World
The year 1968 marked a turning point in her career and her life. She received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, became a poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College, a historically black school in Mississippi, and published her first volume of poetry, The First Cities. Amidst the turbulence of the black-power movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—an advocate for nonviolence in the struggle for attaining civil rights for African-Americans— Lorde’s poems were refreshingly reflective rather than confontational in tone. While in Mississippi, Lorde met Frances Clayton, a white college professor who became her romantic partner for the next twenty-one years.
Cables to Rage (1970), Lorde’s second book, was published outside the United States by Paul Breman, an active supporter of black poetry. This work is less introspective, due to the poet’s emerging social concerns and her exploration of guilt and betrayal. Central to this volume is the poem Martha,” in which Lorde reveals her homosexuality for the first time.
With the publication of From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), Lorde began to expand the scope of her writing by focusing on racial oppression and worldwide injustice. This publication was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry. Next came The New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), often described as Lorde’s most radical and political volume of poetry, in which she takes the reader on an odyssey through the decaying city on the verge of bankruptcy, and the hardships of urban poverty.
Beyond White Feminism
Lorde broadened her audience with Coal (1976), her first book released by a major publishing house. In the title poem, she celebrates her race: ”I am black because I come from the / earth’s insides / Take my word for jewel in your / open light.” In The Black Unicorn (1978), her best-known poetry collection, Lorde makes use of African symbols and mythology to integrate the themes of motherhood, black pride, and spiritual renewal.
Now an established poet and professor at the City University of New York, Lorde became a prominent critic and lecturer on the relationship of lesbians and women of color to women’s liberation and feminism. She launched an incisive critique of the 1970s women’s movement, claiming that it was limited to the concerns of middle-class and affluent white women. In order to truly advance the cause of women’s liberation, she argued, white feminists needed to overcome their racism and demonstrate solidarity with all oppressed people. As she put it in the title of a 1979 lecture (reprinted in her essay collection Sister Outsider (1984)), ”The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”; that is to say, feminists cannot succeed in bringing about real social change while inwardly accepting hierarchies of power that privilege rich over poor, white over black, straight over gay. In 1980, Lorde cofounded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the nation’s first independent press devoted to publishing works by women of color.
The Cancer Journals
Lorde’s first book in prose was The Cancer Journals (1980), an account of her agonizing struggle to overcome breast cancer and mastectomy. She used writing to help her cope with despair and thoughts of death, and to break the silence she perceived around the issue of breast cancer, in the belief that other women could learn from her experience. The book also explains Lorde’s decision not to wear a prosthesis after her breast was removed: rather than cover up her wound in shame, she sought to make it visible as another way of accepting and celebrating difference.
Lorde survived for more than a decade after her initial cancer diagnosis. She produced several more volumes of poetry and prose, including Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), described by its publishers as a work of ”biomythography, combining elements of history, biography and myth.” She was named poet laureate of New York State in 1991, a year before cancer took her life.
Works in Literary Context
The first formative influence on Lorde’s writing and social outlook was her mother, whose storytelling and use of language reflected the vitality of her Caribbean heritage. Lorde’s childhood affection for all kinds of poetry trained her sensibility as well as her self-expression. All through her life, friends and allies said, her way of thinking was that of a poet. Her inner struggle to integrate the many elements of her cultural identity—especially her lesbianism—and define herself on her own terms was probably her major motivation for writing.
Lorde and Black Arts
Lorde’s early publications coincided with the peak years of the civil rights era in the United States. Poet Amiri Baraka was a leader of the Black Arts Movement, a cultural offshoot of the black power movement, centered in Harlem. Unlike her fellow poets Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou, Lorde did not associate herself with Black Arts, although she was active in radical politics. The tone of her early work differed from the militant, confrontational rhetoric of movement-associated literature. Calling The First Cities ”a quiet, introspective book,” poet and publisher Dudley Randall asserted that ”[Lorde] does not wave a black flag, but her blackness is there, implicit, in the bone.”
Identity Politics The themes of Lorde’s poems and political essays primarily relate to emotions and inner development: dealing with pain and loss, and extracting useful life lessons from it; rejecting silence and making one’s voice heard; building the capacity to love, and unleashing the liberating energy of sexuality. Above all, Lorde is concerned with accepting the complex and multifaceted nature of personal identity. Asserting herself simultaneously as a woman, an African American, and a lesbian meant that the struggle to embrace herself fully coincided with the struggle against social justice and all kinds of prejudice. Because of this close association between personal and political concerns, her writings had a profound influence on the development of ”identity politics” on the political left in the 1980s and 1990s.
Works in Critical Context
Pigeonholed by her radical feminism, Lorde found only a limited audience for her writing at first. Her association with the lesbian poet Adrienne Rich, and her switch to a larger, mainstream publisher, helped bring critical attention and a wider readership to her work. By the 1980s, she had developed a following on the political left and among feminists, although she had antagonized some white feminists with her full-throated criticism of their narrow agenda and implicit racism. Proponents of multiculturalism and women’s studies in the academic curriculum championed both her poetry and her social criticism, making her a well-read author on college campuses. Lorde’s thematic preoccupation—the complexities of selfhood in a culture where race, class, gender, and sexual orientation largely determine social status—dovetailed with the concerns of both multiculturalists and postmodern critical theorists.
Zami Reviewers and scholars have given attention to Lorde’s first prose work, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), for its treatment of the difficult relationship between mother and daughter. In the New York Times Book Review, reviewer Rosemary Daniell calls Zami ”an excellent and evocative autobiography. Indeed, among the elements that make the book so good are its personal honesty and lack of pretentiousness, characteristics that shine through the writing, bespeaking the evolution of a strong and remarkable character.” Similarly, Valerie Miner of The American Book Review appreciates that Lorde ”is explicit about the racism and homophobia she suffered. This social consciousness adds heart and power to an autobiography which moves with the subtle drama of good fiction.”
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- Bigsby, C. W. E., ed. The Black American Writer. New York: Penguin, 1969.
- Christian, Barbara, ed. Black Feminist Criticism Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985.
- Davies, Carole Boyce. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
- De Veaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
- Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1984.
- Hall, Joan Wylie. Conversations with Audre Lorde. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
- Keating, AnaLouise. Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldua, and Audre Lorde. Philadephia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1996.
- Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.
- Kemp, Yakini B. Writing Power: Identity Complexities and the Exotic Erotic in Audre Lorde’s Writing.” Studies in the Literary Imagination (Fall 2004).
- Morris, Margaret Kissam. ”Audre Lorde: Textual Authority and the Embodied Self.” Frontiers 23 (2002): 168-188.
- Rich, Adrienne. ”An Interview with Audre Lorde.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 6 (Summer 1981): 713-736.
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