Audre Lorde was born in New York City on 18th February 1934. As the youngest of three children born to immigrant parents from the West Indies, Audre was so nearsighted that she was legally blind and also had a condition known as “tongue-tie” which inhibited her speech development. That, combined with the fact that she was growing up in Harlem during the Great Depression, meant Audre had a childhood that could not have been easy.
Born as 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 spent very little time with her father and mother, who were both busy maintaining their real estate business. When she did see them, they were often cold or emotionally distant.
Lorde’s relationship with her mother was especially strange, because for some reason her mother was deeply suspicious of people with darker skin than hers (which Lorde had) and didn’t trust the outside world in general, which led to her treating Audre with “tough love” and strict adherence to family rules.
As a child, Lorde struggled with communication and came to appreciate the power of poetry as a form of expression. In fact, she describes herself as thinking in poetry. She also memorised 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 started connecting with others at her school who were considered “outcasts”, as she felt she was too.
She wrote her first poem in the eighth grade, and by the time she graduated high school, she’d already had a poem published in Seventeen Magazine. But this was only after her school’s literary journal rejected it for being inappropriate!
Also in high school, Audre Lorde participated in poetry workshops sponsored by the Harlem Writers Guild but noted that she always felt like somewhat of an outcast from the Guild. She felt she was not accepted because she “was both crazy and queer but [they thought] I would grow out of it all.”
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 this time, she confirmed her identity on personal and artistic levels as both a lesbian and a poet. On her return to New York, Lorde attended Hunter College and graduated in the class of 1959. While there, she worked as a librarian, continued writing, and became an active participant in the gay culture of Greenwich Village.
Writings and Education
Audre Lorde continued writing poetry throughout her time at Hunter College, where she received her bachelor’s degree, and throughout her time at Columbia University, where she received her Masters in Library Science in 1961.
Although she did nod to herself as a lesbian and “queer” but not officially I guess at this point. In 1962, she married attorney Edwin Rollins, who was a white, bisexual man, and together, they had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan. During their marriage, Audre’s poetry was published in a number of journals and anthologies.
In 1966, Lorde became head librarian at Town School Library in New York City, where she remained until 1968. During her time in Mississippi in 1968, she met Frances Clayton, a white lesbian and professor of psychology. She divorced Edwin in 1970.
Whilst she was with Frances she then 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. But it ran its course in 1978 when Thompson went back to Washington D.C.
Whilst all that was going on in her personal life, by the end of the 1960s, Audre’s career as a poet had begun to take off. In 1968, she was named a poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College, where she also discovered a love for teaching. That same year, her first collection of poems was published. The book was well-received, and two years later, she released her second collection, Cables to Rage.
Cables to Rage was her first foray into protest poetry, and it was also the book where she officially came out as a lesbian. So she came out around the same time as her divorce.
Audre wrote five other books of poetry after the publication of Cables, skilfully exploring everything from lesbian relationships to parenting, violence, racism and homophobia. Her work earned her a National Book Award nomination and a reputation as a visionary. “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”
In addition to her prolific work as a poet, Audre Lorde also made significant contributions to feminist criticism. She did this by highlighting the fact that feminism, at the time, was looking exclusively at the white, heterosexual experience, and in doing so, was othering lesbians and women of colour and becoming an exclusionary force as a result. In order to truly be effective, she argued, feminism needed to look at, and value, the experiences of all women, not just one type of woman, and it needed to acknowledge what she dubbed the “hierarchy of oppression.” This argument, beautifully depicted, among other places, in her book Sister Outsider, became a shaping influence in the development of both feminist theory and intersectionality.
In 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 behaviour and expectation.” More specifically she states: “As white women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define women in terms of their own experience alone, then women of colour 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, her ideology coincides with womanism, which “allows Black women to affirm and celebrate their colour and culture in a way that feminism does not.”
“I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.”
In 1977, Lorde became an associate of the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP). WIFP is an American nonprofit publishing organisation. The organisation works to increase communication between women and connect the public with forms of women-based media.
Lorde was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and underwent a mastectomy. After her diagnosis, she wrote The Cancer Journals, which won the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award in 1981.
In 1979 Lorde wrote an essay called “Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface” was a sort of rallying cry to confront sexism in the black community in order to eradicate the violence within it.
Audre Lorde insists that the fight between black women and men must end to end racist politics. “Black women sharing close ties with each other, politically or emotionally, are not the enemies of Black men. Too frequently, however, some Black men attempt to rule by fear those Black women who are more ally than enemy”.
In 1981, Lorde and a fellow writer friend, Barbara Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Which was dedicated to helping other black feminist writers by providing resources, guidance and encouragement. Audre Lorde encouraged those around her to celebrate their differences such as race, sexuality or class instead of dwelling upon them and wanted everyone to have similar opportunities.
Also in 1981, Lorde was among the founders of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, an organisation dedicated to assisting women who have survived sexual abuse and intimate partner violence. In the late 1980s, she also helped establish Sisterhood in Support of Sisters (SISA) in South Africa to benefit black women who were affected by apartheid and other forms of injustice.
For those who don’t know apartheid, was a system of institutionalised racial segregation that existed in South Africa and South-West Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s.
In 1984, Lorde started a visiting professorship in West Berlin at the Free University of Berlin. She was invited by FU lecturer Dagmar Schultz who had met her at the UN “World Women’s Conference” in Copenhagen in 1980. During her time in Germany, Lorde became an influential part of the then-nascent Afro-German movement. Together with a group of black women activists in Berlin, Audre Lorde coined the term “Afro-German” in 1984 and, consequently, gave rise to the Black movement in Germany.
During her many trips to Germany, Audre Lorde became a mentor to a number of women, including May Ayim, Ika Hügel-Marshall, and Helga Emde. Instead of fighting systemic issues through violence, Lorde thought that language was a powerful form of resistance and encouraged the women of Germany to speak up instead of fight back. Her impact on Germany reached more than just Afro-German women; Lorde helped increase awareness of intersectionality across racial and ethnic lines.
Unfortunately in 1984, she found out her breast cancer had metastasized into her liver. Which she talks about in A Burst of Light in 1988. Lorde deals with Western notions of illness, disability, treatment, cancer and sexuality, and physical beauty and prosthesis, as well as themes of death, fear of mortality, survival, emotional healing, and inner power.
Throughout this, she was still in a relationship with the professor of psychology Frances Clayton until 1989 that is. But it said on wiki “their relationship continued the remainder of Lorde’s life”. Take that as you will, haha.
Afro-German feminist scholar and author Dr Marion Kraft interviewed Audre Lorde in 1986 to discuss a number of her literary works and poems. In this interview, Audre Lorde articulated hope for the next wave of feminist scholarship and discourse. When asked by Kraft, “Do you see any development of the awareness about the importance of differences within the white feminist movement?” Lorde replied with both critiques and hope:
“Well, the feminist movement, the white feminist movement, has been notoriously slow to recognize that racism is a feminist concern, not one that is altruistic, but one that is part and parcel of feminist consciousness… I think, in fact, though, that things are slowly changing and that there are white women now who recognize that in the interest of genuine coalition, they must see that we are not the same. Black feminism is not white feminism in Blackface. It is an intricate movement coming out of the lives, aspirations, and realities of Black women. We share some things with white women, and there are other things we do not share. We must be able to come together around those things we share.
In 1991, she was the New York State Poet laureate, which is a poet officially appointed by the government or conferring institution – basically write poems for special events etc.
When designating her as such, then-governor Mario Cuomo said of Lorde, “Her imagination is charged by a sharp sense of racial injustice and cruelty, of sexual prejudice…She cries out against it as the voice of indignant humanity. Audre Lorde is the voice of the eloquent outsider who speaks in a language that can reach and touch people everywhere.”
In 1992, she received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle.
Sadly on 17th November 1992 aged 58, she finally succumbed to her cancer and passed away, where she had been living with her then life partner, and black feminist Gloria I. Joseph.
In an African naming ceremony before her death, she took the name Gamba Adisa, which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known”.
She was a self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” who dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, capitalism, heterosexism, and homophobia.
“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 artefact of who I have been.”
Audre Lorde’s Legacy, you Ready?
The Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, an organisation in New York City named after Michael Callen and Lorde, is dedicated to providing medical health care to the city’s LGBT population without regard to the ability to pay. Callen-Lorde is the only primary care centre in New York City created specifically to serve the LGBT community.
The Audre Lorde Project, founded in 1994, is a Brooklyn-based organisation for LGBT people of colour. The organisation concentrates on community organising and radical nonviolent activism around progressive issues within New York City, especially relating to LGBT communities, AIDS and HIV activism, pro-immigrant activism, prison reform, and organising among the youth of colour.
The Audre Lorde Award is an annual literary award presented by Publishing Triangle to honour works of lesbian poetry, first presented in 2001.
For their first match of March 2019, the women of the United States Women’s National soccer team each wore a jersey with the name of a woman they were honouring on the back; Megan Rapinoe chose the name of Lorde.
In June 2019, Lorde’s residence in Staten Island was given landmark designation by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
In June 2019, Lorde was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument (SNM) in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. The SNM is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history, and the wall’s unveiling was timed to take place during the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
That is the short version of the incredible story of Audre Lorde, her life was filled with amazing acts of activism and it would be impossible to list everything she accomplished.
My sources were of course our friend Wikipedia and The Heroine Collective, where they did a short biography of her life.
- The One. The Only: Trixie Mattel - 13th February 2023
- What is Bi-Erasure? - 3rd July 2022
- What Are Neopronouns & How Do You Use Them? - 5th February 2022