Audre Lorde

The African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992) wrote poetry exploring the relationships between lovers, children and parents, and friends in both a very personal and a socially relevant manner. She was a feminist poet who challenged racial and sexual stereotypes.

Audre Lorde was born in Harlem on February 18, 1934, to West Indian immigrants Frederick Byron and Linda Belmar Lorde. She was an introverted child who did not speak until she was five years old. When she began to communicate, she answered questions with poetry that she had memorized. The limitations of her poetic store forced her at 12 or 13 to compose her own verse.

Lorde attended a Catholic elementary school where she was the first African-American student. She suffered in an environment hostile to her own culture. The nuns, for instance, complained her braids, typical of most little African-American girls, were inappropriate for school.

At Hunter College High School she met Diane DiPrima, who like Lorde was already interested in being a poet. At 15 her first published poem, a tribute to her first love, appeared in Seventeen magazine because the adviser for the high school paper found it too romantic. While in high school Lorde also participated in John Henrik Clark's Harlem Writers' Guild. She credits John Clark, a African-American nationalist, with teaching her about Africa despite his distrust of her interracial and bohemian interests. In 1951 Lorde enrolled at Hunter College. After several years of working at odd jobs and attending classes, she received her B.A. in English literature and philosophy in 1959. In 1954 she had spent a year at the National University of Mexico.

In 1961 Lorde received a Master's in library science from Columbia University and worked as a librarian in the Mount Vernon Public Library (1960-1962), St. Clare's School of Nursing (1965-1966), and The Town School (1966-1968). In 1962 she married a white attorney, Edwin Ashley Rollins, and subsequently had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan.

In 1967 Diane DiPrima urged her to prepare a manuscript for a first book to be published by Poets Press. Before The First Cities (1968) appeared in print, Lorde was offered a six-weeks' poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, an experience that was pivotal. It was her first trip to the Deep South and her first time teaching. Tougaloo exposed Lorde to an almost all-African-American environment in 1968 when African-American students were becoming militant. There she wrote all the poems of Cables to Rage (1970), realized teaching was far more fulfilling than library work, and met Frances Clayton, a white woman who later became her live-in lover when her children were seven and eight.

On her return to New York Lorde decided to end her marriage and embarked on a teaching career which included a year in the SEEK program of the City University of New York, a pre-baccalaureate program for disadvantaged students; a brief stint at Lehman College where she taught white education students a course on racism; about ten years (1970-1981) as an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and a full professorship at Hunter College from 1981 into the 1990s.

Lorde's poetry reflected the many contradictions of her life. She wrote a complex verse which was both intensely personal and militantly social. Perhaps the majority of her poems dealt with the emotions, both subtle and fierce, of relationships between lovers, children and parents, and friends. Often this work was nonracial in its presentation. At the same time, Lorde, whose politics reflected a paradoxical mixture of interracial socialism and African-American cultural nationalism, was acutely attuned to the oppressive conditions of American contemporary society. Her poetry was often aimed to slay the dragons of sexism and racism.

Much of Lorde's work concentrated on the victims of American urban life; the children destroyed by neglect and violence; and African-American women, who she felt were devalued by everyone including African-American men. Two of her most memorable poems were "Power, " which responded with rage to the killing of a ten-year-old boy by a New York policeman who was acquitted of murder, and "Need: A Choral Poem, " a striking piece in which the first person voices of two African-American women murdered by African-American men alternate with a chorus (Chosen Poems, Old and New [1982] ). The latter poem revealed a skill for dramatic rendering which is clear in other poems, such as "Martha" in Cables to Rage (1970), a poem which depicted the nightmarish recovery of a former lover who almost dies in a fatal car accident. Other poems, such as "Coal" in Coal (1976), were densely metaphoric.

Lorde's other works include From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), a volume which introduced the use of African mythology for feminist purposes in one poem, "The Winds of Orisha." (Lorde had originally included a lesbian erotic poem, "Love Poem, " but removed it when Dudley Randall, the publisher of Broadside Press, naively expressed puzzlement about its meaning. In this volume the poem "For Each of You, " a message to African-American people, concluded:

Speak proudly to your children
wherever you may find them. Tell them
you are the offspring of slaves
and your mother was a princess in darkness.

New York Head Shop and Museum (1974) explored the harsh conditions of urban life. Between Ourselves was published in 1976, and The Black Unicorn (1978) exploited further a pantheon of Yoruba goddesses in the service of feminism. Our Dead Behind Us (1986) and Sister in Arms (1985) were continuations of Lorde's unique blend of the personal and political.

Lorde's prose includes Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (1979); The Cancer Journals (1980), a record of her courageous struggle against breast cancer; Zami: A New Spelling of my Name (1982), an autobiography about growing up in the 1950s that Lorde called a biomythology, " "a fiction"; Sister Outsider (1984); and A Burst of Light (1988).

Lorde died on November 17, 1992 losing her 14-year battle to breast cancer. The New York state poet laureate, died at her home in the fashionable Judith's Fancy section of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She had spent seven years on the island, where she was known by an African name, Gamba Adisa, which reflected her advocacy of pan-African issues.

In June 1996, Lorde's life was committed to film. Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson's biographical film "A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, " was made for the "Point Of View" series.

The film traced Lorde's life from birth through her battle with cancer. Griffin and Parkerson stitched together Lorde's many lives, from raising her two children to be "warriors, " to speaking at rallies, to leading university poetry workshops. Part of the stitching includes a brilliantly edited soundtrack of Lorde's voice, period sounds and music montages.

The film explored Lorde's attraction to the underground lesbian subculture of downtown New York when it was tiny, quiet and suppressed in the 1950s. Before American politics hit the streets, Lorde found being black, female and lesbian made her "triply invisible." Lorde tells Griffin and Parkerson her life was fundamentally changed witnessing civil rights clashes in the Deep South firsthand while teaching at Mississippi's Tougaloo College in the watershed year of 1968. Poetry, she realized, had to become public, political and expressive of change as much as of inner sensibilities.

Her colleagues Sonia Sanchez and Adrienne Rich perhaps best explained what made Lorde's evolution special. Like Neruda and Whitman before her, Lorde melded a passionate, erotic vision with an eloquent, bluesy verbal music toward explicit political ends.

Lorde's last battle was with breast cancer for 14 years, and the camera followed her from robust health until she was bald and raspy-voiced, though still talkative. Before she died, Lorde told the filmmakers something which encapsulates her personality: As motivation during cancer therapy, she would envision her cancer cells as white South African policemen. Apartheid's battle, at least, was finally won.


Further Reading on Audre Lorde

Lorde appears in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Poets Since 1955 (Volume 41). For further biographical and critical information, see also Lorde, Sister Outsider (1984); Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers At Work (1983); Mari Evans, Black Women Writers 1950-1980 (1984); Gloria T. Hull, "Living on the Line: Audre Lorde and Our Dead Behind Us" in Changing Our Own Words (1989); and Chinosole, "Audre Lorde and Matrilineal Diaspora" in Wild Women in the Whirlwind (1990). Also see Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1992; LosAngeles Times, November 19, 1992; and June 21, 1996, (Home Edition).