Audre Lorde is one of the principal lesbian writers of the 20th century and one of the most dominant Black female voices. Self-described as “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Lorde’s work is singular in its breadth and vision. A feminist scholar and theorist as well as a poet and essayist, her work spans more than four decades from her first publication at 17 until her death from metastatic breast cancer at 58. Lorde’s oeuvre spans the consciousness of her different eras, traversing the period from Jim Crow America to the Black Civil Rights movement and embracing and engaging the feminist and queer civil rights movements.
Lorde said succinctly, “I am Black, Woman, and Poet — fact, and outside the realm of choice. I can choose only to be or not be, and in various combinations of myself. And as my breath is a part of my breathing, my eyes of my seeing, all that I am is of who I am, is of what I do. The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’”
Born in Harlem in 1934 to Caribbean immigrant parents, Lorde published her first poem in Seventeen magazine after her school’s literary journal rejected it for being too “sensualist” — what she would later describe as subtextually lesbian.
As a student, Lorde was involved in poetry workshops sponsored by the Harlem Writers Guild, but she repeatedly said in interviews that she felt she was not accepted because she “was both crazy and queer but [they thought] I would grow out of it all.”
She didn’t. Lorde went on to college, finishing with a masters in library science from Columbia University and worked as a public librarian while she continued to be published regularly in journals, magazines and anthologies. She also taught at various colleges including Hunter College and CUNY.
Lorde credited a stint as a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College, an HBCU in Mississippi in 1968 — itself one of the most politically and socially fraught years of the latter 20th century — as expanding her vision of herself as a Black lesbian activist. It was there that she met Frances Clayton, a white professor, with whom she would be partnered until 1989.
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 1972, Lorde, Clayton, and their children moved to Staten Island, where the couple lived until 1987. On the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in June 2019, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the house an official historic landmark.
In 1980, Lorde co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher for women of color, with Barbara Smith and Cherríe Moraga. In 1984, Lorde started a visiting professorship in West Berlin at the Free University of Berlin, and her time in Berlin was one she described as unique to her understanding of herself as a Black lesbian American. Dagmar Schultz’s 2012 documentary of that time, “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984–1992” won numerous awards and has been widely shown in the U.S. and Europe.
Throughout her life, Lorde wrote and lectured on every aspect of her changing times, broadly and openly as a Black lesbian visionary in a straight, white, and male America that did not recognize her existence, worth or purpose. Her work is iconic and her books “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches” and “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” are considered singular classics of lesbian literature and 20th century Black writing.
In “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches,” Lorde makes the clear case for her work as a poet, declaring, “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.”
Radical and daring, Lorde was always naming what was taboo to be said. In her famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Audre Lorde wrote, “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is… learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.”
This was Lorde’s raison d’etre throughout her life as an activist writer: highlight how women’s differences were in fact strengths to be nurtured and celebrated. An iconoclast who wrote penetrating essays on the interwoven oppressions of racism, misogyny, classism and homophobia, Lorde’s work delves deeply into the ways structural racism and misogyny inform all aspects of American life. She was well-known for calling out white feminism for being exclusionary of Black women and for “othering” women of color.
Lorde was intersectional before the term existed, and she spoke often about the importance of intersecting identities. In a 1979 interview Lorde said, “I am not one piece of myself. I cannot be simply a Black person and not be a woman too, nor can I be a woman without being a lesbian.”
But Lorde also declares, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
She continued, “Of course, there’ll always be people, and there have always been people in my life, who will come to me and say, ‘Well, here, define yourself as such and such,’ to the exclusion of the other pieces of myself. There is an injustice to self in doing this; it is an injustice to the women for whom I write. In fact, it is an injustice to everyone.”
One of Lorde’s most famous quotes is, “Your silence will not protect you,” from her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” In that essay Lorde explicates how women are manipulated into silence — and thus complicity — by a gaslighting culture that terrorizes them into silence and leads them to believe that such silence will keep them safe from attack from white, male patriarchal society.
Lorde’s extensive and explosive work — nine volumes of poetry, five works of prose and countless lectures, speeches and interviews — is also among the first to address disability and chronic illness as she wrote about her experience with metastatic breast cancer, which ultimately killed her when she was 58 years old. Both “The Cancer Journals” and “A Burst of Light” deal with her diagnosis, treatment and the path toward accepting her body and her relationship to it.
As her publisher, Penguin, notes of the 2020 reprint of “The Cancer Journals,” “Long before narratives explored the silences around illness and women’s pain, Lorde questioned the rules of conformity for women’s body images and supported the need to confront physical loss not hidden by prosthesis.”
Lorde also calls on women to be caring of themselves as they are often dismissed and demeaned by society, noting, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
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.
Some of Lorde’s work can be read at the The Poetry Foundation under her name at www.poetryfoundation.org and at The Academy of American Poets at www.poets.org/.