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Audre Lorde

(18 February 1934 – 17 November 1992 / New York City)

Biography of Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde poet

Audre Lorde (born Audrey Geraldine Lorde) was a Caribbean-American writer, poet and activist.

Life

Lorde was born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants from Grenada, Frederick Byron Lorde (called Byron) and Linda Gertrude Belmar Lorde, who settled in Harlem. Nearsighted to the point of being legally blind, and the youngest of three daughters (her sisters named Phyllis and Helen), 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 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.

After graduating from Hunter College High School and experiencing the grief of her best friend Genevieve "Gennie" Thompson's death, Lorde immediately left her parents' home and became estranged from her family. She attended Hunter College from 1954 to 1959 and graduated with a bachelor's degree. While studying library science, Lorde supported herself by working various odd jobs such as factory worker, ghost writer, social worker, X-ray technician, medical clerk, and arts and crafts supervisor, moving out of Harlem to Stamford, Connecticut and beginning to explore her lesbian sexuality.

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: she confirmed her identity on personal and artistic levels as a lesbian and poet. On her return to New York, she attended college, 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.

In 1968 Lorde was writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where she met Frances Clayton, a white professor of psychology, who was to be her romantic partner until 1989. 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. and was teaching at Howard University. Lorde died on November 17, 1992, in St. Croix, (where she had been living with Gloria I. Joseph), after a 14-year struggle with breast cancer. She was 58. In her own words, Lorde was a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet". In an African naming ceremony before her death, she took the name Gambda Adisa, which means "Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known".

Career

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 politically active in civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements. Her first volume of poetry, The First Cities (1968), was published by the Poet's Press and edited by Diane di Prima, a former classmate and friend from Hunter College High School. 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 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 poetically confirms her homosexuality: "[W]e shall love each other here if ever at all." Later books continued her political aims in lesbian and gay rights, and feminism. 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 colour. Lorde was State Poet of New York from 1991 to 1992.

Theory

Lorde criticised feminists of the 1960s, from the National Organization for Women to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, for focusing on the particular experiences and values of white middle-class women. 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 the gender difference has received all the focus, these other differences are also essential and must be recognised and addressed. "Lorde", it is written, "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'".

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. She observes that black women's experiences are different from those of white women, and that, because the experience of the white woman is considered normative, the black woman's experiences are marginalised; similarly, the experiences of the lesbian (and, in particular, the black lesbian) are considered aberrational, not in keeping with the true heart of the feminist movement. Although they are not considered normative, Lorde argues that these experiences are nevertheless valid and feminist.

Lorde and Contemporary Feminist Thought

Lorde set out actively to challenge white women, confronting 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 scathing open letter addressed to radical lesbian feminist Mary Daly, to which Lorde stated she received no reply.

This fervent disagreement with notable white feminists furthered her 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 did not go only one way: many white feminists were angered by Lorde's brand of feminism. In her essay "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House", Lorde attacked the underlying racism of feminism, describing it as unrecognized dependence on the patriarchy. She argued that, by denying difference in the category of women, feminists merely passed on old systems of oppression and that, in so doing, they were preventing any real, lasting change. Her argument aligned white feminists with white male slave-masters, describing both as "agents of oppression".

In so doing, she enraged a great many white feminists, who saw her essay as an attempt to privilege her identities as black and lesbian, and assume a moral authority based on suffering. Suffering was a condition universal to women, they claimed, and to accuse feminists of racism would cause divisiveness rather than heal it. In response, Lorde wrote "what you hear in my voice is fury, not suffering. Anger, not moral authority."

Poetry

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.

Audre Lorde's Works:

The First Cities (1968)
Cables to Rage (1970)
From a Land Where Other People Live (1973)
New York Head Shop and Museum (1974)
Coal (1976)
Between Our Selves (1976)
The Black Unicorn (1978)
The Cancer Journals (1980)
Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (1981)
Chosen Poems: Old and New (1982)
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1983)
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984)
Our Dead Behind Us (1986)
A Burst of Light (1988)
The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance (1993)

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PoemHunter.com Updates

Coping

It has rained for five days
running
the world is
a round puddle
of sunless water
where small islands
are only beginning
to cope
a young boy
in my garden
is bailing out water
from his flower patch
when I ask him why
he tells me
young seeds that have not seen sun
forget
and drown easily.

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