Audre Geraldine Lorde (February 18, 1934 - November 17, 1992) was an American writer, poet and activist.
Lorde was born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants who settled in Harlem, Frederick Byron Lorde and Linda Gertrude Belmar Lorde. Lorde was nearsighted and legally blind. The youngest of three daughters, she grew up in Harlem, hearing her mother's stories about the West Indies. She learned to talk while she learned to read, at the age of four. Her mother taught her to write during this time. She wrote her first poem when she was in the eighth grade. After graduating from Hunter College High School, she attended Hunter College from 1954 to 1959, graduating with a bachelors degree. While studying library science, Lorde supported herself working various odd jobs: factory worker, ghost writer, social worker, X-ray technician, medical clerk, and arts and crafts supervisor.
In 1954, she spent a pivotal year as a student at the National University of Mexico, a period described by Lorde as a time of affirmation and renewal because she confirmed her identity on personal and artistic levels as a lesbian and poet. On her return to New York, Lorde went to college, worked as a librarian, continued writing, and became an active participant in the gay culture of Greenwich Village. Lorde furthered her education at Columbia University, earning a master’s degree in library science in 1961. During this time she also worked as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library and married attorney Edwin Rollins; they later 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.
During a year in residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Lorde met Frances Clayton, a white professor of psychology, the woman who was to be her romantic partner until 1989. Lorde was then involved with Gloria Joseph, who was Lorde's partner until Lorde's death.
Lorde died November 17, 1992 in St. Croix after a 14-year struggle with breast cancer. In her own words, she was a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet". In an African naming ceremony before her death, Lorde took the name Gamba Adisa, which means "Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known."
Lorde’s poetry was published regularly during the 1960s: in Langston Hughes's 1962 New Negro Poets, USA; in several foreign anthologies; and in black literary magazines. During this time she was politically active in the civil rights, antiwar, 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." Lorde's second volume, Cables to Rage (1970), which was mainly written during her tenure at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, addresses 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: "we shall love each other here if ever at all." Later books continued her political aims in Lesbian and Gay rights and feminism.
In 1980, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and Cherrie Moraga co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher for women of color.
Lorde criticized 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 – that 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 added as she battled cancer in her later years) as being fundamental to the female experience. She argued that though the gender difference has received all of the focus, these other differences among women are also essential and must be recognized and addressed. “Lorde 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’” . In a time period in which feminism was run by white middle-class women, Lorde campaigned for a feminist movement that would be conscious of both race and class.
While acknowledging that the differences between women are wide and varied, most of Lorde’s works are concerned with the two subsets which concerned her primarily: race and sexuality. She observes that black women’s experiences are different from white women’s, and that because the experience of the white woman is considered normative, the black woman’s experiences are marginalized. 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. Though they are not considered normative, Lorde argued that these experiences are nevertheless valid feminine experiences.
Furthermore, she stunned white feminists with her claim that racism, sexism, and homophobia were linked, all coming from the failure to recognize or inability to tolerate difference. To allow these differences to continue to function as dividers, she believed, would be to replicate the oppression of women; as long as society continued to function in binaries, with a mandatory greater and lesser, Normative and Other, women would never be free.
Lorde and Contemporary Feminist Thought
Lorde set out to actively 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 which led to some angry confrontations on her part, most notably the scathing public letter she published to radical lesbian feminist Mary Daly. This fervent disagreement with notable white feminists only 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 merely 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” (compiled in Sister Outsider), Lorde attacked the underlying racism of feminism, calling it 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 by doing so they were preventing any real, lasting change from occurring. Her argument aligned white feminists with white male slave-masters, describing both as “agents of oppression” . In doing so, she enraged a great deal of 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.
A contemporary of feminist poets such as Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich, Lorde also expressed her femininity through poetry. While Plath and Rich were changing the traditions of both prose and poetry to make them more autobiographical, Lorde combined genres at will; for Lorde, life was essential to text, so everything became autobiographical.
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 stated. “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 as a “concert of voices” within herself . Her conception of her many layers of self-hood is replicated in the multi-genres of her work. Critic Carmen Birkle states, “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.
Birkle, Carme. Women’s Stories of the Looking Glass. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1996.
De Veaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2004.
Hall, Joan Wylie. Conversations with Audre Lorde. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
- 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, W.W. Norton Publishing)
- The Cancer Journals (1980 Aunt Lute Books)
- Chosen Poems: Old and New (1982)
- Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1983, The Crossing Press)
- Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984, 2007, The Crossing Press)
- Our Dead Behind Us (1986)
- A Burst of Light (1988, Firebrand Books)
- The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance (1993)
- Audre Lorde Project, an organization in New York City named for Audre Lorde
- Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, an organization in New York City named for Michael Callen and Audre Lorde.
- Teaching for social justice
- Black Feminism
- Black lesbianism
- Critical social theory
- Black women’s literature
- Literary criticism
- African-American literature
- Maximum Files
- A Tribute to Audre Lorde
- Voices From the Gaps: Audre Lorde
- The Edge of Each Other's Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde - a documentary by Jennifer Abod
- Audre Lorde's Life - Modern American Poetry
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