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Inspiring Thursday: Audre Lorde

This month, in celebration of Pride, we’ll be posting stories of inspiring women who are activists in the LGBTQ+ community. Queer heroes aren’t often given the recognition they deserve, but Pride is a protest: by raising our voices, we can make sure that they aren’t forgotten.

Audre Lorde was born in 1934 in New York City, the daughter of immigrant parents. From a very young age, poetry was a form of communication and self-expression for Lorde. Before she wrote her own verses, she communicated through the scraps of poetry and prose that she read and recited to family and friends. Her poetry was first published in Seventeen magazine at age 17.

Lorde’s childhood was influenced both subtly and overtly by the structural inequalities of racism. In her biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, she describes getting spit on by white people as a young black child in Harlem in New York City. Her mother and father worked hard to provide her and her sisters with quality education, and they attempted to shelter their daughters somewhat from the striking reality of anti-black racism that surrounded them.

Lorde attended Hunter College and Columbia University, where she received a master’s degree in Library Sciences. In her late 20s, she worked as a librarian in the New York public school system. She married a man in 1962. The couple had two children, and later divorced — she openly identified as a lesbian woman in the poem, “Martha,” published in 1970. In 1972, she met her long-term partner, Frances Clayton.

After publishing her first collection of poetry, First Cities, in 1968, Lorde went on to write and publish prolifically. While writing about the intersectionality of her black lesbian identity, Lorde also fought against the limits of categorization. Lorde’s work is a protest and a call to action which inspires feminists of all races, backgrounds and identities. She writes at length about the importance of feminism which celebrates difference and embraces the diversity of needs and oppressions in social justice actions. In her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Lorde writes:

“And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own. For instance, ‘I can’t possibly teach black women’s writing — their experience is so much different from mine.’ […] ‘She’s a white woman, what could she possibly have to say to me?’ Or, ‘She’s a lesbian, what would my husband say’ […] And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other” (Sister Outsider, 43).

Lorde’s commentary on the often divisive discourse of feminism and social action is crucial in the current political and social climate in Europe. Opposition to feminist idealism is rife, and without solidarity with people of all races, genders and backgrounds, the feminist movement loses momentum over internal divisions. Different forces of oppression affect us all, and we must recognize every voice as unique, particular and important. But within our differences, we can practice empathy, solidarity and inclusion.

Lorde reminds us that freedom for one marginalized group — such as black lesbian women — does not impinge on the freedom that heterosexual black women have also fought long and hard for. She describes “the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of victory going as spoils to the victor or the stronger” (Sister Outsider, 51). In fact, most often the uplifting of other marginalized peoples reinforces our own sense of resilience, identity and belonging.

While writing and publishing essays, poetry and prose, Lorde also taught English at various American universities. In the 1980s, she founded Kitchen Table: Women of Colour Press, with fellow African American author Barbara Smith. She was poet Laureate of New York City from 1991 to 1992.

In the last 14 years of her life, Lorde struggled with breast cancer, prompting a mastectomy and debilitating, invasive treatment, which she wrote about in her collection of essays, the Cancer Journals (1980). Lorde died of cancer in 1992. She was (and is — for the legacy of her work is ever-present) an activist, human rights defender, poet, artist and hero. She leaves us with this description of herself and her complex identity: “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”

By Katie Clarke, WAVE Intern

Sources

“Audre Lorde Biography.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, April 1, 2014. https://www.biography.com/scholar/audre-lorde

“Audre Lorde.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1999. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Audre-Lorde

“Audre Lorde.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/audre-lorde

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. 1984. Crossing Press, 2007.

Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Crossing Press, 1982.