Audre Lorde described herself as a “poet, warrior, feminist, mother, pioneer, lover, survivor”. She devoted her life to advocating that women could be all of those things and more.
Words had an energy and power and I came to respect that power early. Pronouns, nouns, and verbs were citizens of different countries, who really got together to make a new world.
Audre was born in New York City on 18 February, 1934. The youngest of three children born to immigrant parents from the West Indies, Audre was so nearsighted that she was legally blind and had a condition known as “tongue-tie” which inhibited her speech development. That, combined with the fact that she was growing up in Harlem during the Great Depression, meant Audre had a childhood that could not have been easy. Her mother, a great lover of words, taught Audre to read and write when she was four years old. She passed her love of words on to Audre, and this love became her salvation.
I used to speak in poetry… People would say, well what do you think, Audre?… And I would recite a poem and somewhere in that poem would be a line or a feeling I would be sharing. In other words, I literally communicated through poetry.
Audre’s passion for words was crystallised in poetry, and she found poems to be a useful way to express her thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences. However, as Audre approached her teen years, she soon found that some of the things she wanted to say couldn’t be expressed by the poems she was reading. It was then that she decided to write her own. She wrote her first poem in the eighth grade, and by the time she graduated high school, she’d already had a poem published in Seventeen Magazine. Audre continued writing poetry throughout her time at Hunter College, where she received her bachelors degree, and throughout her time at Columbia University, where she received her masters in Library Science in 1961.
The year after completing her master’s degree, Audre’s poetry was featured in Langston Hughes’ New Negro Poets. That same year, she also married Edwin Rollins, and together, they had two children before divorcing in 1970. During their marriage, Audre’s poetry was published in a number of journals and anthologies. During this time Audre also worked as a librarian, and devoted much of herself to political activism. As an activist, she protested the war and participated in both the civil rights and feminist movements.
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
By the end of the 1960s, Audre’s career as a poet had begun to take off. In 1968, she was named a poet in residence at Tougaloo College, where she also discovered a love for teaching. That same year, her first collection of poems was published. The book was well-received, and two years later, she released her second collection, Cables to Rage. Cables to Rage was her first foray into protest poetry, and it was also the book where she came out as a lesbian. Audre wrote five other books of poetry after the publication of Cables, skilfully exploring everything from lesbian relationships to parenting, violence, racism and homophobia. Her work earned her a National Book award nomination and a reputation as a visionary.
When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.
In addition to her prolific work as a poet, Audre also made significant contributions to feminist criticism. She did this by highlighting the fact that feminism, at the time, was looking exclusively at the white, heterosexual experience, and in doing so, was othering lesbians and women of colour and becoming an exclusionary force as a result. In order to truly be effective, she argued, feminism needed to look at, and value, the experiences of all women, not just one type of woman, and it needed to acknowledge what she dubbed the “hierarchy of oppression.” This argument, beautifully depicted, among other places, in her book Sister Outsider, became a shaping influence in the development of both feminist theory and intersectionality.
I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.
Audre died on 17 November 1992, at the age of 58, following a courageous 14-year battle with breast cancer. She dealt with her illness as she did every other battle in her life—with strength, courage, and exceptional writing. She chronicled her illness in her first prose book, Cancer Journals, inspiring women everywhere in the process.