Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
Artform: Poetry and Prose
by Mary Moynihan
By Audre Lorde
my heart beats
as my eyes open
as my hands move
as my mouth speaks
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was born Audrey Geraldine Lorde. She was a Caribbean-American lesbian, feminist, warrior, civil rights activist, writer and poet whose work mixes the personal with the political. Through her work she bore witness to oppression, sexism, sexual and spiritual awakening, and race. Lorde described herself in many different ways to emphasise the fact that women are multi-faceted and complex and cannot be boxed in. She encouraged others to express their own power from within and to blend the personal with the political. As Lorde said herself, ‘your silence will not protect you’ (also the title of a book of poetry, speeches and essays).
Lorde was born in New York city in 1934, the youngest of three sisters. Her parents were immigrants from Granada. While she was still in high school, her first poem appeared in Seventeen magazine. Lorde received her BA from Hunter College in 1959 and a Masters in Library Science from Columbia University in 1961. She served as a librarian in New York public schools from 1961 through 1968. In 1962, Lorde married Edward Rollins. They had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan, before divorcing in 1970. In 1968 she also became the writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where she discovered a love of teaching. In Tougaloo she also met her long-term partner, Frances Clayton.
Lorde’s first volume of poems was The First Cities (1968) followed by Cables to Rage (1970), From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), New York Head Shot and Museum (1974), Coal (1976), Between Our Selves (1976), The Black Unicorn (1978), Chosen Poems: Old and New (1982), Our Dead Behind Us (1986) and Need: A Chorale for Black Women Voices (1990). The American poet Adrienne Rich said of The Black Unicorn ‘refusing to be circumscribed by any simple identity, Audre Lorde writes as a Black woman, a mother, a daughter, a Lesbian, a feminist, a visionary: poems of elemental wildness and healing, nightmare and lucidity’.
Lorde’s work received widespread recognition, however some critics responded with criticism due to the political and sexual nature of her work.
In an interview in the journal Callaloo, Lorde responded to her critics:
My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… Jesse Helm’s objection to my work is not about obscenity… or even about sex. It is about revolution and change… Helms knows that my writing is aimed at his destruction, and the destruction of every single thing he stands for.
Concerned with modern society’s tendency to categorise groups of people, Lorde fought the marginalisation of such categories as ‘lesbian’ and ‘black woman’. She was central to many liberation movements and activist circles, including second-wave feminism, civil rights and Black cultural movements, and struggles for LGBTQ+ equality. In particular, Lorde’s poetry is known for the power of its call for social and racial justice, as well as its depictions of queer experience and sexuality.
‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’ was a prose essay that Lorde wrote and was first published in 1977 in Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture. In it she wrote that ‘it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are – until the poem – nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt’. Through poetry, we can begin to explore what matters to us and to find our inner power so that ‘those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us’. She wrote:
For each of us women there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises ‘beautiful / and tough as chest-nut / stanchions against (y)ur nightmare of weakness / and of impotence. These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through that darkness. Within these deep places each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient and it is deep.
There is a picture of Lorde taken by Robert Alexander of Getty Images. The photograph shows Lorde standing and staring directly at the camera. Beside her is a large blackboard and written on the blackboard in chalk are the words ‘Women are powerful and dangerous’. For Lorde poetry was about ‘expressing hidden sources of power from where true knowledge, and, therefore, lasting action comes’. She says ‘poetry is not a luxury. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes, and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into ideas, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we can give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives’. For Lorde, the poet has to trust their instinct, and to draw forth radical ideas from dreams and poems: ‘poetry is not only dream and vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before’. In ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’, Lorde wrote:
The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom… it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. Those dreams are made realizable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak and to dare.
Lorde recognised the power of the self within creative work as a way forward for political and social transformation and that for real change to happen there has to be not just dreaming but also action. In her writings and poetry Lorde urges us to speak out and to bear witness: ‘What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?’
In addition to her poetry, Lorde wrote a number of prose volumes and essays. After her diagnosis with cancer, Lorde wrote her first prose collection The Cancer Journals (1980) which won the Gay Caucus Book of the Year award in 1981. According to poet Jackie Kay, it is ‘a brave, beautiful book that could double as a handbook to accompany anyone on their journey through cancer’. Lorde’s other prose works include Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1983), Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984) and A Burst of Light (1988).
Alongside writer Barbara Smith, Lorde was a founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press which focused on ‘publishing and distributing works of women of color from various communities. She (was) also a founding member of Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa’. Lorde became professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice from 1979 to 1980 and Professor of English at Hunter College, New York from 1981 to 1987. She was appointed poet laureate of New York in 1991. Audre Lorde died in 1992 from breast cancer, aged 58.
By Audre Lorde
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
From ‘A Woman Speaks’
By Audre Lorde
I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did
I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
and not white.
Read Audre Lorde’s powerful keynote presentation to the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Connecticut in 1981 which is titled ‘The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’.