Born Audrey Geraldine Lorde (though she later dropped the “y” in her first name) on February 18th, 1934, Lorde was the daughter of West Indian immigrants from Granada. She grew up in Harlem, although she recalled her parents’ frequent desire to return to their native Caribbean. She did not speak until she was five years old; afterward, she remembers speaking in poetry. She found written poems around the age of twelve, but was unable to find ones that expressed how she felt, prompting her to write her own. Her parents did not encourage her in her writing, but Lorde had her first poem published when she was fifteen. The poem, written about her first love affair with a boy who attended the Roman Catholic high school with her, was deemed by her teacher “too romantic”. When the school refused to print it in its literary journal, Lorde sent it to Seventeen magazine.
After high school, Lorde went to Hunter College, where she would later hold the renowned post of Thomas Hunter Chair of Literature. She supported herself with low-paying jobs. She eventually continued her education at Columbia University, earning her master’s degree in library science. Lorde worked as a librarian while honing her poetry and married attorney Edward Ashley Rollins. The couple was married for eight years and had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathon. In 1968, what Lorde termed the turning point of her life, she quit her job as head librarian at the University of New York and accepted the position of poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Jacksonville, Mississippi. Here she was able to see the violent response to the civil rights movement, which inspired her dedication to use her artistic talents to seek social justice. Here also she met her lifelong companion, Frances Clayton. Later that year her first book of poetry, The First Cities, was published. Lorde would go on to write more than twelve volumes on poetry and six books of prose.
Lorde described herself as “Black lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. Though not all of her work was political in nature, she opened doors for many women, co-founding the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, establishing coalitions between Afro-German and Afro-Dutch women, beginning the St Croix Women’s Coalition, and forming the Sisterhood in Support of Sister in South Africa. She campaigned for the rights of black women, the value of black culture, and the advancement of the gay and lesbian movement, working as editor of Chrysalis, the lesbian journal. She died on November 17th, 1992, after a long battle with breast cancer.
Although I had never before heard of her, Lorde was the recipient of several awards and accolades. She was New York State’s Poet Laureate and received a great deal of recognition for her literary accomplishments, including the 1974 National Book Award nomination. Her commitment to the causes she believed in and her insistence on being true to herself, even at a time when a black lesbian was not accepted.
Audre Lorde resources:
Memoirs: “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” and “The Cancer Journals”
Award-winning book: “A Burst of Light”
Movie: “A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde”