Linda Gertrude Belmar, a native of Grenada, and Frederic Byron Lorde, an African American, had moved to Harlem from Grenada with plans of returning—until the Great Depression dashed their plans of gaining enough money to return. In Harlem, the couple had three daughters, the youngest of which was Audrey. Little Audrey was so nearsighted that she was identified as legally blind, and she didn’t learn to speak until she was four or five years old—the same age at which her mother taught her to read and write. From the very start, Audrey started shaping the words she encountered. When she learned to write her own name, she disliked having the tail of the “y” of “Audrey” hanging below the line, so she quickly omitted it altogether.
As Lorde herself later noted,
I was very inarticulate as a youngster. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t speak until I was five, in fact, not really until I started reading and writing poetry. I used to speak in poetry. I would read poems, and I would memorize them. People would say, ‘Well, what do you think, Audre? What happened to you yesterday?’ And I would recite a poem and somewhere in that poem there would be a line or a feeling I was sharing. In other words, I literally communicated through poetry. And when I couldn’t find the poems to express the things I was feeling, that’s when I started writing poetry. That was when I was 12 or 13. (BWWW, p. 106)
Lorde also observed, “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” (OCWW, quoting from Karla M. Hammond, Denver Quarterly, Spring 1981). When Audre was 15, her first published poem appeared in print. Her school newspaper had refused to print the poem, as it discussed Audre’s first love affair with a boy, but Seventeen magazine was happy to publish it.
Audre’s retreat into literature and poetry helped her escape her parents’ strict upbringing and the harsh educational environment of the Catholic schools (St. Mark’s and then St. Catherine’s schools) she attended while growing up. In addition to its sternness, the schools’ racism created an unwelcoming environment for this shy, sensitive girl. Only through words was she able to protect herself. When she hit her teen years, she started embracing her status as an outsider and rebelled against the harshness of her environment. At last, when Audre was in high school, she was enrolled in Hunter College High School, where she became the school arts magazine’s literary editor and found a sisterhood of rebellious poets. One of her fellow sister-outsiders was poet Diane Di Prima, with whom she maintained a close friendship after high school.
After high school, Lorde continued her studies part-time at Hunter College while earning a living in various low-paying jobs, such as factory worker, medical clerk, X-ray technician, ghostwriter, social worker, and arts and crafts supervisor. While working in a factory, Lorde had her first lesbian affair. In 1954 she went to Mexico, where she spent a year studying at the National University of Mexico. There, she began speaking in full prose sentences and came into her own, identifying herself as a poet and as a lesbian, enjoying an affair with a woman she knew there.
When she returned to New York, Lorde entered Greenwich Village’s mostly white “gay-girl” culture. Back on her home turf, she also decided that she wanted to study librarianship in order to better understand how to organize and analyze information. In March 1955, she got a job at the New York Public Library in Children’s Services while studying library sciences at Hunter. She also continued to write poetry and became interested in the Harlem Writers Guild. At the guild, Langston Hughes encouraged her writing, but many other guild members were homophobic, and Lorde soon felt alienated from the guild. In 1959, Lorde earned her B.A. in English literature and philosophy from Hunter College.
After graduation, Lorde started working as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library and earned her master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Library Science (M.L.S., 1961). For the next seven years, she worked as a librarian various places, including a job as the head librarian at the Town School Library in New York (1966–1968). Meanwhile, on March 31, 1962, Lorde married Edward Ashley Rollins, with whom she had two children, Elizabeth (1963) and Jonathan (1 1/2 years younger than Elizabeth). Although the marriage ended in divorce (in 1970), Lorde’s role as a mother became central to much of her writing thereafter.
In 1962, Langston Hughes included Lorde’s poetry in his anthology New Negro Poets, USA, and after that, her poems were published in numerous African-American literary magazines and anthologies. In 1968, Lorde’s poetry was recognized with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In the spring of that year, she enjoyed a six-week position as poet-in-residence at historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Lorde’s experience at Tougaloo changed her life. During those six short weeks, she discovered that she loved teaching far more than being a librarian; she realized that her poetry was appreciated by a wide community of African Americans; she met Frances Clayton, who was to become her long-term partner in life; and she wrote most of the poems for her second poetry collection, Cables to Rage (1970). Lorde later recalled, “[Tougaloo] was pivotal for me. Pivotal. In 1968 my first book had just been published; it was my first trip into the Deep South; it was the first time I had been away from the children; the first time I worked with young black students in a workshop situation. I came to realize that this was my work. That teaching and writing were inextricably combined, and it was there that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.... I realized that writing was central to my life” (BWWW, p. 110; see also BWW, p. 262).
When Lorde returned to New York, she started offering poetry courses at the City College of New York (1968–1969), and from then on, she taught English, creative writing, and literature at various colleges and universities, including Lehman College (1969–1970), John Jay College of Justice (1970–1980), and Hunter College (starting in 1980). In addition, during the 1970s, Lorde traveled extensively, touring Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe (including Russia).
In the early 1970s, Lorde gave a public reading of one of her lesbian love poems, thus “outing” herself as a lesbian. (The same poem was later published in Ms. magazine.) In 1974, Lorde, Alice Walker, and Adrienne Rich were nominated for the National Book Award. When Rich won the award, she announced that she would accept it as a coequal with her two fellow nominees, saying, “We symbolically join here in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and in declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women.” Seven years later, Rich further championed Lorde’s poetry by publishing an interview with her (in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1981).
Starting in September 1978, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer, launching her 14-year war against cancer. She triumphed in her first battle, although she didn’t emerge unscathed: She underwent a radical mastectomy (surgically removing her breasts, lymph nodes, and some muscle tissue) and decided against wearing prostheses (artificial breasts), rebelling against male-centered notions of how females should look. Six years later (February 1984), she was diagnosed with liver cancer, and more than eight years later (November 1992), the liver cancer killed her. Before it did, however, she returned to her mother’s birthplace in the Caribbean, and she was given an African name: Gamba Adisa, which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Clear.”
Lorde was indeed a warrior, championing the rights of African Americans, women, and homosexuals. Through her poems, essays, and autobiographies, she opposed homophobia, sexism, and racism forthrightly and vociferously. Although she outspokenly denounced oppression and injustice, she wrote often of love (especially motherly love and romantic [lesbian] love), not of hatred. She embraced diversity and urged her readers to work together to use difference as a creative, productive force to heal the wounds caused by conflict and strife and to promote positive change.
Stylistically, Lorde wrote free verse poems rich with figurative imagery. She presented global, political questions and comments through highly personal, specific experiences. Lorde’s old pal from high school, Diane Di Prima, edited Lorde’s first collection, The First Cities (1968), and helped her get the collection published by Poet’s Press. Many of Lorde’s contemporaries criticized Lorde for writing such personal, introspective poems during a time when most African-American poets were focusing on militantly confrontational political poems. Not everyone shared this view, however. Dudley Randall, founder of Broadside Press, observed that Lorde “does not wave a black flag, but her blackness is there, implicit in the bone.”
Randall’s press distributed her next collection, Cables to Rage (1970), which explored her feelings about her marriage, her husband’s betrayal, her experiences raising her children, and her embrace of her identity as a lesbian. Nonetheless, the tone of this volume was less introspective and more centered on social injustices than was her first volume. That trend continued with Broadside’s publication of Lorde’s From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), which was nominated for a 1974 National Book Award for poetry (which Adrienne Rich shared with her and with Alice Walker). Two more volumes followed: her most politically oriented volume, New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), and her chapbook, Between Ourselves (1976).
In 1976, major mainstream publisher W. W. Norton published Lorde’s Coal (1976), thereby introducing Lorde to a much wider audience and offering her a chance for greater critical notice. Many of the poems in Coal had been published in her previous collections, but the volume also introduced many previously unpublished poems. Probably Lorde’s most highly acclaimed collection, however, was The Black Unicorn (1978, also published by Norton), in which she highlighted themes of African ancestry, the diaspora of Africans across other continents, mythology, motherhood, and lesbian relationships and other close ties among women. Both collections included laudatory blurbs by Adrienne Rich on the book jackets.
Lorde’s next collection, Chosen Poems, Old and New (1982), included poems from each of the preceding volumes as well as new poems. This volume was followed by Our Dead behind Us (1986), Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New (1992), and The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, Poems 1987–1992 (1993). In addition, Lorde edited two anthologies: Lesbian Poetry: An Anthology (1982) and Woman Poet—The East (1984). Lorde’s prose was collected in several collections, including Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984, Crossing Press), which has since been used extensively in women’s studies courses. In addition, many of Lorde’s essays have been published in numerous anthologies and periodicals.
Lorde’s other major contribution to literature is her distinctive approach to autobiography, much of which centers on her war against cancer, starting with The Cancer Journals (1980), documenting her personal battle against breast cancer. This book is a pioneering exploration of one woman’s battle against this epidemic disease. As she herself noted,
I couldn’t believe that what I was fighting I would fight alone and only for myself. I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t something there that somebody could use at some other point because I know that I could have used some other woman’s words, whatever she had to say. Just to know that someone had been there before me would have been very important, but there was nothing. Writing The Cancer Journals gave me the strength and power to examine that experience, to put down into words what I was feeling. It was my belief that if this work were useful to just one woman, it was worth doing. (BWWW, p. 116)
Lorde described her further struggles in her autobiographical collection of journal entries and essays, A Burst of Light (1988), which won a National Book Award in 1989. In it, she describes her decision to abstain from further invasive medical treatments and to explore alternative treatment modalities. Between her first and her second nonfiction autobiographies, she introduced her experimental “biomythography,” which combines autobiography with myth, poetry, and other prose fiction forms, in her book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). Zami peers into Lorde’s childhood and early adulthood (through 1959), exploring in depth the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship, the difficulties of growing up homosexual in a homophobic society, and the delight in discovering the power of language. Touted for its rich imagery and allegory, the book is considered a landmark in African-American women’s autobiography.
Among the many awards Lorde received were a National Endowment for the Arts residency grant (1968), a Creative Artists Public Service award grant (1972, 1980), a Broadside Press Poet’s Award (1975), appointment to the Hunter College Hall of Fame (1980), and a Cultural Council Foundation grant for poetry. In addition, in 1991, New York Governor Mario Cuomo named Lorde the Poet Laureate of New York state.
(See list of abbreviations here.)
Balfour, Lawrie, in EA-99.
Homans, Margaret, in BWA:AHE.
Kulii, Beverly Threatt , in OCAAL.
Trapasso, Ann, in OCWW.