Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was an American poet, intersectional feminist, and civil rights activist. She described herself as a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," who committed her life to addressing injustices such as homophobia, racism, classism and sexism. As a persistent critic of second-wave feminism for its white and heterosexual biases, Lorde's work heavily influenced the discourse of third-wave feminism and modern feminist movements.

Audre Lorde Audre Lorde

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    Audre Lorde Biography

    Audre Geraldine Lorde was born in New York City, on February 18, 1934, as the third daughter of Caribbean immigrant parents. Lorde did not speak until the age of four, and she learned to read through storybooks, with her mother teaching her how to write shortly after. Due to her communication difficulties as a child, Lorde took refuge in poetry as a form of self-expression; she would memorise various poems, and use them as responses in everyday conversations. As she grew older, she began writing her own poetry.

    Audre Lorde A photograph of Audre Lorde StudySmarterFig. 1 Audre Lorde

    Lorde was academically gifted and attended Hunter College High School, where one of her first poems was deemed unsuitable by the school's literary journal. That same poem, however, was picked up and published in Seventeen magazine. During this period, Lorde would attend poetry workshops funded by the Harlem Writers Guild, where she recalled feeling unaccepted due to her sexuality and personality. Lorde graduated from high school in 1951 and in 1954 attended the National Autonomous University of Mexico for a year, where she came to terms with her sexuality as a lesbian and refined herself as a poet. Upon her return to the US, Lorde studied literature and philosophy at Hunter College (City University of New York, CUNY), and graduated with a B.A. in 1959. She went on to pursue a Master of Library Science degree at Columbia University, which she completed in 1961. Throughout her studies, Lorde was self-reliant and worked as a librarian at a public library, but also took on jobs as a social worker, ghostwriter and medical clerk, alongside other things. Lorde also married her friend, a white gay man named Edwin Rollins, in 1962. Together, they had a daughter and a son, before divorcing in 1970. During her lifetime, Lorde also had multiple relationships with women, often simultaneously.

    Audre Lorde worked as Head Librarian at the Town School Library from 1966 to 1968, where she published her first volume of poetry entitled First Cities. She was then employed as poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College, in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts grant. This period was pivotal for Lorde; racial tensions were high in the South, with Martin Luther King Jr having been assassinated that same year. Lorde experienced these tensions both personally and vicariously, through her black undergraduate students, whose views heavily informed her second volume of poetry published in 1970 titled Cables to Rage.

    In 1970, Lorde also became a Professor of English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY. She passionately advocated for the establishment of the Africana Studies department at the college, which is still active today, and became an associate of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press in 1977. This organisation was founded in 1972 and focused on exposing the public to female-run media whilst also connecting women.

    Audre Lorde  Logo of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press StudySmarterFig. 2 Logo of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press

    In 1981, Lorde cofounded the first printing press to be independently operated by women of colour together with fellow feminist and activist, Barbara Smith. Kitchen Table: Women of Colour Press ensured the documentation and distribution of the views and works of lesbians and other women of colour. A year later, she returned to Hunter College as an English Professor and worked there until 1987, before being promoted to the Thomas Hunter Chair of Literature. Lorde was also involved in cofounding other women's organisations throughout the 1980s such as the Women's coalition of St. Croix which supported women who had experienced sexual and domestic abuse, and the Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa. Beginning in 1984, she became a major catalyst in the Afro-German movement, whilst working as a visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin. She inspired activism in black German women and encouraged them to combat systemic oppression through language.

    Lorde died in 1992, after a long battle with cancer. At the time of her death, Lorde had been the New York State Poet Laureate since 1991. She was also known as 'Gamba Adisa', a name she had chosen a year before her death, meaning 'she who makes her meaning clear'.

    Audre Lorde Feminist Theory

    Audre Lorde is contemporarily known as an intersectional feminist, though this term was not universally recognised during her lifetime. Kimberlè Crenshaw, a law professor who developed the term intersectionality in 1989, described it as

    a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.1

    Audre Lorde believed that all forms of oppression are intertwined with gender oppression. She described herself as 'a black, lesbian, mother and poet' and embraced all of these identities, believing that they overlapped, resulting in simultaneous yet distinct inequalities. All women have multiple identities, which dictate the types of inequalities they experience. Such identities could include race, sexuality, class, age, disability and religion.

    Audre Lorde protest banner with Audre Lorde's quote on intersectionality StudySmarterFig. 3 Protest banner with Audre Lorde's quote on intersectionality

    Lorde touched on all of these identities through her essays and poems and believed they were essential parts of the female experience which must be addressed when fighting for equality. She also believed that difference was to be celebrated, with professor and critic Carmen Birkle stating

    Lorde, puts her emphasis on the authenticity of experience. She wants her difference acknowledged but not judged; she does not want to be subsumed into the one general category of 'woman.' 2

    Audre Lorde was critical of second-wave feminists such as Mary Daly who advocated for a more radical feminism but who overlooked the experiences and voices of black female activists, which Lorde believed made them 'others' vis-a-vis mainstream feminism. Throughout her life, Lorde was an outcast due to her various identities. For example, the gay bars in New York City were usually racist, whilst feminist or civil rights movements were often homophobic. Her goals and ideals clashed with second-wave feminism, as well as the ideals of the Black Power Movement of the 1970s. This experience of constant displacement is what led Lorde to promote the idea of intersectionality and the acceptance of all identities. She avoided categorisation of any kind when it came to identity, as she believed that it would result in the loss or suppression of the uniqueness of each individual. In her essay titled Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, Lorde declares

    Certainly, there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognise those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behaviour and expectation.

    Second-Wave Feminism

    Whilst the first wave of feminism focused on suffrage and legal rights, second-wave feminism expanded the scope of discussion to include issues such as social and legal inequalities, reproductive rights, sexuality and domestic violence. The second wave of feminism began in the early 1960s and ended roughly at the start of the 1980s, and took place mainly in the US and Europe. Lorde's main criticisms of the second wave were based on the fact that it neglected to acknowledge social class, race and sexuality as factors which affected women of colour disproportionately.

    Today, Lorde could also be referred to as a womanist as opposed to a feminist. The term womanist was coined to combat the racial and sexual norms that had taken root within second-wave feminism ideology, which dealt with white, middle-class and heterosexual experiences only.

    Womanism: Often used in place of feminism when the focus is on the experiences and struggles of non-white women, primarily. The term also embraces the struggles of other women of colour and aims to increase solidarity between people of colour in general.

    Audre Lorde Books

    IIn total, Audre Lorde published nine volumes of poetry as well as various essays and speeches, which were later published as compilations. Her first two poetic volumes titled First Cities and Cables of Rage were published in 1968 and 1970 respectively. Whilst the first was a rather personal volume which focused on sexuality and relationships, the second dealt with issues such as childbirth and betrayal. This volume of poems largely expressed Lorde's experience of social injustices (which she witnessed whilst teaching in Jackson, Mississippi) and embedded within it were her first poetic admissions of her sexuality. Her third and fourth volumes published in 1973 and 1974 were rather political. The former, titled From a Land Where Other People Live, was nominated for a national book award.

    Cover of 'A Burst of light' 1989

    Coal was published in 1976 by a major publisher, and was a compilation of her first two volumes. It was here where Lorde's work began reaching a larger and more diverse audience. This success was followed by Zami: A New Spelling of My Name in 1982 which Lorde called a 'biomythography'; a genre of her own creation, she combined myth and history within a biography of 'Zami', a word from her maternal homeland of Carriacou (in the Caribbean) which directly translates as 'lesbian'. The book focuses on the women in Lorde's life and their influences on her.

    Sister Outsider was released in 1984 and is compiled of essays and speeches by Lorde. This book was significant in that it heavily influenced the third and current waves of feminism and made an important contribution to critical social theory due to Lorde's understanding of the complex nature of intersectional oppression. The book touches on matters such as police brutality, imperialism, war, self-love and patriarchy. Her most highly acclaimed volume of poetry Black Unicorn was released in 1978.

    After her cancer diagnosis in 1977, Lorde began writing The Cancer Journals

    which documented her experience of the illness and its consequences such as her mastectomy, whilst also acting as a feminist critique of the medical profession and disability rights. In 1989, A Burst of Light was published, for which Lorde received the American Book Award. After her death, The Marvellous Arithmetics of Distance was published in 1993 which included 39 of her poems written between 1987 and 1992.

    Audre Lorde Famous Work

    The two most famous publications produced by Audre Lorde are outlined below:

    Coal: Although the poems within this volume were not new, its publication by the influential W.W. Norton in 1976 allowed Lorde's work to reach a larger and more diverse audience. This collection includes poems exploring Lorde's lesbianism but the prime focus is on her racial identity and the anger and hatred she feels towards racism and racial inequalities. The volume was well received by critics, with one stating

    Black, lesbian, mother, urban woman: None of Lorde's selves has ever silenced the others; the counterpoint among them is often the material of her strongest poems 3

    A Burst of Light: This book was a collection of prose written by Lorde which explores a multitude of diverse subjects ranging from Sadomasochism and lesbianism to American apartheid and her experiences of living with cancer, which resulted in a mastectomy. All of these issues are beautifully and seamlessly related to her existence as a black lesbian, and later, a disabled black lesbian. Lorde was the recipient of the American Book award in 1989 for this masterpiece.

    Audre Lorde - Key takeaways

    • Audre Lorde was a black, lesbian poet and intersectional Feminist
    • Lorde worked as a librarian before moving into academia, teaching English literature.
    • Lorde believed that all forms of oppression are intertwined with gender oppression and emphasised the importance of acknowledging all of our identities
    • Lorde is also referred to as a womanist as opposed to a feminist
    • Audre Lorde's most famous works include Coal, The Black Unicorn and A Burst of Light
    • Audre Lorde's work was focused on a staggering variety of topics, including sexual, racial and gender identity, sexuality, love, betrayal, illness and disability.

    References

    1. Quoted during an interview in Steinmetz, K., 2020. She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means to Her Today. [online] Time. Available at: [Accessed 12 July 2022].
    2. Birkle, Carmen (1996). Women's Stories of the Looking Glass: autobiographical reflections and self-representations in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde. Munich: W. Fink. p 202
    3. Hacker, M., n.d. Coal | W. W. Norton & Company. [Accessed 12 July 2022].
    4. Fig. 1 Audre Lorde (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Audre_Lorde.jpg) K Kendall (https://www.flickr.com/photos/42401725@N00) licensed by CC-BY-2.0 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/42401725@N00) on Wikimeida Commons
    5. Fig. 3 March Women's 0902 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:March_Women%27s_0902_(49410730378).jpg) by Edward Kimmel (https://www.flickr.com/people/22620970@N04) licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Audre Lorde

    What kind of feminist is Audre Lorde? 

    Audre Lorde was an intersectional feminist.

    Who is Audre Lorde?

    A black, lesbian, feminist, poet who influenced intersectionality in international feminism. 

    What did Audre Lorde fight for? 

    Lorde advocated for the rights of women, the LGBTQIA+ community, people of colour and other marginalised groups who she believed were discriminated against due to their identities. 

    What are Audre Lorde's views about intersectionality?

    Lorde called her theory 'the theory of difference', which we call intersectionality today. Lorde believed that women have various identities (race, class, gender, sexuality etc) which together make up their whole identity. She believed these different identities should be celebrated and that women should embrace all of their identities as a fundamental female experience. 

    How did Audre Lorde change the world? 

    Audre Lorde unapologetically and overtly confronted racism, sexism and homophobia through her writing. Her work portrayed the importance of intersectionality in civil rights. 

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