“Black. Lesbian. Mother. Warrior. Poet.”
Audre Lorde was a self-proclaimed “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” with a formidable voice and the creative fire to use it. Born in Harlem on February 18th, 1934, she grew up on the back of the Harlem Renaissance, which nurtured her unwavering sense of independence and zeal for writing.
Despite being born so near-sighted that she was deemed legally blind, she taught herself to read at age four. Her first poem was published in Seventeen magazine when she was fifteen years old. She was the first black student ever admitted to Hunter College High School in New York.
She had a knack for listening to the emotional vibrations inside her heart and translating those waves into brilliant poems and essays. Her passion to piece together her Afro-Caribbean roots with the unrest of racist America led to her becoming one of the most salient black female voices of the 20th century.
“Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.” - Sister Outsider (1984)
Her poetry regularly appeared in Langston Hughes’ New Negro Poets, USA in the mid-60s. Her first collection of poems, The First Cities (1968), was published while she was working as a school librarian in New York City.
Cables to Rage (1970) was infused with the anger she felt about social injustices she witnessed while hosting poetry workshops at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. It also contained the poignant poem, “Martha,” in which she addressed her sexuality.
Her next two collections, From a Land Where Other People Live (1973) and New York Head Shop and Museum (1975) were her most politically charged compilations yet and led to a major publishing deal for her next collection, Coal (1976).
“and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid
So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.”
- Excerpt from The Black Unicorn “A Litany For Survival”
The Black Unicorn (1978), which is often lauded as her most profound work, marked a turning point for Lorde’s work. Instead of focusing on the urban themes that dominated her prior writing, she injected this collection with the rich, sprawling imagery of the African diaspora.
Lorde was invited to speak at various conferences on racism, sexism, sexuality, and class in the late 70s and 80s. Her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” called out the feminist movement for its racist, homophobic, exclusionary undertones. In this essay, which was delivered as a zealous speech at a New York University Institute for the Humanities conference, she expresses how peoples’ differences should not just be “merely tolerated,” but seen as strengths to build up the collective consciousness. Such differences can inform and expand the creative path towards a more just, equitable society.
In 1981, she and Barbara Smith founded the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press to help other Black feminist lesbian writers have a platform to explore and share their truths. It served not only as a publishing house but as a resource center for Black women and queer women of color.
"If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive." - The Cancer Journals (1980)
Lorde was all about looking inward to find the creative muse that holds your truth and the wherewithal to act on it. Dive into yourself and, in her words, “touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears.” Use that insight to build a communal sanctuary for everyone based on equality, empathy, and resilience.
If you’re looking for resources or are interested in supporting Black queer voices, the Audre Lorde Project (APL.org) is a great place to start.Sources: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/audre-lorde https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/lorde-audre-1934-1992/ https://www.britannica.com/biography/Audre-Lorde#ref1262218 https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42577/coal