Audre Geraldine Lorde’s immense and consequential body of work consists of poems, speeches, essays, open letters, interviews, pamphlets, and books. An internationally recognized poet who gave public readings, lectures, and speeches primarily in the United States, she regularly introduced herself as a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, and mother. Her synthesis of literary work with political activism could be considered public advocacy in that she endeavored to move her readers’ or listeners’ feelings, beliefs, and actions. Rhetorical in this respect, her work was complex, insightful, and instructive in commenting on racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, and other varieties of oftentimes overlapping biases in U.S. culture during the latter half of the twentieth century. In addition to poems mentioned elsewhere in this entry, her poetry may be exemplified by “Coal”, “Blackstudies”, “Afterimages”, “Litany for Survival”, and “Sisters in Arms”.

A professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice from 1970 until 1978 and, subsequently, at Hunter College in New York City, Lorde was educated in library science at Columbia University (1960), and, in her early years between 1960 and 1968, was employed as a librarian. Black feminist and political activist Angela Davis captured a key feature of Lorde’s lifetime achievement in generating unanticipated coalitions among marginalized people: “Through her life, she galvanized alliances among individuals and groups who were not expected to discover points of convergence” (Byrd 256). Lorde’s gift for cultivating coalitions, allies, and accomplices through her advocacy for social justice continues to generate burgeoning public interest in her work since her death in 1992. Lorde’s literary work enacted an activity that Lorde described in “Poetry is Not a Luxury” (1977) as a “distillation of experience” (Sister Outsider 36) or “metabolizing experience”. In an 1986 interview with Marion Kraft, Lorde generalized, “Poetry — for me — is a way of living. . . . it’s the way I metabolize what happens and present it out again” (Hall 146). On January 23, 1981, during a recorded interview by Jennifer Abod, apparently for A Radio Profile of Audre Lorde (1988), she observed that “When I write prose, I am a poet writing prose. . . . I am speaking of a whole way of looking at life, of moving into it, of using it, of dealing with myself and my experience, I am not speaking of living itself, I am speaking of a use of my living” (Abod). Consequently, Lorde’s poetry is seamlessly interrelated with her public speeches, pamphlets, and interviews concerning her experiences and activism, as may be exemplified by the relationship among three poems, “Power” (1976), “Equal Opportunity” (1986), and “For the Record” (1986), along with her pamphlet, Apartheid U.S.A. (1986).

At least five periods of intense transformation in Lorde’s experiences informed her literary work and activism. The content of Lorde’s earliest poetry throughout the 1960s and early 70s reflected her family life. For decades, Lorde lived at New York in an interracial family — initially, during the early 1960s, with Edwin A. Rollins, a white gay man who became the father of her two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan, and, later, for almost two decades, with a white professional woman, Frances Clayton, who helped her to raise them at Staten Island, New York. Although her marriage to Rollins was an open one in that they had not committed to sexual monogamy (De Veaux 74-76, 89), and although her husband was supportive of Lorde’s relationship with Clayton, Lorde separated from him in 1970 and eventually divorced in 1975 to couple with Clayton (De Veaux 98-99).

The first of the sea changes in Lorde’s “metabolizing” of experiences occurred in 1968, during the six-week period that she was a Poet-In-Residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where she had met Clayton. There she endeavored to draw on diverse aspects of herself in synthesizing ways. She realized, for instance, that poetry did not need to be relegated to her spare time, while, as a librarian, she financially supported herself and contributed to raising her family. Instead, she could make poetry central to making a living in ways that contributed meaningfully to other Black people’s lives. In a video interview, she claimed that her experiences as a Poet-In-Residence at Tougaloo “changed my life” not only because she was working with “young black poets”, which intensified her desire to become a teacher of Black students, but also because it was “a crisis situation” and “a siege situation” with white people acting out of racial hostility nearby. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, forcing her to concentrate on the dangers that white supremacy posed for Black people. In 1968, Lorde’s friend Martha had committed suicide, too. Throughout Lorde’s later public advocacy, when she commented on the strength and energy to be derived from drawing on all of the aspects of her selves, openly, allowing energy to flow among them, she had her own complex synthesis and active re-arranging of personal and professional experiences in 1968 as a firsthand basis for grappling with that activity.

A second sea change in Lorde’s experiential basis for her literary work and activism occurred in the early-1970s, when she published her openly lesbian “Love Poem”. Though she believed that she had not been secretive concerning her lesbian sexuality — and certain earlier poems, such as “Martha” (1970) and “On a Night of the Full Moon” (1970) attest to this (Collected 37-44, 172, 198-205) — “Love Poem” was a public statement in Ms. Magazine for February 1974 with profound ramifications for her as a faculty member in Black Studies at John Jay College. There she proudly posted the poem “on the wall of the English Department”, knowing as she did that students and faculty were bothered by her sexuality: “One of the attempts to discredit me among Black students was to say I was a lesbian” (Sister Outsider 98). This poem affected her relationship to her publisher at Broadside Press, which had launched the careers of several, accomplished Black poets, mostly men (Thompson 126). Her publisher, Dudley Randall, confronted her about what he apparently experienced as a bewildering persona for “Love Poem”, since it portrayed the author’s love-making to a woman. He wondered whether she had intended to portray a male’s persona. Because of her publisher’s misgivings, the poem was suppressed initially in a poetry collection then in progress, From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), although, to his credit, it was included in a subsequent volume, New York Head Shop and Museum (1974). Lorde articulated her gratitude to Randall for publishing two of her early poetry collections, yet she left this experience keenly aware that attitudes toward her sex and sexuality posed challenges to her as a poet seeking publication by Black publishers (Thompson 130-131; Sister Outsider 98-99; De Veaux, Warrior Poet, 130-131, 141). The politics surrounding this poem’s publication might have precipitated a shift in primary focus for her poetry from a predominantly Black audience, which was presumptively male and heterosexual, to a feminist one consisting primarily of women of diverse races and sexualities, though Lorde did continue to address certain poems and essays primarily to Black readers (e.g., Sister Outsider 45-52 and 60-65). As she expressed it in her poem, “Between Ourselves”, in Black World for September 1774: “Once when I walked into a room / my eyes would seek out the one or two black faces / for contact or reassurance or a sign / I was not alone / now walking into rooms full of black faces / that would destroy me for any difference / where shall I look? / Once it was easy to know who were my people” (Collected 323).

The third and most dramatic sea change in Lorde’s experiential basis for her public advocacy resulted from her confrontation with breast cancer and her mortality — the diagnosis of a benign tumor in 1977 followed by a malignant one the next year, shortly after her 1978 speech, “Uses of the Erotic”. This sea change is the most evident in her work, because she drew on it extensively and explicitly in her brilliant 1977 speech, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, her Cancer Journals (1980) and A Burst of Light (1988). Lorde commented, for instance, “For me, the primary challenge at the core of mastectomy was the stark look at my own mortality, hinged upon the fear of a life-threatening cancer. This event called upon me to re-examine the quality and texture of my entire life, its priorities and commitments, as well as the possible alterations that might be required in the light of that re-examination” (Cancer Journals 61). Drawing strength from the example of the Amazons of Dahomey, her depictions of being visible as a warrior against cancer by not wearing a prosthesis apparently drew on parallels with her earlier experiences with becoming visible as a lesbian (Olson, “Embodied Invention”). After 1977, Lorde noticeably increased her public speaking commitments.

A fourth pivotal period is more difficult to pinpoint precisely by year, but its broad outlines extended from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, when she spoke often as a featured poet or speaker at feminist conferences dominated by white and heterosexual women. The best known public conflict transpired at the Second Sex conference at New York University in 1979, where she delivered “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, in which she articulated her well-known maxim that feminist scholars have often embraced, appropriated or rejected (for a survey of such responses, see Olson, “The Personal, the Political, and Others”, esp. 264-267 and 275-279). But this conflict’s residue persisted for a time as she engaged in an extended series of public confrontations with white feminists concerning the magnitude of racism, heterosexism, and ageism within women’s communities as obstacles and barricades for her activism. In 1981, for example, she delivered a difficult, but important speech, “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”, to the National Women’s Studies Association (Olson, “Anger Among Allies”). In the late 1970s throughout the mid-1980s, when she typically spoke to predominantly white women feminists, she observed and articulated certain parallels between her experiences as a lesbian seeking to define a place within a presumptively male and heterosexual Black Arts Movement and, subsequently, her experiences as a Black lesbian seeking to define a place within predominantly white and heterosexual women’s liberation struggles (Clarke 121-128). As early as 1973, she had signaled her complicated embrace of feminism with a question in a poem entitled: “Who Said It Was Simple?” (Collected 92).

There was another shift in primary audience during the mid-to-late 1980s, a fifth sea change, after her relocation to the Virgin Islands and Germany in 1984: her centering primarily on Black women’s communities, while explicitly commenting on Black diaspora in numerous international fora in the Caribbean, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2015, Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies offered previously unavailable materials from and scholarly perspectives on this vital period in Lorde’s life and activism. After 1984, Lorde regularly lived in Berlin to receive treatments for cancer with the support of her friend and publisher Dagmar Schultz. In Germany, Lorde coined the expression “Afro-German” and taught at the Kennedy Institute. Lorde became deeply involved with Gloria Joseph, a turning point fundamentally transforming her family life, accompanied as it was by her re-location from NYC to St. Croix. There she claimed an identity as an African-Caribbean-American woman in her poetry readings and speeches. Joseph’s landmark collection, Wind Is Spirit (2016), sheds considerable light on the texture of Lorde’s life and activism during this period. During these final years before her death at St. Croix in 1992, in a sense Lorde was reclaiming a heritage while she was redefining her future, as she had earlier in her “biomythography”, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). In the Caribbean, “zami” was French patois for women who are friends or lovers (Davies 18). Further, Lorde’s parents had migrated from the West Indies to live in NYC. Her mother, Linda Belmar was from Grenada, while her father, Frederick Bryon Lorde, was from Barbados. Though there were doubtless additional moments of noteworthy change in Lorde’s works, these five stand out in major strands of thought and recurring motifs in her public advocacy.

In general, after the mid-1970s, overlapping lesbian feminist and Black feminist social movements for justice constituted the heart of Lorde’s extensive network of allies, colleagues, and younger admirers. Their exchanges, dialogues, and disputes enriched Lorde’s understanding of “interlocking oppressions”, as interacting systems of power were called at that time. She observed in 1979, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between and individual and her oppression” (Sister Outsider 112). Some of Lorde’s close allies were members of the Combahee River Collective, who, in a classic statement in 1978, affirmed:

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. (This Bridge 210)

This sensibility suffused Lorde’s literary work and activism as a distinctive, though not unique strand of feminism. Lorde was an advocate and an early model for explorations of interacting systems of power, which has also been taken up by Patricia Hill Collins as “matrices of oppression,” Kimberlé Crenshaw as “intersectionality” and Mari Matsuda as “asking the other question”.

Lorde lived and operated on a day-to-day basis within extensive, overlapping, and, at times, adversarial social justice movements. In 1982, she commented, “Each one of us here is a link in the connection between antipoor legislation, gay shootings, the burning of synagogues, street harassment, attacks against women, and resurgent violence against Black people” (Sister Outsider 139), a remark resonant with implications for simplistic identity politics and characterizations of social groups as having essential features. Lorde knew such white and Black activist-poets and accomplished writers as Pat Parker, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Clare Coss, Michelle Cliff, Adrienne Rich, and Judith McDaniel, as well as, at the time, relatively youthful scholar-activists such as Jennifer Abod, Cheryl Clarke, Toi Derricotte, Melinda Goodman, Jewelle Gomez, and Alexis De Veaux. During 1977, for example, Lorde participated in an organization in Brooklyn, New York called “The Sisterhood”, whose membership included other accomplished Black women writers and artists, among them June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Donna Simms, Ntozake Shange, and Alice Walker. Lorde’s experiences in this organization provide some background for appreciating her activism, because minutes for The Sisterhood affirmed a collaborative decision to press for Black women writers’ and artists’ inclusion in major Black and feminist journals and magazines.

A panoramic sense of Lorde’s scholar-activism within overlapping social justice movements can be inferred from feminist, Black, and lesbian magazines, journals, and books to which she usually contributed during the 1970s and early 1980s. As a co-founder in 1980 of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Lorde endeavored with allies Barbara Smith and Chicana lesbian feminists Cherríe Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldúa to make it possible for diverse women to publish their poems, essays, and other artistic works without constantly needing to adapt their consciousness to publication outlets that were predominantly white, heterosexual, or male. Their strategy of ownership of the means for the production of intellectual labor was informed by familiarity with the Black Arts Movement (Clarke 2, 161 ff.) and, more fundamentally, by a recognition of what it meant to own the means of production within a capitalistic economic system that these radical feminist women typically challenged in their literary and artistic works.

Lorde has been the subject of a book-length biography, Warrior Poet(2004), and three documentary films: A Litany for Survival (1995), The Edge of Each Other’s Battles (2000) and Audre Lorde — the Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 (2012). The last of these documentary films was produced by Dagmar Schultz and sheds considerable light on Lorde’s life and activism in Germany after 1984. Many of Lorde’s numerous interviews have been collected (Hall). An edited collection, I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings by Audre Lorde (2009), features tributes to her life and work as well as manuscripts for speeches, many of which, despite the book’s title, were published earlier in the gay and lesbian press. On February 25, 2014, a special issue of Feminist Wire, edited by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, featured a who’s who of scholars, friends and family members who remember and honor Lorde and her legacy (http://thefeministwire.com/2014/02). The largest collections of archival materials pertaining to Lorde are held at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York and Spelman College Archives in Atlanta, Georgia. Useful overviews of her life have concentrated on her lesbian feminism (Upton), her writing (Votteler), and her public speaking (Olson, “Lorde”).

Works cited

Abod, Jennifer. Interview of Audre Lorde. Rec. 23 January 1981. Audre Lorde Collection. Audiotape. Spelman College, Atlanta, GA. Spelman College Archives.
Bolaki, Stella and Sabine Broeck, eds. Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015.
Byrd, Rudolph P., Johnnette Betsch Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Eds. I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Clarke, Cheryl. After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Mapping the Margins: lntersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.Stanford Law Review, 43, 6 (1991): 1241-1299.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams, “The Marginalization of Sexual Violence Against Black Women.” National Coalition Against Sexual Assault, 2, 1 (1994): 1-3, 5-6, and 15.
Davies, Carole Boyce. Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. London: Routledge, 1994.
De Veaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York: Norton, 2004.
Hall, Joan Wylie, ed. Conversations with Audre Lorde. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2004.
Joseph, Gloria I. Wind Is Spirit: The Life, Love and Legacy of Audre Lorde. [New York]: Villarosa Media, 2016.
Lorde, Audre. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. New York: Norton, 1997.
Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Spinsters Ink/Aunt Lute, 1980.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde. Freedom, CA: Crossing, 1984.
Matsuda, Mari, “Beside My Sister, Facing the Enemy: Legal Theory Out of Coalition.” Stanford Law Review 43, 6 (July 1991): 1183-1193.
Moraga, Cherríe and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color. New York: Persephone Press, 1981; Rpt., Kitchen Table, 1983.
Olson, Lester C. “Anger Among Allies: Audre Lorde’s 1981 Keynote Admonishing the National Women’s Studies Association.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 97.3 (August 2011): 283-308.
Olson, Lester C. “Audre Geraldine Lorde (1934-1992), Professor of English, Poet, Black Lesbian, and Socialist.” American Voices: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Orators. Ed. Bernard K. Duffy and Richard W. Leeman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2005, 285-292.
Olson, Lester C. “Audre Lorde’s Embodied Invention.” The Responsibilities of Rhetoric. Ed. Michelle Smith and Barbara Warnick. Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2010, 80-95.
Olson, Lester C. “The Personal, the Political, and Others: Audre Lorde Denouncing ‘The Second Sex Conference.’” Philosophy and Rhetoric, 33.3 (Fall 2000): 259-285.
Schultz, Dagmar, Audre Lorde — The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2012.
Thompson, Julius E. Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 1999.
Upton, Elaine Maria. “Audre Geraldine Lorde (1934-1992).” Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Sandra Pollack and Denise D. Knight. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993, 316-324.
Votteler, Thomas, Ed. “Audre Lorde, 1934- .” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992, 230-264.

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Citation: Olson, Lester C.. "Audre Lorde". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 14 March 2011; last revised 29 September 2018. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=2792, accessed 26 May 2024.]

2792 Audre Lorde 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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