A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her poetry, and “indeed all of her writing,” according to contributor Joan Martin in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “rings with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling.” Concerned with modern society’s tendency to categorize groups of people, Lorde fought the marginalization of such categories as “lesbian” and “black woman,” thereby empowering her readers to react to the prejudice in their own lives. While the widespread critical acclaim bestowed upon Lorde for dealing with lesbian topics made her a target of those opposed to her radical agenda, she continued, undaunted, to express her individuality, refusing to be silenced. As she told interviewer Charles H. Rowell in Callaloo: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… [White, arch-conservative senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity…or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.” Fighting a battle with cancer that she documented in her highly acclaimed Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde died of the illness in 1992.
Born in New York City of West Indian parents, Lorde came to poetry in her early teens. Her first poem was published by Seventeen magazine when she was still in high school. Her later poetry, published in volumes including New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), Coal (1976), and her highly acclaimed volume The Black Unicorn (1978) frequently deal with lesbian relationships and love in accessible, visceral ways. In Martin’s words, “one doesn’t have to profess heterosexuality, homosexuality, or asexuality to react to her poems… Anyone who has ever been in love can respond to the straightforward passion and pain sometimes one and the same, in Lorde’s poems.”
While Lorde’s love poems composed much of her earliest work, her experiences of civil unrest during the 1960s, along with her sexuality, created a rapid shift to more political statements. As Jerome Brooks reported in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “Lorde’s poetry of anger is perhaps her best-known work.” In her poem “The American Cancer Society, or There Is More than One Way to Skin a Coon,” she protested against white America thrusting its unnatural culture on blacks; in “The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches,” she likened blacks to cockroaches, hated, feared, and poisoned by whites. Poetry critic Sandra M. Gilbert remarked that “it’s not surprising that Lorde occasionally seems to be choking on her own anger… [and] when her fury vibrates through taut cables from head to heart to page, Lorde is capable of rare and, paradoxically, loving jeremiads.”
Lorde’s anger did not confine itself to racial injustice but extended to feminist issues as well, and she occasionally criticized African American men for their role in perpetuating sex discrimination: “As Black people, we cannot begin our dialogue by denying the oppressive nature of male privilege,” Lorde stated in Black Women Writers. “And if Black males choose to assume that privilege, for whatever reason, raping, brutalizing, and killing women, then we cannot ignore Black male oppression. One oppression does not justify another.”
Of her poetic beginnings Lorde commented in Black Women Writers: “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 would be a line or a feeling I would be 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 what started me writing poetry, and that was when I was twelve or thirteen.” As an adult, her primary poetic goal remained communication. “I have a duty,” she stated later in the same publication, “to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.” Lorde’s later poems were often assembled from her personal journals. Explaining the genesis of “Power,” a poem about the police shooting of a ten-year-old black child, Lorde discussed her feelings when she learned that the officer involved had been acquitted: “A kind of fury rose up in me; the sky turned red. I felt so sick. I felt as if I would drive this car into a wall, into the next person I saw. So I pulled over. I took out my journal just to air some of my fury, to get it out of my fingertips. Those expressed feelings are that poem.”
One of Lorde’s other important themes is the parent-child relationship. Brooks saw a deep concern with the images of her deceased father in Lorde’s “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” which carries over to poems dealing with Africa in The Black Unicorn. Yet in many of Lorde’s poems, the figure of her mother is one of a woman who resents her daughter, tries to repress her child’s unique personality so that she conforms with the rest of the world, and withholds the emotional nourishment of parental love. For example, Lorde tells us in Coal’s “Story Books on a Kitchen Table”: “Out of her womb of pain my mother spat me / into her ill-fitting harness of despair / into her deceits / where anger reconceived me.” In The Black Unicorn’s “From the House of Yemanja,” the mother’s efforts to shape the speaker into something she is not do not quench the speaker’s desire for the mother’s love: “Mother I need / mother I need / … I am / the sun and moon and forever hungry.” “Balled from Childhood” in The New York Head Shop and Museum is Lorde’s depiction of the ways in which a child’s hopes and dreams are crushed by a restrictive mother. As Martin noted, however, Lorde’s ambivalent feelings about her mother “did not make [her] bitter against her own children when circumstances changed her role from that of child to mother.” Coal includes the poem “Now That I Am Forever with Child,” which discusses the birth of Lorde’s daughter, one of her two children. “I bore you one morning just before spring,” she recounts, “my legs were towers between which / A new world was passing. / Since then / I can only distinguish / one thread within runnings hours / You, flowing through selves / toward You.”
In addition to her poetry, Lorde was noted for eloquent prose, including her courageous account of her agonizing struggle to overcome breast cancer and mastectomy, The Cancer Journals. Her first major prose work, in the Journals discuss Lorde confronts the possibility of death. Recounting this personal transformation was, for Lorde, of primary importance; as AnaLouise Keating noted in Journal of Homosexuality, “For Lorde, self-expression and self-discovery are never ends in themselves. Because she sees her desire to comprehend her battle with cancer as ‘part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and or power,’ she is confident that her self-explorations will empower her readers.” Her Journals also reveal Lorde’s decision not to wear a prosthesis after her breast was removed. Lorde summarized her attitude on the issue thus in the Journals: “Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.”
Lorde’s 1982 novel, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, was described by its publishers as a “biomythography, combining elements of history, biography and myth.” In the late 1980s Lorde and fellow writer Barbara Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which was dedicated to furthering the writings of black feminists. Lorde would also become increasingly concerned over the plight of black women in South Africa under apartheid, creating Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa and remaining an active voice on behalf of these women throughout the remainder of her life. Indeed, Lorde addressed her concerns to not only the United States but the world, encouraging a celebration of the differences that society instead used as tools of isolation. As Allison Kimmich noted in Feminist Writers, “Throughout all of Audre Lorde’s writing, both nonfiction and fiction, a single theme surfaces repeatedly. The black lesbian feminist poet activist reminds her readers that they ignore differences among people at their peril… Instead, Lorde suggests, differences in race or class must serve as a ‘reason for celebration and growth.’”