Monday marks the birthday of the late Audre Lorde, a Caribbean-American writer and activist, and self-proclaimed "black lesbian feminist mother warrior poet.” In the grander scheme of Black History Month, hers is a name not often celebrated in comparison to others, which include Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin. However, her dedication and impact in utilizing creativity to take on serious issues pertaining to race and sexuality make her a notable figure for social justice in all respects.
Lorde passed away from liver cancer in 1992 and would have been 79 years of age today.
She was born in New York City as Audrey Geraldine Lorde in 1934 to her immigrant parents, Frederic Byron and Linda Belmar Lorde, the youngest of their three daughters. . She was nearly legally blind, and a latecomer in terms of writing and speech. Around the age of four she decided to omit the Y from her first name in admiration of how aesthetically pleasing Audre Lorde was to her senses.
Thanks to her mother’s influence, she became enamored with words. Her fist poem in high school was published in Seventeen, after she was said to have found solidarity with rebels at Hunter High School versus the “patronizing” and “hostile” racism experienced at her Catholic grammar schools. She went to Hunter College in New York City and graduated with a bachelor’s degree, and went on to study at the National University of Mexico. Upon returning to New York, she eventually obtained her masters' degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961.
In the 1960s, Lorde was deeply involved in writing, and her works were regularly published. She was a librarian at Mount Vernon in New York and was married in 1962. She had two children with husband Edward Rollins, but the couple later divorced.
Lorde's first big break came in 1968 when her first volume of poetry, entitled The First Cities, was published. Critic Dudley Randall described it as a “quiet, introspective book.” Her second volume, Cables to Rage, was published in 1970. It contains one of her more famous poems, “Martha,” a testament to her coming out as a lesbian in beautiful and delicately powerful wording mixed with storytelling, as can be seen in the following snippet:
I need you need me
Je suis Martha I do not speak French kissing
oh Wow. Black and…Black and…beautiful?
Black and becoming
somebody else maybe Erica maybe who sat
in the fourth row behind us in high school
but I never took French with you Martha
and who is this Madame Erudite
who is not me?
In Lorde's following volumes, including her published work Coal and her poem of the same name, she makes cases against and for race as a woman of color oftentimes snuffed out by society. Raising herself (and thereby encouraging her fellow African-Americans), she likens herself to coal in the ground, a product of earth that is then transformed into a valuable and precious diamond as evident in her verse: “I am black because I come from the earth’s inside / Take my word for jewel in your open light.”
After the release her highly acclaimed book of poetry, The Black Unicorn (1978), came The Cancer Journals (1980), works where she extensively chronicles her struggles with breast cancer and her following mastectomy through the lens of a "black lesbian feminist experience." In her last volume of poetry, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, published after her death, it was said that Lorde expressed hope for her work to "be filled with shards of light thrown off from the shifting tensions between the dissimilar, for that is the real stuff of creation and growth."
Her desire for growth and creation in a world rife with discord is one that lives on — a light that shines even in the most unexpected of places, such as 17th St and Union Square East in New York City. May the world never forget of her unique mark.