February 18, 1934 – Audre Lorde:
“Your silence will not protect you.“
Born Audrey Geraldine Lorde, she recognized the power of names and naming early in life, changing hers as a child to Audre to highlight the symmetry of both names ending in “e”. At 49 years old, her landmark memoir Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name confirmed her stature as a great and essential writer and the foremost “black lesbian feminist poet warrior”.
She spent a year at the National University of Mexico, graduated from Hunter College, and received her advanced degree from Columbia University.
She was already enjoying affairs with women at 20 years old. She later had a 17-year relationship with psychology professor Frances Clayton, as well as affairs with the artist Mildred Thomson and finally with Gloria Joseph. That Clayton was white is noteworthy because it was during those years that Lorde attacked the underlying racism of the feminist movement, linking the experience to slavery in essays like The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Lorde had equally strong insights into the LGBTQ movement. From a 1980 interview, she said:
“…most gay white men are marginal only in one respect. Much of the gay white movement seeks to be included in the american dream and is angered when they do not receive the standard white male privileges, misnamed as ‘american democracy’.
Often, white gay men are working not to change the system. This is one of the reasons why the gay male movement is as white as it is. Black gay men recognize, again by the facts of survival, that being Black, they are not going to be included in the same way…
I see no essential battle between many gay men and the white male establishment. To be sure, there are gay men who do not view their oppression as isolated, and who work for a future. But it is a matter of majority politics: many gay white males are being pulled by the same strings as other white men in this society. You do not get people to work against what they have identified as their basic self-interest.“
She was raised in Manhattan. While she was still in high school, her first poem was published in Seventeen Magazine. She began publishing more of her poems and seeing them anthologized abroad as well as in Langston Hughes‘ New Negro Poets USA.
She served as a librarian in New York public schools from 1961 through 1968. In 1962, Lorde married Civil Rights attorney Edward Rollins. They had two children before divorcing in 1970.
Lorde was a major contributor to the early American LGBTQ culture that came to life in the queer bars of New York City. She was out of the closet before the Gay Rights movement even existed. Her words then seem eerily prescient:
“Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time and the arena, and the manner of our revolutions, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.“
In the 1970s and 1980s Lorde’s was an important and singular voice:
“I began to ask each time: ‘What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?’ Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, ‘disappeared’’or run off the road at night … our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.“
In 1968, she was writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where she met Clayton. Also that year, her first volume of poems, The First Cities, was published, followed with Cables To Rage (1970) and From A Land Where Other People Live (1973), which was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1974, she published New York Head Shot And Museum, her most political work. In 1976, she released Coal and The Black Unicorn. Other collections include include Chosen Poems Old And New (1982) and Our Dead Behind Us (1986).
Although her work received much acclaim, she was also sharply criticized. She received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1981, and was denounced in the U.S. Senate. Lorde:
“My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds. Senator Jesse Helms‘ objection to my work is not about obscenity or even about sex. It is about revolution and change. Helms knows that my writing is aimed at his destruction, and the destruction of every single thing he stands for.“
Lorde was diagnosed with cancer and chronicled her cancer struggles in The Cancer Journals (1981). Her other prose works include Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name and A Burst Of Light (1988), which won the National Book Award.
She was taken by cancer in 1992. Prior to her death she said:
“I don’t want to die looking the other way.“
The Collected Poems Of Audre Lorde was published in 1997.
Lorde shocked even other feminists of her time with her progressive theories that Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia are all linked and that they all come from an inability to respect differences.