Childhood & Early Years
Audre Lorde was born on February 18, 1934 in Harlem, New York City. Named at birth as ‘Audrey’, she dropped the ‘y’ early in her childhood because she fancied that Audre Lorde, both ending with ‘e’, sounded more symmetrical. She also hated the tail of ‘y’ hanging from her name.
Her parents were of Afro-Caribbean descent. Her father, Frederick Byron Lorde, originally from Barbados, was in the real estate business. He was very charming and ambitious; but rather aloof towards his children.
Her mother, Linda nee Belmar, was from Grenada. Although of African-Caribbean descent, she had a lighter skin and was often passed as Spanish. She was also very strict and Audre, born rebel, never had easy relationship with her.
Audre was born youngest of her parents’ three children, having two elder sisters named Phyllis and Helen. Born near-sighted to the point of being legally blind and also tongue-tied, which inhibited her speech development, she was never close to her sisters.
An unusual child, she did not speak until she was four years old. As soon as she started speaking, Linda introduced her to the alphabets and very soon she learned to read and write.
From her childhood, Audre loved poetries, memorizing each of them. If she was asked a question, she would find something appropriate, reciting that as her answer. At the same time, argumentative and resentful of her sisters, she was very difficult to deal with. Beating would not straighten her.
Audre began her education first at St. Mark’s School and later at St. Catherine School. The environment in these schools was so racist that the nuns found her braids, typically Afro-American, inappropriate for the school. In fact, they found nothing right with her.
After completing her elementary education, she moved to Hunter College High School for her secondary education. Here she made friends with a group of rebels, meeting Diane di Prima, a fellow student and a budding poet.
Audre wrote her first poem when she was in her eighth grade. In her senior class, she became the editor of the school magazine. During this period, she also participated in John Henrik Clark's Harlem Writers' Guild, learning about Africa from him.
At the age of seventeen, she had her first poem published in ‘Seventeen Magazine’. Written as tribute to her first love, the poem was found to be too advanced for the school magazine.
In 1951, on graduating from school, she entered Hunter College with English literature and philosophy, supporting herself with odd jobs, such as ghost writer, social worker, factory worker, X-ray technician, medical clerk etc. Because of her preoccupations, she took several years to earn her bachelor’s degree.
In 1954, she spent one year, studying at the National University of Mexico. The time spent there was very important to her, as it helped her to affirm her identity both as a poet and a lesbian.
On her return to New York, she rejoined Hunter College, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1959. During this period, she supported herself by working as a librarian. Concurrently, she continued to write and began to participate actively in Greenwich Village’s gay culture.
On receiving her B.A. degree, Audre Lorde entered Columbia University, earning her master’s in library science in 1961. During this period, she supported herself by working as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public library, a position she held until her marriage in 1962.
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While Audre Lorde had been writing poems since the age of fifteen, her career as a poet began to bloom from 1962, when her poetry first appeared in Langston Hughes's ‘New Negro Poets’. Subsequently, she began to have her poems published in number of black literary magazines and foreign anthologies.
In 1965, she joined St. Clare's School of Nursing as a librarian, becoming head librarian at The Town School in the following year and held the position till 1968. All along she continued to publish poems in different journals.
In 1967, Diane di Prima, who studied with her at Hunt Collage High School, urged her to prepare a manuscript for her first book. Entitled, ‘The First Cities’, it was published by Poets Press in 1968. In the same year, she was offered the post of poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College.
The Tougaloo College was a small historically black institution in Mississippi. Although her assignment was for six weeks only, she happily accepted the position, travelling to the deep south for the first time in her life. It was also her first teaching job.
At Tougaloo, she was exposed to a very different experience, the majority of the students were African-Americans. This was also the time when African-American students were becoming militant. During this period, she wrote number of poems, which was published as ‘Cables of Rage’ in 1970.
Her experience at Tougaloo College also made her realize that teaching was a far more satisfying vocation than librarianship. She found it similar to writing poetry, a way of self-expression.
Writing & Teaching
On her return to New York, Audre Lorde joined the City University under the ‘Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge’ program, a pre-baccalaureate course for disadvantaged students. After teaching here for one year, she taught at Lehman College for a brief period.
In 1970, Lorde joined John Jay College of Criminal Justice, under City University New York, as a Professor in English. During this period, she published several books, the first being ‘From a Land Where Other People Live’ (1973). In this volume, she introduced African mythology to express feminine concepts.
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In 1974, she published ‘New York Head Shop and Museum’, a book of poems that has often been characterized as her most radical work. In this work, she took her readers through the visual journey of the city, depicting neglect and poverty that confronts its inhabitants.
In 1976, she published ‘Coal’ and ‘Between Ourselves’. ‘Coal’, her first book to be published by a major publisher, introduced her to a wider readership. Although the book contained many previously published poems it is unique in that it projects different layers of her identity; "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet."
In 1977, she became associated with Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press. In the same year, she underwent a surgery, as she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Later, she also had to undergo mastectomy. She kept detailed journal of her ordeal and published it as ‘The Cancer Journal’ in 1980.
Also in 1977, she gave a speech at the Lesbian and Literature Panel of the Modern Language Association. The speech would later become the first chapter of ‘The Cancer Journal’.
In 1978, she had two more books published; ‘Hanging Fire’ and ‘The Black Unicorn’. Among them, ‘The Black Unicorn’ is believed to be her most complex work. In this volume, Lorde introduces African myths to American readers, based on which she talked about her racial pride, womanhood, motherhood and spirituality.
’The Cancer Journal’, published in 1980 was her first work in prose. In it, she dealt with the Western notion of ailments, physical beauty, fear of death etc. In the same year, she also attended the UN World Women's Conference in Copenhagen.
In 1981, she joined Hunter College, occupying distinguished Thomas Hunter chair. Concurrently she continued teaching at City University. In the same year, she had another of her major works published ‘Uses of the Erotic: the erotic as power'
Continuing to write, she had ‘Zami: A New Spelling of My Name’ published in 1983. It was an autobiography in which she wrote about her life in 1950s, calling it ‘biomythography’.
In 1984, he had ‘Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches’ published. The work, a collection of fifteen essays and speeches from 1976 to 1984, is considered to be one of her most significant works of non-fiction prose, having great influence on the development of feminist theories.
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In 1984, invited by Dagmar Schultz, Audre Lorde started a visiting professorship at the Free University of Berlin, Germany. There she touched the life of many women and men, colored and whites, and also inspired many of them to write. In the same year, she was also diagnosed with liver cancer.
Shortly after being diagnosed with liver cancer, Lorde moved to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, setting up her home in the Judith’s Fancy area. Here, she started on alternate treatment, ignoring the advice of well-known cancer specialists.
Sometime now, Lorde underwent an African naming ceremony, taking up the African name of ‘Gamba Adisa’, thus closely embracing her pan-African identity. Moving closer to it, she likened her cancer cells as the white policemen in South Africa during an interview during this period.
In spite of her ever-progressing disease, she refused to give up, publishing ‘Our Dead Behind Us’ in 1986 and ‘A Burst of Light’ in 1988. Her last volume of poetry, ‘The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems, 1987-1992’, was published posthumously in 1993.
In 1990, together with her partner Gloria I. Joseph, she co-published ‘Hell Under God’s Order’. They also founded several organizations in St. Crux such as the Che Lumumba School for Truth and the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix.
'Coal' is one of Lorde’s most famous works in poetry. Consisting of five sections, the book explores the different layers of her identity; a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. A unique feature of this book is that her anger against racism is not destructive; but has been transformed into ‘self-assertion’.
‘Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches’ is perhaps one of Lorde’s most important prose works. Through this work, she challenged sexism, racism, class, ageism and homophobia; exploring the fear and hatred arising in the marginalized sections of the society such as the African-Americans, lesbians, feminists and even white women.
Awards & Achievements
In 1981, Audre Lorde won the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award for her 1980 book ‘The Cancer Journals’.
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In 1989, she received American Book Award for ‘A Burst of Light’.
In 1992, she received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle.
In 1991, she became the Poet Laureate of New York, remaining so until her death two years later.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1962, Audre Lorde married Edward Ashley Rollins, and had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan, with him.
In 1968, she went alone to Mississippi, where she met Frances Clayton, a white woman. On returning to New York, she decided to end her marriage, divorcing Rollins in 1970.
It is not exactly known when, but when her children were seven and eight, she started a relationship with Frances Clayton, who became her long term live-in lover. Later she partnered with Dr. Gloria I. Joseph, a black feminist icon, spending her last days with her on Joseph’s native island, St. Crux.
On November 17, 1992, Audre Lorde died of liver cancer in St. Crux, at the age of 58. She was then 58 years old.
Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, established in 1983 for providing health care to New York’s LGBTQ population, has been named in her and Michael Callen’s honor.
Aurde Lorde Award was established in 2001.
In 2014, Audre Lorde was inducted into the Legacy Walk of Chicago.