Authors: Audre Lorde

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and memoirist

Identity: African American, gay or bisexual

Author Works

Poetry:

The First Cities, 1968

Cables to Rage, 1970

From a Land Where Other People Live, 1973

New York Head Shop and Museum, 1974

Between Our Selves, 1976

Coal, 1976

The Black Unicorn, 1978

Chosen Poems, Old and New, 1982 (revised as Undersong: Chosen Poems, Old and New, 1992)

A Comrade Is as Precious as a Rice Seedling, 1984

Our Dead Behind Us, 1986

Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices, 1990

The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems, 1987-1992, 1993

The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, 1997

Nonfiction:

Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, 1978

The Cancer Journals, 1980

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, 1982

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 1984

I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities, 1985

Apartheid U.S.A., 1986

A Burst of Light: Essays, 1988

The Audre Lorde Compendium: Essays, Speeches, and Journals, 1996

Biography

Audre Lorde died just as she was writing her best poetry. A brief review of the titles of her works indicates much about her life and her writing, for the two were inextricably bound. Lorde was one of the first women in the United States to admit honestly to all of her “affiliations,” as she sometimes would wryly call them. She was a mother but also a feminist and a lesbian. She was part African American and part German. She was an educated woman who had grown up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, although she was too young to remember its writers or events personally.{$I[AN]9810001738}{$I[A]Lorde, Audre}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Lorde, Audre}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Lorde, Audre}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Lorde, Audre}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Lorde, Audre}{$I[tim]1934;Lorde, Audre}

Audre Lorde

(Ingmar Schullz/Courtesy, W. W. Norton)

All these affiliations and events were to affect her writing, in addition to the one event that Lorde thought of absolute importance to her and her friends, and those who read her work. She was a cancer survivor, or at least she was for most of her last thirteen years. Her autobiographical The Cancer Journals were written at a time when cancer was still considered one’s private illness, and certainly no African American had written what it was like to have breast cancer, to take treatments, to be scared, and to go through a ritual scarification of her body. No woman, moreover, had testified to these truths with the precise lucidity of Lorde’s slim volume. Unfortunately, the book was brought out by a small press (perhaps because of its content), so its initial circulation was limited. It went out of print and stayed that way until 1997, five years after Lorde’s death as a result of the cancer.

As any of her books testify, Lorde was a stubborn woman, but a sensitive one. The same woman who wrote beautiful poetry could swear down a room full of men who ignored the needs of women. Through her own willpower, Lorde fought to get out of Harlem, but she always believed that black people needed to hear her, so she stayed in New York her whole life.

The causes that emerged from and contributed to her life became her life. In a sense, Lorde’s battle with cancer was nothing compared to her battle with men: her battle to be recognized as a woman and then to be granted legitimacy as a lesbian woman. It was equally important to Lorde to be granted legitimacy as a responsible parent, and she fought for these causes personally and in her writing.

Lorde’s greatest poetry is included in The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, written in her declining years and published soon after her death, and in A Burst of Light, published five years before she died. Both books display a transcendent awareness of Lorde’s place in the world and the place in the world of all people. The former book garnered quiet accolades from Alice Walker and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994. After A Burst of Light was published, a feisty Lorde was named New York State Poet in 1991.

Lorde did not apply for grants, fellowships, and awards. She believed that her calling was to write to and for the people of the world. Her poems in The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance are for civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, about Berlin, “the politics of addiction,” peace, and her own lovers. The volume includes the moving, beautiful poem “Today Is Not the Day” (to die)–even though Lorde defers to its coming. The poem is a lyrical masterpiece.

In her declining years, Lorde lived with performance artist and poet Pat Parker. Parker wrote of these times as memorable; obviously Lorde was able to redouble her efforts against cancer through the help of Parker.

Throughout her career, Lorde concentrated on writing: From a Land Where Other People Live is a polemic; Chosen Poems, Old and New came about because a publisher wanted a volume of selected poems; Sister Outsider makes clear where Lorde thinks women, particularly lesbian women, fit in American culture; and Apartheid U.S.A. expresses Lorde’s attitude toward the system of government in South Africa at that time (before the end of apartheid) and how the situation in the United States was little more enlightened. The latter volume focuses on separation, as many of Lorde’s works do, but here the distinction is not between men and women but between the races. Half German, Lorde often did not see herself as African American, but it was equally hard for her to see herself as white in the Germanic sense. She always seemed more comfortable being herself–with all that meant in terms of racial, sexual, gender, and artistic identities.

BibliographyAvi-Ram, Amitai F. “Apo Koinou in Lorde and the Moderns: Defining the Differences.” Callaloo 9 (Winter, 1986): 193-208. Apo koinou comes from a Greek phrase meaning “in common.” This original and ambitious essay discusses the uses of eroticism and the importance of a political consciousness in Lorde’s work.Bloom, Harold, ed. Black American Women Poets and Dramatists. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.Brooks, Jerome. “In the Name of the Father: The Poetry of Audre Lorde.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984. This brief chapter deals with a topic to which Lorde gives little direct attention in her own essays–the death of her father. It is a useful analysis of a focused topic that clarifies the meaning of some of the poems in which the figure of the father appears.De Veaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Lorde’s childhood in Harlem, literary career, and her battle with breast cancer are detailed in this first biography of the renowned poet.Dilworth, Thomas. “Lorde’s ‘Power.’” The Explicator 57, no. 1 (Fall, 1998): 54-57. Examines the complex imagery in Audre Lorde’s poem “Power,” found in her collection titled The Black Unicorn. He argues that the poem is more than an expressive, rhetorical piece–it is a work of art.Hull, Gloria T. “Living on the Line: Audre Lorde and Our Dead Behind Us.” In Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, edited by Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. A thoughtful essay on one of Lorde’s collections of poetry. While it refers to some contemporary critical theory, it is an engaging and accessible study that traces the trajectory of Lorde’s work. Hull also assesses various critical reviews of the collection.Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco, Calif.: Aunt Lute Books, 1997. A new edition with posthumous tributes from other writers and poets added to Lorde’s autobiographical exploration of her breast cancer and mastectomy.Lorde, Audre. “Sadomasochism: Not About Condemnation.” Interview by Susan Leigh Star. In A Burst of Light: Essays, by Lorde. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1988. Lorde talks energetically about her sexuality, setting the discussion in the context of her life’s work. This interview is the first in a series of private meditations centered on her bouts with cancer.Olson, Lester C. “Liabilities of Language: Audre Lorde Reclaiming Difference.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 84, no. 4 (November, 1998): 448-470. Distortions around the naming and the misnaming of human differences are the central foci of Lorde’s speech “Age, Race, Class, Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” which she delivered at Amherst College in 1980.Opitz, May, Katharine Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz, eds. Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out. Translated by Anne V. Adams. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Addresses Lorde’s exploration of her “white” side and what it meant to her. The best book to explore Lorde’s complexity–and confusion–as a person.Parker, Pat. Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker. Oakland, Calif.: Diana Press, 1978. Parker reveals much about Lorde’s moments of militancy and her association with other African Americans. A different and very interesting view of the poet.Perreault, Jeanne. Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. Devotes considerable space to Lorde. Lorde championed so many causes that one might forget that she was, first and foremost, a feminist, and Perreault speaks eloquently to that side of her.
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