Lorde’s Autobiography Is Published

In her groundbreaking autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, African American writer and poet Audre Lorde reflects upon her childhood experiences in Harlem and upon lesbian life since the postwar period. The book helped to broaden understandings of the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality, and it has been noted for its telling details of lesbian relationships and sexuality.

Summary of Event

Audre Lorde was the daughter of Caribbean immigrants. She graduated from Columbia University and Hunter College, went on to publish more than one dozen books of poetry and prose, and cofounded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press[Kitchen Table Women of Color Press]
Women of Color Press, Kitchen Table: She was active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and promoted throughout her life institutions that celebrated African American culture. Lorde was a strong supporter for gay and lesbian rights and spoke at the first national march on Washington for lesbian and gay liberation, in 1979. She documented her fourteen-year battle against cancer in her award-winning books The Cancer Journals (1980) Cancer Journals, The (Lorde) and A Burst of Light (1988). Burst of Light, A (Lorde)
[kw]Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published (1982)
[kw]Autobiography Zami Is Published, Lorde’s (1982)
[kw]Zami Is Published, Lorde’s Autobiography (1982)
[kw]Published, Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is (1982)
Zami (Lorde)
African Americans;and publishing[publishing]
[c]Publications;1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published[1510]
[c]Literature;1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published[1510]
[c]Race and ethnicity;1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published[1510]
[c]Feminism;1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published[1510]
[c]Civil rights;1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published[1510]
Lorde, Audre

The cover of Lorde’s Zami (1982).

(The Crossing Press)

Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) opens in Harlem Harlem, New York, in literature during the Great Depression. Her colorful descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of 142nd Street re-create Upper Manhattan’s vibrant mix of traditions and cultures from a child’s perspective. Many of the book’s early chapters are set in the apartment of Lorde’s Caribbean immigrant parents. Lorde’s mother, a powerful, private woman, maintained strong ties to the Caribbean island, Carriacou, where she was born, through her cooking, dress, mannerisms, and values. Her mother’s nostalgia for home, a far-off place Lorde had not been to before writing Zami, drove Lorde’s search for a home to call her own.

For much of her childhood, Lorde had felt like an outsider. She had not been close to her sisters, and her vision problems (she was considered legally blind when not wearing her glasses) and skin color kept her mostly white, Catholic schoolmates from accepting her. The larger societal structures of discrimination rooted in pre-civil rights America echo throughout Lorde’s retelling of her personal struggles for acceptance. The young Lorde’s anger at a waitress’s refusal to serve ice cream to her vacationing family at a cafe in Washington, D.C., helped to lay the foundation for her activism as an adult.

By high school, Lorde began to develop meaningful friendships and started to understand the importance of other women in her emotional, spiritual, and physical life. Her close relationship with Gennie, a free-spirited but troubled girl, ended tragically; the wounds resulting from this friendship discouraged Lorde from establishing an intimate bond with another person for quite some time.

Lorde’s desire for independence and her ongoing search for identity informed her decision to leave home in her late teens. Independence came at a cost; Lorde worked hard to survive on the income generated from low-paying, back-breaking jobs. While her economic situation did not allow her much freedom, Lorde experienced her most mature and fulfilling relationship at this time in her life with a coworker, Ginger. Lorde gained confidence through this short-lived romance, which helped her to come to terms with, then celebrate, her lesbian sexuality.

Lorde’s growing disillusionment with the United States during the McCarthy era led her to Mexico, where she joined a group of like-minded, though more experienced, expatriates in the bohemian city of Cuernavaca. Her relationship with an older woman, Eudora, exposed her naïveté but also deepened her understanding of the skills necessary to make a relationship work.

For the remainder of the book, Lorde recounts her perceptions of the private parties and public haunts frequented by 1950’s-era lesbians in New York. She entered into her most committed relationship with a schizophrenic woman named Muriel, a relationship notable for its devastating lows and its triumphant highs. The final relationship explored in the book, Lorde’s love affair with an African American woman named Afrekete, brought Lorde’s life to full circle and back to Harlem.

In the epilogue, Lorde explains the meaning of the book’s title. She ended her search for identity by renaming herself Zami, a Carriacou name for “women who work together as friends and lovers.”


Zami helped broaden the scope of second-wave feminist discourse through its open discussion of the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Lorde’s firsthand account of the discrimination she faced in a racist and homophobic United States brought to light the need for a more nuanced discussion of difference within the often monolithic women’s movement.

On the one hand, Lorde’s Zami stands out for its celebration of lesbian relationships; the love between two women had rarely been described in such intimate and loving detail. On the other hand, Lorde does not shy away from critique in the book. For example, she exposes the roots of alcoholism within the lesbian community, a symptom of the self-loathing directly attributable to an atmosphere of intolerance. In addition, she frankly discusses the racial insensitivity of the mostly white lesbian community of lower Manhattan. Finally, Lorde candidly explores her discomfort with the butch/femme lesbian aesthetic, which she suggests only reconfirms gender stereotypes.

Lorde’s exploration of the African American lesbian experience encouraged several other women of color to follow her lead and publish their own “biomythographies” in the 1980’s. One such book is Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) by Mexican American lesbian author Gloria Anzaldúa.

Lorde’s work continues to inspire women around the world. The existence of several grass-roots organizations, such as the Atlanta-based Zami, an organization for lesbians of African descent, and the same-named Zami, based in Washington, D.C., an informal discussion and social group for black lesbians, bisexuals, and other women exploring their sexuality, demonstrates the powerful impact of Lorde’s work. Zami (Lorde)
African Americans;and publishing[publishing]

Further Reading

  • De Veaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.
  • Hall, Joan Wylie, ed. Conversations with Audre Lorde. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
  • Lorde, Audre. A Burst of Light: Essays. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1988.
  • _______. The Cancer Journals. Argyle, N.Y.: Spinsters Ink, 1980.
  • _______. I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1985.
  • _______.Undersong: Chosen Poems, Old and New. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.
  • _______. Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. New York: Out & Out Books, 1978.
  • _______. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1982.

November 7, 1972: Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the South

1975: Gay American Indians Is Founded

1975-1983: Gay Latino Alliance Is Formed

April, 1977: Combahee River Collective Issues “A Black Feminist Statement”

November 18-21, 1977: National Women’s Conference Convenes

October 12-15, 1979: First National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference Convenes

October 12-15, 1979: Lesbian and Gay Asian Collective Is Founded

1981: This Bridge Called My Back Is Published

October, 1981: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press Is Founded

September, 1983: First National Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes

1986: Paula Gunn Allen Publishes The Sacred Hoop

1987: Anzaldúa Publishes Borderlands/La Frontera

1987: Compañeras: Latina Lesbians Is Published

1990: United Lesbians of African Heritage Is Founded