Audre Lorde (born Audrey Geraldine Lorde, February 18, 1934 – November 17, 1992) was a Caribbean-American writer, radical feminist, womanist, and civil rights activist.
Lorde was born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants from Barbados and Carriacou, Frederick Byron Lorde (called Byron) and Linda Gertrude Belmar Lorde, who settled in Harlem. Nearsighted to the point of being legally blind, and the youngest of three daughters (her sisters being named Phyllis and Helen), Audre Lorde grew up hearing her mother’s stories about the West Indies. She learned to talk while she learned to read, at the age of four, and her mother taught her to write at around the same time. She wrote her first poem when she was in eighth grade.
Lorde focused her discussion of difference not only on differences between groups of women but between conflicting differences within the individual. “I am defined as other in every group I’m part of”, she declared. “The outsider, both strength and weakness. Yet without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression.”She described herself both as a part of a “continuum of women”and a “concert of voices” within herself.
Her conception of her many layers of selfhood is replicated in the multi-genres of her work. Critic Carmen Birkle wrote: “Her multicultural self is thus reflected in a multicultural text, in multi-genres, in which the individual cultures are no longer separate and autonomous entities but melt into a larger whole without losing their individual importance”. Her refusal to be placed in a particular category, whether social or literary, was characteristic of her determination to come across as an individual rather than a stereotype.
Lorde considered herself a “lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and used poetry to get this message across. Her main goal was to empower black people and lesbians and to encourage everyone to be comfortable in their own skin. In 1968, Lorde published The First Cities, her first volumes of poems that has been described as a “quiet, introspective book,” focusing mainly on personal issues and feelings.
Lorde’s poetry became more open and personal as she grew older and became more confident in her sexuality. Lorde states in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought … As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring ideas.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, also elaborates Lorde’s challenge to European-American traditions. Her feelings, expressed in interviews as well as her output speak to various audiences such as African-Americans, women, and lesbians. Poems in Cables to Rage, is thought to include Lorde’s her first openly lesbian poem.
Lorde criticised feminists of the 1960s for focusing on the particular experiences and values of white middle-class women. Her writings are based on the “theory of difference”, the idea that the binary opposition between men and women is overly simplistic: although feminists have found it necessary to present the illusion of a solid, unified whole, the category of women itself is full of subdivisions.
Lorde identified issues of class, race, age, gender and even health, this last was added as she battled cancer in her later years, as being fundamental to the female experience. She argued that, although the gender difference has received all the focus, these other differences are also essential and must be recognised and addressed. “Lorde”, it is written, “puts her emphasis on the authenticity of experience. She wants her difference acknowledged but not judged; she does not want to be subsumed into the one general category of ‘woman'”. This theory is today known as intersectionality.
While acknowledging that the differences between women are wide and varied, most of Lorde’s works are concerned with two subsets that concerned her primarily — race and sexuality. In Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson’s documentary A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, Lorde says, “Let me tell you first about what it was like being a Black woman poet in the ‘60s, from jump. It meant being invisible. It meant being really invisible. It meant being doubly invisible as a Black feminist woman and it meant being triply invisible as a Black lesbian and feminist.” Lorde observes that black women’s experiences are different from those of white women, and that, because the experience of the white woman is considered normative, the black woman’s experiences are marginalised; similarly, the experiences of the lesbian (and, in particular, the black lesbian) are considered aberrational, not in keeping with the true heart of the feminist movement. Although they are not considered normative, Lorde argues that these experiences are nevertheless valid and feminist.
Lorde died on November 17, 1992, in St. Croix (where she had been living with Gloria I. Joseph), of liver cancer, though she dealt with a 14-year struggle with breast cancer. She was 58. In her own words, Lorde was a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” In an African naming ceremony before her death, she took the name Gambda Adisa, which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known”.