Audre Lorde, born Audrey Geraldine Lorde on 18 February, 1934 was a lesbian activist, human rights activist, a teacher, writer, and poet. A genuine crusader against civil and social injustices, her work helped to open up conversations about racism, sexism, sexuality, and class–those issues too uncomfortable to address.
Lorde, a Caribbean-American from Harlem, was the youngest of three daughters. She began writing poetry at the age of twelve, inspired by poets such as Keats and Helene Margaret. As the first Black student at Hunter High School for intellectually gifted girls, she worked on the school newspaper, and in 1951 her first poem, “Spring” was published in Seventeen Magazine. During her high school years, Lorde became keenly aware of racial difference, but thankfully, she did forge strong bonds with other girls who wrote poetry. It was in her teen years at Hunter High that Lorde’s sense of her own sexuality emerged through various crushes on female peers and teachers.
After graduation she attended Hunter College. Lorde surrounded herself with leftist thinkers and lesbian friends, and became a member of the Harlem Writers Guild, though she struggled to find her sense of belonging. She became intensely politicized in 1953 by the trial and execution of a friend’s parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. That same year, her father died of a stroke. Seeking refuge from homophobic leftists and anti-communist sentiment, Lorde left for Mexico. She lived as an out lesbian amongst expatriates and other lesbian leftists. Her time in Mexico allowed her to experience a richer racial identity, and for the first time in her life, Lorde felt real acceptance. She returned to New York in 1954 with a new voice, and went on to study at Columbia University. She continued to explore her sexuality, maintaining lesbian and bisexual identities.
In 1962, she entered into an interracial marriage with Edwin Rollins; they had two children between 1963 and 1964. Lorde began to identify strongly with the civil rights movement, and attended the 1963 March on Washington. Several of her poems were also published that year. In 1964 Lorde was included in an anthology, New Negro Poets, USA, which was edited by Langston Hughes. In 1968, Lorde took a teaching position at Tougaloo College, where she inspired a new generation of Black poets. While at Tougaloo, Lorde fell in love with a woman named Frances Clayton, with whom Lorde and her children built a family life. It was this relationship with Clayton that facilitated the end of Lorde’s troubled marriage to Rollins.
As a lecturer in 1970, Lorde spoke to diverse student bodies about the interlocking identities of race, gender, and class with history and culture. in 1977, she took on the poetry editor position at Chrysalis, a feminist publication. Lorde provided criticisms for her feminist peers, and illuminated racism and homophobia present in the feminist movement.
Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978, and underwent a mastectomy. The identity of “cancer survivor” inspired a new perspective of her work; she placed greater emphasis on her theory of difference. She participated in the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979, and used her theory of difference to establish the fight for gay rights as part of the greater fight against all oppressive forces. Lorde became the best known Black radical lesbian feminist. In 1985, she was honored with the dedication of the Audre Lorde Women’s Poetry Center at Hunter College.
In 1985, Lorde was diagnosed with liver cancer. By 1988, Lorde’s seventeen year relationship with Clayton had ended. The remaining six years of Lorde’s life were spent in St. Croix; she passed away on 17 November, 1992. Her ashes were scattered in the Caribbean, Germany, and the United States.
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