American Literature Audre Lorde
by
Emily Ruth Rutter
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0250

Introduction

Born in Harlem to Caribbean immigrant parents, Audrey Geraldine Lorde (b. 1934–d. 1992) dropped the “y” on her first name early in her career so that her printed name achieved poetic symmetry; late in her career, Lorde also adopted Gamba Adisa (meaning warrior: she who makes her meaning clear) in an African naming ceremony. A self-proclaimed “Black lesbian feminist mother warrior poet,” Lorde refused to privilege one part of her experience at the expense of another, embracing the multiple aspects of her being and self. Her professional achievements include being a co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first press operated by and expressly for women of color, poetry editor for the influential feminist quarterly Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture, a longtime professor at both John Jay College for Criminal Justice and Hunter College, New York poet laureate (1991–1992), and mentor and namesake in Hunter College’s Audre Lorde Women’s Poetry Center. Perhaps most importantly, Lorde had a profound impact on the landscape of American poetry, Black feminist praxis, and the literature of illness and healing. Before the term was coined, Lorde was practicing the art of the auto-theoretical text, braiding the personal, theoretical, and political, in her prose and poetry alike. As an artist-activist, Lorde also engaged in a range of interconnected struggles for liberation. During the 1960s and 70s, she was part of the movements for civil rights, lesbian and gay rights, and women’s rights. She was a staunch Black feminist, and collaborated with the Combahee River Collective and ThirdWorld and postcolonial feminist activists and writers. She advocated for the establishment of a Black Studies department at John Jay College, for educational equity at City College of New York, and against institutionalized racism in New York City public schools. As she battled cancer in the last decade of her life, Lorde turned her attention to health-care inequities and environmental injustices while continuing to militate against systemic racism, drawing connections between racial apartheid in South Africa and similar racial hierarchies in the United States and across the African diaspora. Indeed, whether living in the United States, Europe, or the Caribbean, Lorde’s activism and community work were never separated from her prose and poetry but instead the fulcrum around which her writing pivoted. The thread that best characterizes Lorde’s capacious corpus is her steadfast refusal of the “master’s tools,” or the doxas that serve to divide and conquer and, therefore, stymie coalition-building and progressive change.

Reference Works

Davis 2019 succinctly describes Lorde’s coming of age as a poet as well as her legacy as a social justice writer and thinker, Kattau 2009 offers an overview of Lorde’s biography and career and contextualizes her corpus within the context of LGBTQ+ writing and activism, and Homans 2008 provides a detailed sketch of Lorde’s marriage of art and politics, including salient analyses of her writing.

  • Davis, Amanda. “Lorde, Audre (1934–1992).” In African American Literature: An Encyclopedia for Students. Edited by Hans A. Ostrom Jr. and David Macey Jr., 225–228. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    Traces the development of Lorde’s identity and sociopolitical perspective as a nearsighted child of Caribbean immigrants in Harlem to an iconic Black feminist poet, activist, and thinker.

  • Homans, Margaret. “Audre Lorde.” In African American Writers: June Jordan to Richard Wright. Edited by Valerie Smith, 517–532. New York: Scribner’s, 2008.

    Offers a comprehensive account of Lorde’s life and work, including her sustained commitment to forging “connections across social boundaries, while accepting and even celebrating real differences” (p. 517). This overview also emphasizes the inseparability of art and sociopolitical protest for Lorde and draws supporting examples from her poetry, prose, and interviews. Originally published in 2001.

  • Kattau, Colleen. “Lorde, Audre (1934–1992).” In Encyclopedia of Contemporary LGBTQ Literature of the United States. Vol. 1. Edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, 389–392. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.

    Provides a salient overview of Lorde’s writing and enduring impact on contemporary writers and activists, particularly in regard to her sustained emphasis on reclaiming feeling and self-knowledge as necessary for resisting hegemonic forces and empowering the collective.

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