• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Spotlight: Audre Lorde

ByRabbie Thorne

Aug 3, 2023
Image of Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde: self-described “black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, mother, warrior, poet”. 

It’s fair to say Lorde knew thyself. Self-actualisation was at the heart of her life’s work, from her upbringing in Depression-era New York to her death in 1992. A pioneer of intersectional feminism decades before the term was coined, Lorde redefined US literature beyond narrow categories of genre or demographic. She was not a women’s writer, black writer, or gay writer: she was all the above. Black. Lesbian. Feminist. Socialist. Mother. Warrior. Poet.

Her life’s work as an activist and free verse poet was far-reaching for her time. To get the most comprehensive view of Lorde’s artistry and beliefs, I’d recommend picking up a copy of Sister Outsider: an anthology of essays, speeches, and journals from the previous 20 years of her career. It followed eight poetry collections and a memoir in which the artist found, affirmed, and reaffirmed her voice and appeared midway through her 14-year battle with breast cancer.

Some of Lorde’s most famous political and artistic endure in Sister Outsider’s pages. Any student of liberation theory will know her famous adage, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, critiquing the replication of racial hierarchies within the USA’s feminist movement. Her essays, Poetry is Not a Luxury and Uses of the Erotic, expand the role of art within activism: the former highlighting the fundamental need for self-expression in emancipation, the latter her view of “the Erotic” not in a patriarchal, “pornographic” sense, but as a spiritual resource of creation and reproduction (echoing Freud).

Against pressures of social injustice, Lorde’s first outlet was poetry. She recalled expressing herself to others as a child through the poems she read before writing her own from age 12. Her debut collection, The First Cities, appeared in 1968 after regular appearances in black literary magazines throughout the 60s.  

Testament to her webbed identity and philosophy of activism, African American literary critic Dudley Randall described Lorde in The First Cities as “not wav[ing] a black flag, but her blackness is there, implicit, in the bone”. While her poetry grew angrier and more direct after moving to Mississippi to help underprivileged black youths (the same year a white supremacist shot MLK dead), Lorde’s race was never the defining feature of her identity or work. She declared, “I am defined as other in every group I’m part of”.

Lorde’s activism was her self-expression and lived experience. Her poetry, written in first-person, fast-flowing free verse, succinctly expresses her beliefs. Her lifelong desire to reclaim the alienated aspects of her identity appears as she laces through each poem elements from her autobiography: places, events, and people as illustrative of who she was and what she stood for.

Her imagery was often violent, reflecting the brutality against black, queer, and women’s communities she witnessed in her lifetime, as in this excerpt from Power (1978):

I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds

and a dead child dragging his shattered black

face off the edge of my sleep

blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders

is the only liquid for miles

Through three decades of her poetry, anger was a unifying theme. Lorde recognised it as a gift to marginalised peoples, declaring in a speech to white New England feminists in 1981: “My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also”. She viewed anger as a direct response to grief which could, if expressed, prompt change, and distinguished it from ‘hatred’, which she associated with “death and destruction”.

While most famous for her overtly political essays and poetry, Lorde’s more understated work is among her most powerful. That is precisely because it demonstrates the humanity she fought for in other pieces. 

Rarely are her poems ‘happy’, but one, titled “Love Poem”, gives a glimpse into her private life. It recounts a romantic encounter with an unnamed woman. Lorde did not come out as a lesbian until after her father died and after moving far from home to study in Mexico. She did not have an extended relationship with a woman until her mid-30s, after marrying (and divorcing) a man and birthing two children. Yet her love for love, and for life itself, appeared perfectly here:

Speak earth and bless me with what is richest

make sky flow honey out of my hips

rigid as mountains

spread over a valley

carved out by the mouth of rain.

And I knew when I entered her I was

high wind in her forests hollow

fingers whispering sound

honey flowed

from the split cup

impaled on a lance of tongues

on the tips of her breasts on her navel

and my breath

howling into her entrances

through lungs of pain.

Greedy as herring-gulls

or a child

I swing out over the earth

over and over

again.

Through her anger and love, Audre Lorde’s work will continue to endure. 

Image: Audre Lorde” by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.