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New York State Poet Laureate, Audre Lorde, the Mother of Intersectional Feminism

Happy Black History Month! For each of the 28 days of February, we at The Mary Sue will have a post about a black woman you should know about—some you may have heard of, some a little bit more obscure, and some fictional who still deserve a lot of love. 

audre lorde

(Credit: K. Kendall on VisualHunt )

Day Twenty-Three: Audre Lorde

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” –Audre Lorde.

Lorde was born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants parents who settled in Harlem. She was born Audrey Geraldine Lorde,  but she chose to drop the “y” from her first name while still a child, explaining in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name that she was more interested in the artistic symmetry of the “e”-endings in the two side-by-side names. I think Anne Shirley would have appreciated that argument.

Lorde’s relationship with her parents was difficult, especially because of colorism. In particular, Lorde notes her own relationship with her mother, who was “deeply suspicious” of black people with darker skin than hers, Lorde herself was darker than her mother. In fact, the only reason that Lorde’s father was “allowed” to marry his wife, despite being darker than her family would have preferred, was because of his charm and ambition. Lorde’s mother herself was light enough to pass for white.

In 1954, Lorde spends a year at the National University of Mexico, where she came to confirm herself identity as both a lesbian and poet while beginning to craft a writing style that explored what those identities meant.

In 1977, Lorde became an associate of the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP). WIFP is an American nonprofit publishing organization. She did this while also teaching at Lehman College from 1969 to 1970, then as a professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice from 1970 to 1981. During her time there she fought for the creation of a black studies department and then in 1981, she went on to teach at her alma mater, Hunter College.

In 1981, Lorde was among the originators of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, which was an organization dedicated to assisting women who have survived sexual abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV). In the late 1980s, she helped establish Sisterhood in Support of Sisters (SISA) in South Africa to help black women who were affected by apartheid and other forms of injustice.

Within her academic work, 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”

Lorde considered herself a “lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and used her poetry as a way to express all of the different ways her identity intersected within the world.

Lorde’s poetry became more exposed and personal as she grew and became more confident in her sexuality. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Lorde states, “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.”

The Cancer Journals (1980)and A Burst of Light (1988) both reflect on Lorde’s breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. Lorde deals with Western notions of illness, treatment, and physical beauty and prosthesis, as well as themes of death, fear of mortality, victimization versus survival, and inner power. Lorde’s novel Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), described as a “biomythography,” chronicles the evolution of Lorde’s sexuality and self-awareness through childhood to maturity.

Lorde identified issues of class, race, age, gender, and health as being fundamental to the female experience. She argued that, although differences in gender have received all the focus, it is essential that these other differences are also recognized and addressed. That ideaology is the root of intersectional feminism as we have come to know it today.

Her focus on these different identities would lead to her having conflicts with notable white feminists. In her crucial essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde attacked racist white feminism: “If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of color?”

Lorde even vocally critiqued womanism because of its failure to explicitly address homosexuality within the black female community. According to Lorde’s essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” “the need for unity is often misnamed as a need for homogeneity.” She writes, “A fear of lesbians, or of being accused of being a lesbian, has led many Black women into testifying against themselves.”

From 1991 until her death, she was the New York State Poet Laureate. In 1992, she received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle. In 2001, Publishing Triangle instituted the Audre Lorde Award to honor works of lesbian poetry.

Lorde died of liver cancer at age 58 on November 17, 1992, in St. Croix.  In an African naming ceremony before her death, she took the name Gamba Adisa, which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.”

Recommended Reading: 
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – A Biomythography (Crossing Press Feminist Series)
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press Feminist Series)
This Bridge Called My Back, Fourth Edition: Writings by Radical Women of Color by Cherríe Moraga

(image: K. Kendall on VisualHunt )

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