Audre Lorde's Life and Career Essay

Audre Lorde S Life And Career Essay

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Beverly Threatt Kulii (BK), Ann E. Reuman (AR),
and Ann Trapasso (AT)

American writer Audre Lorde names herself as "a black feminist lesbian mother poet" ;because her identity is based on the relationship of many divergent perspectives once perceived as incompatible. Thematically, she expresses or explores pride, love, anger, fear, racial and sexual oppression, urban neglect, and personal survival. Moreover, she eschews a hope for a better humanity by revealing truth in her poetry. She states, "I feel have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain." ;Lorde was a prolific writer who continually explored the marginalizations experienced by individuals in a society fearful of differences. (BK)

Recognizing that "imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness" ;(The Cancer Journals, 1980), Audre Lorde claimed and celebrated all of her selves in order that others could come to find their own voices. Her poetry and prose demonstrate that we need not be afraid of difference, that difference can be a creative force for change. At the forefront of black feminist thought, her work has contributed to an analysis of the interlocking nature of all oppression. As activist and poet, she worked to challenge and transform power relations. (AT)

Audrey Geraldine Lorde was born in New York City to laborer Frederic Byron and Linda Belmar Lorde, immigrants from the West Indies who had hoped to return until the depression dashed their plans. (BK)

The third and youngest daughter of Linda Gertrude Belmar and Frederic Byron Lorde, Audre Geraldine was born tongue-tied and so nearsighted that she was considered legally blind. She grew up in Harlem during the Depression, hearing her mother's stories about the West Indies. She learned to talk while she learned to read, at the age of four. Her mother taught her to write during this time and Audre "did not like the tail of the Y hanging down below the line in Audrey" ;and so would omit it ;she "love[d] the evenness of AUDRELORDE" ;(Zami, 1982). This early incident reveals the importance of naming and self-definition to Lorde, themes that she develops in her later writings.

Influenced by her mother's "special and secret relationship with words" ;(Zami), Audre appreciated poetry and used it to communicate with others. She said: "Words had an energy and power and I came to respect that power early. Pronouns, nouns, and verbs were citizens of different countries, who really got together to make a new world" ;(Karla M. Hammond, Denver Quarterly, Spring 1981). If asked how she was feeling, Audre would reply by reciting a poem. When the poems could no longer express what she wanted to say, at about age twelve or thirteen, she began to write her own. Her poetry was "very important to [her] in terms of survival, in terms of living" ;(Hammond, Denver Quarterly). She explained, "I loved poetry, and I loved words. But what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That's the beginning of social protest" ;(Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work, 1983). She saw this tradition of confronting pain and learning from it as particularly African and manifest in the best African-American literature.

Educated at Catholic grammar schools, she faced "patronizing" ;racism at St. Mark's School and "downright hostile" ;racism at St. Catherine's School (Zami). At Hunter High School she found a "lifeline" ;in a "sisterhood of rebels" ;who were also poets. (AT)

She wrote her first poem when she was in the eighth grade. Rebelling at the isolation and strict rules of her parents, she befriended others at Hunter High School who were also viewed as outcasts. (BK)

Writing poetry no longer felt like "a secret and rebellious vice" ;but "an ordinary effort" ;(Zami). She became literary editor of the school arts magazine and her first love poem was published in Seventeen. (AT)

After graduating from high school, she attended Hunter College from 1954 to 1959, graduating with a bachelors degree. While studying library science, Lorde supported herself working various odd jobs: factory worker, ghost writer, social worker, X-ray technician, medical clerk, and arts and crafts supervisor. In 1954, she spent a pivotal year as a student at the National University of Mexico, a period described by Lorde as a time of affirmation and renewal because she confirmed her identity on personal and artistic levels as a lesbian and poet. On her return to New York, Lorde went to college, worked as a librarian, continued writing, and became an active participant in the gay culture of Greenwich Village. Lorde furthered her education at Columbia University, earning a master’s degree in library science in 1961. During this time she also worked as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library and marred attorney Edward Ashley Rollins ;they later divorced in 1970 after having two children, Elizabeth and Johnathan. In 1966, Lorde became head librarian at Town School Library in New York City where she remained until 1968. (BK)

Lorde’s poetry was published regularly during the 1960s: in Langston Hughes's 1962 New Negro Poets, USA, in several foreign anthologies, and in black literary magazines. During this time she was politically active in the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements. (AT)

A turning point for Lorde was the year 1968. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and in spring of 1968 she became poet in residence at Tougaloo College, a small historically black institution in Mississippi. Her experiences as both teacher and writer of poetry virtually changed Lorde's life. (BK)

She discovered that teaching is similar to writing: "Both became ways of exploring what I need for survival" ;(Tate, Black Women Writers at Work). At Tougaloo she met her companion of many years, Frances Clayton. (AT)

Her first volume of poetry, The First Cities (1968), was published by the Poet's Press and edited by Diane di Prima, a former classmate and friend from Hunter High School. This volume was cited as an innovative and refreshing rhetorical departure from the confrontational tone prevalent in African American poetry at the time. Dudley Randall, fellow poet and critic, asserted in his review of the book that "[Lorde] does not wave a black flag, but her blackness is there, implicit, in the bone." ;Lorde's second volume, Cables to Rage (1970), which was mainly written during her tenure at Tougaloo, addresses themes of love, betrayal, childbirth, and the complexities of raising children. It is particularly noteworthy for the poem "Martha" ;in which Lorde poetically confirms her homosexuality: "we shall love each other here if ever at all." ;(BK)

Her experience as a poet in residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi (her first trip to the Deep South, her first workshop situation with young African American students, her first time away from her children) and the circumstances that followed her stay there (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Robert Kennedy's death, a close friend's accident) made her see the shortness of life and the necessity for immediate action. The pieces in her second volume of poetry reflect this urgency and the function, for Lorde, of art to protest if not change destructive social patterns.

Rooted in her anger at the racism and sexism that have marked the history of the United States, the poems in Cables to Rage introduced themes that carried through much of Lorde's work: violence, hunger, cloaks of lies, dishonest silences, struggle for voice, faith in the capacity to love, growth through dreams, desperate hope and defiance amid dying and loss, and painful birthing. Recurrent in these poems are images of shedding and of fiery renewal: obsolete or false coverings (snakeskin, cocoon, weeds, dead poems) must be stripped and discarded so that the new can grow. While many African American poets of her time focused on black nationalism and urban realism, Lorde placed relationships amid global concerns and gave voice to what many had rejected, hidden, or ignored. "Martha," ;for instance, Lorde's first overtly lesbian poem to be published and the longest piece in the volume, was strategically centered in Cables to Rage. A writer who saw herself in relational dialogue with the rest of the world, Lorde explained that her work owed much to her ancestors, to the love and support of women, and to African and African American artists, and she insisted in her poetry and prose that without community, coalition across differences, and freedom from all oppression, there is no true liberation at all. (AR)

Her next volume of poetry, From A Land Where Other People Live (1973), was published by Broadside Press. There exists obvious personal and poetic growth in her expanding thematic scope and vision of worldwide injustice and oppression. Her subtle anger is fully developed yet she addresses other important concerns: the complexities surrounding her existence as an African American and as a woman, mother, lover, and friend. Anger, terror, loneliness, love, and impatience illuminate the pages of From a Land Where Other People Live as Lorde's personal experiences have now become universal. This volume was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry in 1973.


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