Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde

(1934-1992)

DJ Name: DJ Lordy Lorde

Happy Pride Month! This week, we’re celebrating a woman who described herself as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Quite the list! As a Black queer woman in white academia, Audre put pen to paper to take down injustices of sexism, classism, racism and other -isms — all in ABAB rhyme scheme. And other rhyme schemes, too. Her contributions to feminist theory, critical race studies and queer theory are immeasurable, and she was key to many liberation movements. When she wasn’t teaching or writing poetry, she listened to poetry set to beats, which some people call music. As we learn about her nearly 60 years of life, you can shuffle up her playlist of favorite poems set to boppin’ beats:

Audre Lorde was born Audrey Geraldine Lorde in New York City on February 18, 1934. As she explains in her 1982 book “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,” Audre dropped the “y” from her name when she was a kid because she liked the artistic symmetry of both her names ending in an “e.” Her parents were both Caribbean immigrants — her mom, Linda, was from Carriacou, part of the Grenadine Islands, and her dad, Byron, was from Barbados — and they settled in Harlem with their three daughters. Audre, the youngest, was so nearsighted she was nearly designated as legally blind. But lacking 20/20 vision didn’t stop her from putting *100 emoji* into life. She grew up listening to her mom tell stories about the West Indies and, when she was four years old, her mom taught her how to talk, read and write all around the same time. Audre went off to Catholic school, and started writing poetry in her free time. She even oftentimes spoke in the language of poems by expressing answers through prose she memorized or freestyled. 

As she grew older, her relationship with her parents grew more turbulent. Her parents were #stressed since they ran a real estate business amid the post-Great Depression economy. ‘Twas hard to sell sunset during those days. Both were emotionally distant and Audre’s mom, whose skin tone was much lighter than her husband’s and children’s, was “deeply suspicious” of people with darker skin. She was strict and cold, and Audre’s fraught relationship with her mom factored into her poetry as a way to express her emotions. 

While in high school, Audre hit a major milestone (no, she was neither prom queen nor mathlete champ): she had her first poem published in Seventeen magazine (not the cicada version)! She also attended poetry workshops held by the Harlem Writers Guild throughout high school, but she said that she felt like an outcast during them because she “was both crazy and queer.” With her now-stacked resume, she took her talents to Hunter College and then went on to Columbia University to get her master’s of library science. In her late teens, tragedy struck the Lorde family: her dad passed away from a stroke in 1953.

Throughout college, Audre deepened her commitment to books by working at a library and continuing to write poetry. She also deepened her commitment to who she was as a person by getting involved with the growing queer culture in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. In 1961, she successfully completed her library science master’s and was declared Queen of the Dewey Decimal System. We’re pretty sure that’s what it means to get a MLS. From then until 1968, Audre could be found working in libraries at New York City public schools, guiding kids to the latest “Babysitters Club” book. JK, those came out way later, maybe. But “Babysitters Club” slaps, OK? A year into her job, she married a white gay man named Edwin Rollins. They vibed well, for a time, and had two kids together, Elizabeth and Jonathan, who also allegedly loved “Babysitters Club.” What?? If you say so, Wikipedia! I guess this post is an #ad for #BabysittersClub! Thanks, #AnnMMartin, for guiding Emmy and Camille through puberty! Anywho, Edwin and Audre — you guessed it! — divorced in 1970. 

Not long before the couple went to splitsville, Audre’s life began to pick up speed. In 1968, her first volume of poetry, “First Cities,” was published and she also left her job as head librarian at Town School Library. That same year, she moved to Mississippi to teach a poetry workshop at Tougaloo College. Teaching in Jackson, Mississippi, Audre saw first-hand the deep racial prejudices people in the South experienced. In 1970, while still living in Mississippi, she published her second volume of poetry called “Cables to Rage.” In these pages was her first poetic expression of her sexuality, but she also left room to discuss social and personal injustices. 

In 1972, while still at Tougaloo, she met her longtime partner, Frances Clayton, a white lesbian who worked as a psychology professor. The two raised Audre’s children together, and read them books from the critically acclaimed “Babysitters Club” series every night. After her return from Tougaloo, Audre set up shop in a home on Staten Island and picked up her pen again. But, did she ever really set it down? Her list of publications continued to grow and next up was “From a Land Where Other People Live.” This was released in 1973 and nominated for a National Book Award. Featured in this book are poems that focus on her personal struggles with her identity as a Black lesbian woman as well as pieces on the struggle for social justice. 

Following her National Book Award nomination, Audre later published “New York Head Shop and Museum” which offered a glimpse into her New York state of mind through the lenses of Civil Rights and her strict childhood. She was a Catholic school survivor after all. Much of her poetry embodied the reflections on and reactions to love, fear, racism and sexual oppression. Audre’s 1969 publication of “Coal” really put her on the poetry map because it was published by Norton, AKA a major company. “Coal” amplified hers and many others’ stories because with its vast publication her poems reached a wider audience. The gal was nonstop and because a National Book Award nomination as well as a major publication wasn’t enough, Audre went on to publish “The Black Unicorn.” Through her words, rhymes and rhythms she explored her African heritage and her identity through the experiences of deities of fertility, creation and warrior strength. Audre was her name and poetry was her game. 

Throughout her life, DJ Lordy Lorde looked to her playlists she curated to set the mood for her writing sessions. And by “playlists” we mean journals. The lady logged many hours with her journal and documented minor and major moments (not keys) from her life on those pages. While composing poetry, she turned to her dearest diaries for inspiration. And as she evolved, so too did her prose. She once said, “I 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 often questioned categorization and confronted the categories such as “lesbian” and “Black” that society placed her in. These topics were important to her, personally, but also connected with many readers. She played a central part as an activist with the Civil Rights movement, LGBTQ equality and feminism. Though she wasn’t with fellow shuffler Sylvia Rivera shufflin’ around Stonewall, Audre played her part through the power of her pen. For her, she once said, it was about revolution and change. 

In addition to poetry, Audre wrote essays too. Oh! And! She also, along with pals and fellow writers, Cherríe Moraga and Barbara Smith, founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which furthered the writings of black feminists. Her work expanded well beyond the U.S. and took her to Germany at one point where she ventured off the page and back into professorship. She said, “Hallo” and taught in West Berlin at the Free IUniversity of Berlin where she played an influential role in the Afro-German movement through which she mentored many Black women writers and fought systemic racism in Germany. In 2012, The Berlin Film Festival aired “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 – 1992.” Though she didn’t live there all those years, her impact did. She also became involved with the plight of black women in South Africa during apartheid and, in response, created Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa. Through all of her work, be it published or public speech, Audre encouraged the celebration of differences in society. 

As time progressed, so did Audre’s talents. She published another (casual) novel in 1982 titled “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,” which is where, as we learned about before, she explained the why behind why she removed the “y” in her OG name “Audrey.” Say that five times fast. Two years later she released “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches,” which since then has become an important text for Black studies, women’s studies and queer theory. Audre reunited with the National Book Award in the late 80s and won this time for her publication of “A Burst of Light.” 

Eventually, Audre was diagnosed with breast cancer later and she documented her battle and recovery as well as her mastectomy the best way she knew how: with a pen. The Cancer Journals is regarded as an important narrative in which she confronts life and death and calls out the silences that surround cancer and women with illnesses. After her mastectomy she chose not to wear a prosthesis and in The Cancer Journals said, “Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.” 

In true DJ Lordy Lorde fashion she chose not to be a victim rather a victor in her battles. She was recognized for this and became poet laureate of New York from 1991-1992. Sadly, Audre passed away from breast cancer on November 17, 1992. She spent her last few years living in the U.S. Virgin Islands and took African name, Gamba Adisa, meaning, “she who makes her meaning clear.” The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde was published in 1997. She is remembered today for being a warrior poet put to the poetest with many personal and political challenges, but she rose up all the more powerful through her prose and advocacy.

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