Poems, Prose, and Activism: The Story of Audre Lorde

I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.

Her Early Life

Audre Lorde was born February 18, 1934 in New York City to Caribbean immigrants and the youngest of three siblings. Throughout her childhood, Lorde struggled through a difficult relationship with her parents—especially her mother—and turned to poetry as a form of expression. While attending Hunter High School, she published her first poem in Seventeen magazine, marking the beginning of her legacy as a poet and activist.

Lorde would go on to earn her Bachelor of Arts from Hunter College and a Master of Library Science from Columbia University. Throughout the 1960s, she was a librarian in the New York public school system. Then, in 1968, she began teaching as a poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. This experience informed her first volume of poems, The First Cities (1968) and the publication of Cables to Rage (1970) swiftly followed. Lorde would later go on to be a professor of English at John Jay College and Hunter College in New York.

Her Work

As a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde dedicated her life to combating racism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, and classism. Her writing was largely concerned with dismantling society’s propensity for categorizing groups of people based on a singular shared identity. In Sister Outsider (1984), Lorde posited, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live in single-issue lives.” She found it important to celebrate all parts of her identity equally and expressed that these elements of her identity were fundamental to her experiences as a Black woman.

One of the most compelling aspects of Lorde’s writing was her ability to articulate the experiences of people at the intersections of race, class, and gender identity. Her writings highlighted that one form of oppression is not inseparable from another form. In her own life, she highlights how gender oppression is not inseparable from racism, classism, homophobia, and heterosexism. This theory would go on to become a foundation for Intersectionality as it was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Through Lorde’s works, she contributed greatly to feminist theory, critical race studies, and queer theory and she continues to be a leading poet, essayist, and thinker.

Her Legacy

In 1978, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer. Refusing to consider herself a victim of the disease, she regarded herself as a warrior. Lorde chronicled her battle in The Cancer Journals (1980). The cancer would later spread to her liver and that battle influenced the essay collection, A Burst of Light (1989). Lorde would go on to battle cancer for over a decade until she passed away at the age of 58 on November 17, 1992 in St. Croix. 

Before her death, Audre took the name Gamba Adisa, which means She Who Makes Her Meaning Clear. And what a fitting name it continues to be. Lorde’s work is revolutionary and continues to serve as a powerful learning tool for people across the globe. She fearlessly unveiled injustice and oppression and spoke truth to power. As scholar Joan Martin described, Lorde wrote with “passion, sincerity, perception, and a depth of feeling”. For that, we are grateful.

A Selection of Her Works

  • Burst of Light. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1988.

  • Sister Outsider. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984.

  • The Black Unicorn. New York: Norton, 1978.

  • The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1978.

  • The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. New York: Norton, 1997.

References include the Audre Lorde Project, the Poetry Foundation, the Heroine Collective, and  Biography.com.

Written By: Kamrie Risku