Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a poet, author, Black feminist, womanist, civil rights activist, queer rights activist, librarian, professor, and publisher who fought for intersectional awareness and progress.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
If you’re just tuning in for the first time, here’s the deal. We’re telling the stories of women from throughout history and around the world who you may not know about but definitely should. Each month is themed and in honor of Women’s History Month, March is all about feminists, women who fought for gender equity.
Our woman of the day today fought for intersectional awareness and progress. She was a poet, author, Black feminist, womanist, civil rights activist, queer rights activist, librarian, professor, and publisher. She described herself as a, “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Let’s talk about Audre Lorde.
Audrey Geraldine Lorde was born on February 18, 1934 in New York City. Her parents were immigrants from the Caribbean and Audrey was the youngest of their three daughters. While her parents initially spelled her name with a “y” at the end, Audre went on to drop it. She said she liked the symmetry of having both her first and last name end with the letter “e”.
Audre learned to speak, read, and write around the age of four. She was drawn to poetry and used the medium to express herself, on and off the page. She memorized a variety of poems and when asked how she felt about something, would respond by reciting verse. She said when the poems she had read failed to suffice, she started writing her own.
Audre had complicated relationships with her parents, especially with her mother, which she often explored in her later published work. Her poem, “Story Books on a Kitchen Table,” begins:
“Out of her womb of pain my mother spat me
into her ill-fitting harness of despair
into her deceits
where anger reconceived me
piercing my eyes like arrows
pointed by her nightmare
of who I was not
Audre’s gift for writing was evident and she excelled in school. She attended Hunter High School and her first poem was published in Seventeen Magazine while she was still there.
She went on to Hunter College and spent a year at the National University of Mexico. She then earned a master of library sciences degree from Columbia University before taking a job as a librarian, all in New York City. During this period, Audre also married a man named Edward Rollins. The couple had two children together.
By 1968, Audre’s star was on this rise. She not only received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, but also published her first book of poetry called The First Cities, and became poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Mississippi.
Two years later, in 1970, Audre divorced her husband, and two years after that, she met the woman who would become her longtime partner, Frances Clayton.
During the 1970s, Audre published 5 books of poetry. Her work tied personal experiences to broader societal injustices. Her poems protested inequality that she witnessed firsthand and saw across the world and highlighted the intersectionality of her own identity and all peoples’ identities.
Audre also criticized the white feminist movement for helping to uphold systems of institutionalized racism. She famously wrote:
“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 stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. 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’s work expanded well beyond a single genre. She wrote poetry, essays, memoir and novels. After being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing a mastectomy, Audre wrote of her experience in “The Cancer Journals,” published in 1980. Two years later she wrote a novel entitled “Zami: A New Spelling of my Name.”
Audre supported and served as a mentor for many, particularly other women, at home and abroad. She continued to work as a professor and co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press to amplify the work of Black feminists. Among other international work, she helped to kickstart the Afro-German movement and the Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa.
In 1991, Audre became the New York State Poet Laureate.
On November 17, 1992, Audre died of liver cancer. She was 58 years old.
Audre received many, many awards and honors throughout her life. To this day her work remains highly relevant, and her legacy only continues to grow as the fight for equality marches onward.
All month we’re talking about feminists. We’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. What differentiates this month is that we will be looking at women who were particularly important to the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movement, and/or modern feminism and feminist theory. On Saturdays, we’re talking about modern feminists brought to you by this month’s sponsor, Fiverr. On Sundays, we’re highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.
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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. Talk to you tomorrow!