H. Alexander Robinson

Black LGBT History Day 24: Audre Lourde

Filed By H. Alexander Robinson | February 24, 2008 10:41 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Black Gay History, Black History Month

The work of African-American activist and writer Audre Lorde was greatly influenced by her lesbianism.

Born on February 18, 1934, in New York City of West Indian parents, Lorde was educated at Hunter College and Columbia University. On completing a master's degree in library studies in 1961 at Columbia University, she initially worked as a librarian in New York.

From 1968 onward, she held various academic positions: first, as a lecturer in creative writing at City College and in the Education Department at Herbert H. Lehman College, later as an Associate Professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she fought for a Black Studies Department. Lorde also taught English at Hunter College, was a poet in residence at Tougaloo College, and a visiting lecturer throughout the United States.

In 1962, she married Edwon Ashley Rollins and had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan. Ultimately, the marriage failed. After her divorce from Rollins in 1970, Lorde began to have long-term relationships with women. She died in 1992 after a long battle with cancer.

Throughout her life, Lorde fought for African Americans' rights both as an activist and as a writer. The political nature of her work is obvious in essays such as "Apartheid U.S.A" and "I am your Sister," where, while stressing the need for women to organize across sexualities, she examines the way that black lesbians are stereotyped by whites as well as by blacks.

Lorde's lesbianism had a major influence on her work. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), considered by the writer as a "biomythography," a synthesis of history, biography, and mythology, is a lesbian text.

Lesbianism for Lorde had a broad definition. While using the term to describe women who have sexual relations with other women, she expanded its scope to include women whose emotional connectedness is centered on women regardless of sexual intimacy. Emotional bonding among women is at the center of Zami. So is the celebration of women's power and figures of ancestral African mothers.

From its beginning, the book explores the physical and emotional aspects of Audre, a black poet, and her relationships with other women--Eudora, Gennie, Muriel, and Afrekete, among others. Lorde examines the significance of these relationships to her life as an artist. Rather than presenting a rupture between the sexual and emotional life of the black woman poet and her creative work, the text raises the possibility of integrating both aspects of the life experience.

Lorde, self-identified as a black feminist lesbian poet warrior, started writing poetry when she was twelve and never stopped. Even her prose work is marked by a lyrical sensibility. In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, lesbian unions are poetically presented: "her hips moved like surf upon the water's edge" and "sweat-slippery dark bodies, sacred as the ocean at high tide." Even in The Cancer Journals (1980), we find a poetic quality. Written as an affirmation of survival, the book documents the experiences of living with cancer and dealing with pain.

Permeated by a strong social and political consciousness, Lorde's work gives special attention to the dynamics of being a black woman. In "A Woman Speaks," from The Black Unicorn collection (1978), the poetic voice states: "I am woman and not white," while in another poem the same voice identifies being black with a unicorn: "The black unicorn is restless / the black unicorn is unrelenting / the black unicorn is not free."

"Sisters in Arms" from Our Dead Behind Us (1986) explores solidarity among black women, and the theme of the black woman artist, central to all of Lorde's work, is presented in "To the Poet Who Happens to Be Black and the Black Poet Who Happens to be a Woman" of Our Dead Behind Us. The affirmations of her identities as a black woman and a lesbian are paramount motifs in her work.

Intertwined with the affirmations of racial and sexual identities, love remains a constant theme in Lorde's work. Various forms of love--both lesbian and heterosexual--appear at the center of her texts, particularly her first collections of poetry: The First Cities (1968), The New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), and The Black Unicorn. In her essay "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," she examines the question of loving and the tremendous power of the erotic. For her, the erotic was a deep enlightening force within women's lives, a source of power and knowledge.

In general, the voices in Lorde's work challenge the conventions and norms of a racist, heterosexist, and homophobic society and stress the urgency of fighting against inequality. From her first texts, the poet reiterates her sexual identity and reaffirms her literary as well as social space. In her poetry, essays, interviews, and fiction, she articulates a political discourse that underscores the oppression suffered by black lesbians.

By inscribing her own experiences and stressing the responsibility of identifying herself as black and lesbian, Lorde avoids blanket generalizations and rigid essentialism. Most important, she bespeaks the specificity of the situation of black lesbians in the United States. By recognizing that her blackness and her lesbianism were not separate, she unified both struggles.

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