10 Reasons to Love Audre Lorde

18th Feb 2014

The iconic self-defined 'black lesbian feminist mother warrior poet' would have been eighty years old today. A fiercely passionate and prolific author and activist, renowned for her lifelong commitment to campaigning and writing about race, gender, sexuality and civil rights, there are many, many reasons to love Audre Lorde. Here's ten of ours...

1. She was a self-possessed trailblazer from an early age

Born to Caribbean immigrant parents in 1934 and brought up in Harlem, NYC, Audre Lorde wrote her first poem in eighth grade, despite being so nearsighted as a child that she was legally blind.

It was around this time that she dropped the ‘y’ from her birth name, Audrey, explaining in her autobiography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name that she liked the artistic symmetry of Audre Lorde.

She was the editor of her school magazine, and when a faculty advisor rejected a sonnet she’d written about love, she sent it to Seventeen magazine instead. They published it, paying more money to the teenage Audre Lorde than she made from the next decade of her writing career.

2. More insights about intersectionality than a million Twitter infights

A true visionary and pioneer, Audre Lorde was ahead of her time in many ways, writing and speaking with courage, honesty, power and panache about issues which continue to divide communities and movements to this day.

In her 1984 collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, she identified the need to recognise and utilise difference in the fight against oppression:

“[It] is within our differences that we are both most powerful and most vulnerable, and some of the most difficult tasks of our lives are the claiming of differences, and learning to use those differences for bridges rather than as barriers between us.”

In an address quoted in I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, she sums it up like this:

“Too often we pour energy needed for relating across difference in[to] pretending these differences are insurmountable barriers, or that these differences do not exist… But together, the strength of our differences can illuminate our our politics with a skill and passion born of survival, and we can transform the very meaning of power within our lives.”

3. Her stances on privilege and power

If you’re a feminist and you use the internet, chances are you’re familiar with snark and smackdowns about privilege. But while Audre Lorde absolutely recognised the importance of identifying and acknowledging privilege, she also saw possibilities for it to be leveraged as a force for positive change. In a 1989 address at Oberlin College, she said:

“Your privilege is not a reason for guilt, it is part of your power, to be used in support of those things you say you believe… How much of your lives are you willing to spend merely protecting your privileged status? Is that more than you are prepared to spend putting your dreams and beliefs for a better world into action? That is what creativity and empowerment are all about. The rest is destruction. And it will have to be one or the other.”

Feeling ready to take on the world? She continued:

“Your power is relative, but it is real. And if you do not learn to use it, it will be used, against you, and me, and our children. Change did not begin with you, and it will not end with you, but what you do with your life is an absolutely vital piece of that chain.”

4. “Your silence will not protect you”

In between writing her numerous collections of poetry and essays, speaking at black, feminist and lesbian events around the world, teaching, traveling and co-founding Kitchen Table, the first American publishing press for women of colour, a recurring theme for Audre Lorde was the need to connect communities by breaking institutionalised silences.

In The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, she wrote:

“We were never meant to survive. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is also our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners, mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.”

5. Parenting is political

With her lesbian partner of twenty years, Audre Lorde raised two children, both of whom grew up to be brilliantly brave and badass political activists in their own right.

Although acknowledging the joy of bringing up children, recognising that their childhood years were “the most chaotic and well as the most creative of my life,” Audre also wrote with her trademark insight and observation about the pressures and anxieties impacting their family, acknowledging the need to own and identify her own anger at social and cultural injustices in order to ensure it wasn’t misdirected towards her kids: “[We were] afraid that our rage at the world in which we lived might leak out to contaminate and destroy someone we loved.”

Her essay Turning the Beat Around in Sister Outsider highlights her pride in equipping her children with their own tools to analyse and change the world, concluding with these heartwarming observations:

“Our daughter and son are in their twenties now. They are both warriors and the battlefields shift: the war is the same… It stretches from the classroom where our daughter teaches Black and Latino third graders to chant ‘I am somebody beautiful,’ to the college campus where our son replaced the Stars and Stripes with the flag of South Africa to protest his school’s refusal to divest.

They are in the process of choosing their own weapons, and no doubt some of those weapons will feel completely alien to me. Yet I trust them, deeply, because they were raised to be their own woman, their own man, in struggle, and in the service of all our futures.”

6. The only self-care quote you’ll ever need

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

7. Her bravery and defiance during her battle with cancer

Audre Lorde had cancer for fourteen years, and it eventually led to her death in 1992. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978, she had a mastectomy, but six years later she was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Although she admitted to being afraid, she continued to document her experience with heartbreaking but unflinching candour and courage, publishing her award-winning account The Cancer Journals in 1980.

In her 1988 essay collection A Burst of Light, she described her fight with the disease as part of a wider war:

“The struggle with cancer now informs all my days, but it is only another face of that continuing battle for self-determination and survival that Black women fight daily, often in triumph.”

8. Impact and influence on other incredible communities and authors

Audre Lorde’s influence on other amazing, important writers and communities is indisputable. From bell hooks and Alice Walker to Angela Davis, Leslie Feinberg and Jackie Kay, there is a long list of authors and activists who cite her as an inspiration.

She is also lauded for her work and writing aimed at forging solidarity between the black and LGBTQ communities, and was a significant influence on Essex Hemphill, editor of Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, and Joseph Beam, editor of In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, the first American collection of its kind.

After her death in 1992, Essex Hemphill wrote a letter, Dear Audre, expressing his gratitude:

“Your powerful, sky-soaring, heart-piercing, soul-stirring words will forever resonate with commitment, integrity and responsibility. Thank you for your poetry and essays, woven as they were of courage and precision, love and bravery.

You gave us living, fire-breathing words capable of healing, tearing down, building up, braving the long nights and languishing days. You gave us words we could use wisely. Words we could depend on.”

9. Her legacy

More that two decades after her death, Audre Lorde continues to inspire and influence around the globe. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, NY, houses an Audre Lorde collection, and there’s an Audre Lorde archive at the Women’s Research and Resource Centre at Spelman College.

She was the subject of a 1995 documentary, A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, and a 2002 film, The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde.

She was the focus of the 1990 I Am Your Sister conference, which brought together over 1,200 activists from 23 countries, and is the namesake of the annual Audre Lorde Award for lesbian poetry, and the Audre Lorde Project, a Brooklyn-based organisation for queer people of colour.

10. She went out like a fucking meteor

In an excerpt from her diary published in A Burst of Light, Audre Lorde documented her struggle to face her fears of dying, and to reconcile her failing health with her determination to continue writing and changing the world until the end.
She concluded the diary entry with this assertion:

“I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my noseholes – everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I am going to go out like a fucking meteor!”

Be still our beating hearts.