Audre Lorde was a self proclaimed “Black, lesbain, mother, warrior, poet,” and she embodied just that. She brought awareness to topics like identity, race, sex, where they intersect and how they seep into everyday life. (Photo by Elsa Dorfman)

By Jessica Dortch
AFRO News Editor

The LGBQTIA+ community has advanced by leaps and bounds within the past decade, and as with any groundbreaking change, it had to start with someone willing to risk it all for what’s right. There had to be a pioneer. Someone had to stand up and speak out even if it was unpopular at the time. Audre Lorde, one of the great Black poets and essayists, wasn’t afraid to do the unpopular and speak on things that previously remained unsaid.  

Born in the winter of 1934, Lorde, the youngest of three sisters, was the child of West Indian immigrants. Lorde went to a mixture of Catholic schools and public schools in Manhattan, N.Y., where she grew up. Her love for poetry began to take shape as a teenager, even having one of her poems published in {Seventeen} magazine. Lorde told {Black Women Writers}: “I used to speak in poetry. I would read poems and I would memorize them. People would say, ‘Well what do you think, Audre? What happened to you yesterday?’ And I would recite a poem and somewhere in that poem would be a line or a feeling I would be sharing. In other words, I literally communicated through poetry.” 

The way Lorde expressed her feelings about racism, sexuality, feminism and identity through her poetry would go on to inspire generations to come. 

She graduated from Hunter College in 1959 and went on to earn her master’s degree in library science at Columbia University two years later. She married attorney Edwin Rollins, a White, gay man; they would later divorce after having two children. It was unclear if Lorde knew, or had suspicions that her husband was gay, but after their divorce, Lorde met Frances Clayton, and would have a long-term romantic relationship with her. 

Lorde published her first volume of poems, The First Cities (1968), around the same time she quit the library and entered the classroom. She got a gig as a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College and with all the racial tension in the south, it didn’t take long for Lorde’s poetry to reflect the injustices she experienced. After all, she was a Black, queer, woman working among southern Whites in academia. 

Her next volume of poems, Cables to Rage (1970), would let the public in for a closer look at who Lorde really was. Common themes included love, family and sexuality, specifically, Lorde’s own sexuality as told in a poem called “Martha.” Her third volume, From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), earned her a nomination for the National Book Award. 

Lorde’s work was increasingly gaining attention, and by the late 70s, her work was picked up by a major publisher. Then came, what some critics have called one of her greatest works, The Black Unicorn (1978). This volume paid homage to Lorde’s African roots and her experience as a Black woman, featuring poems about motherhood, feminism and Blackness.

Of all of this, one of the works Lorde is mostly known for is her account of her battle with breast cancer. The Cancer Journals (1980), which won the Gay Caucus Book of the Year award in 1981, was a front row seat to the severity of illness, specifically breast cancer in women. Lorde underwent a mastectomy and refused to wear a prosthesis as a symbol of strength to other women in the fight. Little did Lorde know, she would be fighting this battle for the rest of her life. 

Regardless of her diagnosis, Lorde refused to be a victim to this disease. Instead, she empowered herself and women like her by calling them warriors and exposed the horrific disease that lay on the other side of women’s silence about their condition. 

Lorde’s words carried a certain power, and she never shied away from truth, be it her own or otherwise. She was a self proclaimed “Black, lesbain, mother, warrior, poet,” and she embodied just that. She brought awareness to topics like identity, race, sex, where they intersect and how they are seeped into everyday life. 

In the end, the cancer in Lorde’s body spread to her liver and unfortunately, and she could not overcome it. She battled the disease for over 10 years, before dying at her home in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She played a vital role in the struggle for LGBQTIA+ rights and liberation and in shaping the arts and Black culture, and her contributions must never be forgotten.  

The following is an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in 1981:

“I am a lesbian woman of color whose children eat regularly because I work in a university. If their full bellies make me fail to recognize my commonality with a woman of color whose children do not eat because she cannot find work, or who has no children because her insides are rotted from home abortions and sterilization; if I fail to recognize the lesbian who chooses not to have children, the woman who remains closeted because her homophobic community is her only life support, the woman who chooses silence instead of another death, the woman who is terrified lest my anger trigger the explosion of hers; if I fail to recognize them as other faces of myself, then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own, and the anger which stands between us then must be used for clarity and mutual empowerment, not for evasion by guilt or for further separation. I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of color remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”