The decade of the 1960’s was a tumultuous period for many reasons, not the least of which being the struggle for civil rights among the LGBT, feminist, and African American communities. To speak from an historical standpoint, there were many champions who represented and fought for either one party or another, but a significantly lower number who attempted to fight for all three simultaneously.
Audre Lorde was born on February 18, 1934 to Caribbean immigrants in Harlem, NY. At an early age, she became exposed to poetry and used it as a communication tool in her everyday life. Beginning with reciting poetry to answer basic questions such as how she might be feeling on any given day, Lorde eventually began to write her own pieces in eighth grade – a talent which would carry her for years to come.
After graduating from high school, Lorde attended the National University of Mexico for a year in 1954. During this period, she is said to have affirmed herself as both a lesbian and a poet. She returned to New York to attend Hunter College, graduating in 1959, and furthered her education by attending Columbia University, eventually receiving a Master’s degree in library science in 1961. During these years, Lorde had asserted herself as a supporter of gay culture by being an active member in Greenwich Village while she continued on her literary path through persisting with her writing and working as a librarian in Mount Vernon.
As her career came to fruition, Lorde’s writing began to be published in many different outlets as well. Her poetry was featured in the likes of New Negro Poets, USA by Langston Hughes, as well as many foreign anthologies and black literary magazines around the country. Soon after, her works would be published as anthologies of their own, featuring works such as New York Head Shop and Museum, Coal, and The Black Unicorn. Much of her early work features themes of love, while her later work spoke with a very different voice and focused on issues involving race, gender, sexual orientation and other disparaging qualities in society. While often writing about the injustices of racism, Lorde would also occasionally poke into the dilemmas of sexism simultaneously, feeling no qualm or shame in targeting black men who were guilty of what she referred to as “male privilege.”
“As Black people, we cannot begin our dialogue by denying the oppressive nature of male privilege…and if Black males choose to assume that privilege, for whatever reason…then we cannot ignore Black male oppression. One oppression does not justify another.”
Lorde was also talented as a prose writer, publishing works such as “The Cancer Journals,” which intimately explores her diagnosis, treatment and recovery from breast cancer, “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,” described as a narrative that deals with the evolution of her sexuality and self-awareness, and “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.” This work possibly had the greatest influence on her views of marginalized groups, effectively calling for unified feminist thought among white and African American women alike to think outside the “racist, patriarchal framework.”
Exemplified in many of her writings, Lorde was a proponent for spectrum-wide feminism, though she found herself on the outside of the ways of thought with many other famed feminists of her time. She had found that she had effectively segregated herself from conventional feminist thought by accusing white feminists of being unwittingly dependent upon the patriarchy through subtle yet divisive racism that she believed still separated the cause of white feminism from black feminism, insisting the differences were still as of yet unrecognized.
For the last couple of years of her life, Lorde was recognized as New York State Poet Laureate for her literary achievements. She eventually succumbed to liver cancer on November 17, 1992.