Kickass Women in History: Audre Lorde

November 9, 2019

This month our Kickass Woman is Audre Lorde, poet, librarian, and activist who is famous but not as famous as perhaps she should be. I recently read her book Zami: A Biomythography and knew I had to feature this amazing woman in our column.

Audre Lorde was born “Audrey” in 1934 but as a child she dropped the ‘y’ because she liked the way ‘Audre’ looked on a page. Her parents came to New York City from the Carribean and settled in Harlem, where Lorde was born. Audre did not talk until she was four, at which time she began to talk, read, and write at the same time, assisted by glasses which allowed her to see clearly for the first time (she was severely nearsighted). She had a tumultuous relationship with her strong-willed mother. In Zami, she describes her mother with immense pride as a powerful woman in the community. However, these two strong-willed woman, mother and daughter, engaged in ferocious battles throughout Audre’s childhood and adolescence.

Lorde in front of a blackboard that says "Women are powerful and dangerous."

Lorde was an “out” lesbian in the 1950s, and was politally active in the fight against
McCarthyism and the execution of the Rosenbergs. As a lesbian, she was an outsider among Black activists and as a Black woman she was an outsider among the lesbian community in New York City. In Zami, she describes this in terms of her friendship with Felicia, one of the few other Black lesbians she knows, and her partner, Muriel, who is White and believed (common among the other White lesbians of Lorde’s aquaintance at the time) that all lesbians face equal discrimination:

The fact of our Blackness was an issue that Felicia and I talked about only between ourselves. Even Muriel seemed to believe that, as lesbians, we were all outsiders and all equal in our outsiderhood. “We’re all n*****s,” she used to say, and I hated to hear her say it. It was wishful thinking based on little fact; the ways in which it was true languished in the shadow of those many ways in which it would always be false.

In the course of her lifetime, Lorde spent time as a student in Mexico, as a writer-in-residence in Mississippi, as a librarian in New York, and as a professor in West Germany. She founded women’s organizations in multiple countries and started the Afro-German movement in Germany. She had two children and wrote political and personal poetry and prose. She was key in challenging White feminism and pushing for third-wave, intersectional feminism.

It is heartbreaking and enraging that Lorde’s speech, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Writer’s House,” given in 1984 could have been delivered this morning (indeed, in a sense it was delivered, to me, this morning as I read it for the first time). An excerpt:

As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.

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 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.

Lorde was an electrifying speaker, a poignant poet, a lyrical writer, and an activist who insisted that feminism must include the concerns and the needs and the strengths of all women. She coined the phrase “Your silence will not protect you.” To Google “Audre Lorde, quotes” is to find ringing statements of truth –

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

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

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives”

Lorde survived a breast cancer diagnosis but died of liver cancer in 1992. She wrote about her cancer just as she wrote about every other aspect of her life, publishing The Cancer Journals in 1980.

I leave you with one last quote from Lorde:

“… poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

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