The Essential Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was a writer and activist whose feminism pushed back against society's tendency for categorization. Her activism was deeply intersectional, her writing multi-genre. She embraced differences within individuals and within communities, believing that we are interdependent and better for our complexities.
Key Texts by Audre Lorde
Lorde was a critic of second-wave feminism, helmed by white, upper-middle class leaders.
In a 1979 conference at New York University, Audre Lorde delivered a speech entitled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” that examined and critiqued second-wave feminism, helmed by white, upper-middle class leaders like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Lorde gave the speech as part of a panel called “The Personal and the Political,” an appropriate name for a woman whose politics define—and are defined by—issues around “difference” and identity. “I stand here as a Black lesbian feminist,” Lorde announced at the beginning of the speech, enumerating her own marks of difference—but only to lay the groundwork for her subsequent qualification: “I stand here as a Black lesbian feminist within the only panel where the input of Black feminists and lesbians is represented.”
She believed that gender oppression is inseparable from other forms of oppression.
In this speech and throughout her career as a poet, essayist, novelist, civil rights activist (and more), Lorde’s feminism is grounded in intersectionality, the idea that gender oppression is inseparable from oppressive systems like racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, and heterosexism, among others. Sometimes, today, Lorde is referred to as a “womanist,” as distinct from “feminist.” Womanism emerged as a social theory aiming to address the particular experiences of black women and women of other marginalized or oppressed minority groups. Lorde herself didn’t use this word, though much of her work grew out of her (and many other black women’s) observations that feminism struggles with inclusivity, particularly related to race, class and sexuality.
Similarly, she advocated for a multi-dimensional view of individual identity.
“There's always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself,” Lorde said in a 1981 interview in The Denver Quarterly. “Whether it's Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etcetera… that's the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else.” Herein lies a tenet central to Lorde’s feminism, and overarching ideology as an activist: each of us is responsible for recognizing identity as the total of many (perhaps even infinite) connecting, and certainly paradoxical, parts: “Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.”
Lorde asserted that communities, too, are built of differences. We should embrace them.
At the same time as she expressed the need to embrace individual paradoxes, Lorde believed deeply in embracing differences within communities. “For women,” Lorde wrote in “The Master’s Tools,” “the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is discovered. It is this real connection which is so feared by a patriarchal world.” Lorde believed that the feminist movement alienated “those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor…lesbians…Black…older,” asserting that “survival is not an academic skill.” She didn’t, however, overtly blame white feminists for the movement’s definitional exclusivity: “As women, we have been taught to either ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change.” It was out of this observation that Lorde emphasized, consistently, the need for “interdependency”—between men and women, black women and black men, black women and white women, and all the permutations therein.
Defying categorization as a writer, Lorde published poems, essays, and fiction.
Across all of her multi-genre work, Lorde sought to resist society’s tendency toward categorization. In her poetry, she brought together the most intimate, personal scenarios with the social, even the controversial. Her first ever published poem “Spring” (1951) appeared in Seventeen magazine when Lorde was just 15 years old, and authentically expressed the intensity and infatuation native to adolescent love. Many of her Lorde’s later poems continue to take on the subject of romantic relationships, as well as the relationships between family members—children and parents, in particular—and friends. But as Jerome Brooks notes in Black Women Writers (1950-1980), “Lorde’s poetry of anger is perhaps her best known….” “Power,” one of Lorde’s most haunting poems, expresses Lorde’s own indignation in response to the murder of a 10-year-old boy by a New York policeman. In “The Brown Menace or Poem to the Survival of Roaches,” Lorde compares the relationships between blacks and whites to cockroaches and humans, offering a fiercely angry but deeply sad parable of racial injustice.
In the discomfort of difference, Lorde found meaning.
While Lorde is arguably best known for her poetry, she was a prolific writer of prose, and is perhaps best known for her memoir The Cancer Journals, which was not only her first major work of prose, but a confessional and emotionally honest account of her struggle with breast cancer. In Journals, Lorde gives the reader a glimpse into her decision not to get a breast implant following her mastectomy: “Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it…” In many contexts of her life, Lorde sought to exist in the discomfort of difference—and to urge others to do the same.
Who Was Audre Lorde?
Audre Lorde was a poet, essayist, novelist and activist who was born in Harlem in 1934 to West Indian parents Frederick Byron and Linda Belmar Lorde. Her love of poetry began early on in her childhood, as she was known to be quiet and relatively introverted—unless she was reciting poems she had memorized.
Lorde attended a Catholic elementary school, where she was the only student of color, and went on to Hunter College High School, where she began seriously writing poetry. It was at age 15 that Lorde had her first poem published—in Seventeen Magazine. Lorde received her undergraduate degree in English literature and philosophy at Hunter College in 1959, and a Master’s in library science from Columbia University in 1961. Throughout her career, Lorde published nine volumes of poetry and five works of prose, and earned honorary doctorates from Hunter, Oberlin and Haverford Colleges, and was named the New York State poet laureate. Lorde died in 1992 from breast cancer, after battling the disease for 14 years and chronicling it in The Cancer Journals (1980).
What Are the Key Tenets of Feminism, According to Audre Lorde?
1. All forms of oppression are interrelated, and one cannot talk about feminism without acknowledging race, class, gender expression, sexuality, and any other markers of one’s identity.
2. Bringing about change requires taking a stand and having your voice heard. (Lorde famously said, “Your silence will not protect you.”)
3. Our differences don’t divide us. They are inevitable, and invitations for us to accept and celebrate one another.
4. Revolution is a process. (It is not, as Lorde said, “a one time event.”)
5. Feelings are a form of knowledge, and can and should inform activism.
6. Pain is important information, as it guides us to figure out how to transcend it.
How do I apply Audre Lorde's feminism in my everyday life?
1. Talk to people who are different from you about their experiences and points of view, no matter how much you anticipate disagreement.
Lorde often wrote about the importance of confronting fear, and immersing oneself in belief systems that are different than one’s own is a practical way to confront fear—and recognize the myriad other identity issues intersecting with feminism at all times.
2. When you recognize something unjust happening, say something.
As an activist, Lorde was a proponent of not only having her voice heard, but emphasizing the silent danger of complacency and inaction. It is not enough to recognize an injustice–it has to be spoken out against.
3. Write about your feelings.
Lorde once wrote, “Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” Furthermore, she also wrote that self-care “is not self-indulgence” but rather “self-preservation”—and that “is an act of political warfare.” As an activist and writer alike, Lorde consistently underscored the importance of recognizing oneself as whole, despite having many parts, and paradoxical as they may seem. Lorde expressed this belief in speeches, poems, prose and in interviews, and it is integral to her and others’ belief that “the personal is political.” Since we cannot compartmentalize our identities and experiences from the way we conceive of politics intellectually, writing is a tremendous tool for integrating emotional reflection into our intellectual agendas for becoming more active and engaged citizens and allies to others.
4. Read Lorde’s books or watch the PBS documentary A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde.
Even for those who don’t like poetry, Lorde’s voice is distinctly direct and refreshing, and she has a uniquely successful mode of bringing together the personal and the political, the poetic and the banal, the emotional and the intellectual.
5. Challenge yourself to think outside of your own experience—when it comes to feminism, or anything else, really.
Lorde doesn’t place blame or voice vitriol about more privileged folks not recognizing their privilege. Rather, Lorde expresses that we are conditioned to see differences we have with others as sites of alienation, rather than as invitations for more inclusivity and tolerance.
6. Recognize that your understanding of intersectionality will expand and grow.
As Lorde said, “Revolution is not a one time event,” and similarly, it is impossible to become a wholly self-aware feminist in the blink of an eye. Try your best to “check your privilege,” as they say, noticing when class or racial privilege may be affecting your understanding of what feminism can look like. Try as much as you can to confront situations, conversations, relationships, people, books and more that make you uncomfortable—and explore what that fear is all about. “We are taught to respect fear more than ourselves,” Lorde wrote. What if we respected our fear as a sign to ourselves that we wanted to learn more? That could be a question to consider inspired by Lorde’s POV.