THE RELEVANT QUEER: Caribbean-American Writer, Teacher and Black Radical Lesbian Feminist Audre Lorde, Born February 18, 1934

Audre Lorde, 1983. Photo: Jack MItchell/Getty Images

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

TRQ: Audre Lorde, Born February 18, 1934

Writer, teacher and Black radical lesbian feminist, Audre Lorde was born in Harlem. Her mother was from Barbados. Her father, from Carriacou in the Grenadines. Lorde attended Hunter High School, and published her first poem in Seventeen magazine while still a student.

Lorde married Edward Rollins, a white gay man and together they had two children. Lorde and Rollins divorced in 1970, and in 1972 she met Frances Clayton, her partner of seventeen years.

Lorde earned her BA from Hunter College, her MLS from Columbia, and worked as a librarian in the public schools of New York throughout the 1960’s. In 1968, Lorde was poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where she affirmed both her political activism around queer identity and civil rights, and her dedication to the quality of her writing.

Lorde drew inspiration from the poets Keats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Helene Margaret in writing about her experiences as a black queer teacher in the white world of academia. Often pulling from her personal journals, Lorde’s writing connects her personal experiences to the political challenges facing a queer black woman. Through this, she reshaped understandings of queer theory, feminist theory, and critical race studies.

Her canonical essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House,” is one of the first to explore the intersections of race, class, and gender.

“I have a duty,” Lorde once stated, “to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.”

The call of Lorde’s poetry for social and racial justice, and its depiction of the experience of queerness and queer sexuality, made Lorde central to liberation and activist movements. Her importance to the civil rights and Black cultural movements, second-wave feminism, and the LGBTQ fight for equality, is undisputed.

Lorde’s theory of difference reframed the fight for gay rights as part of the greater fight against all oppression against those who embody difference. In 1979, Lorde joined the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Two years later, Lorde and writer Barbara Smith launched Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, to support the work of black feminists.

Dissecting conservative resistance to her work, Lorde told interviewer Charles H. Rowell, “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… [White, arch-conservative senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity … or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.”

Lorde was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1985. Three years later, her relationship with Frances Clayton was over. Lorde spent her remaining six years in St. Croix with Gloria Joseph and a larger community of women. Committed to her queer black experience, Lorde once said, “I don’t want to die looking the other way.”

After her death on the night of November 17, 1992, Audre Lorde was memorialised the world over. Her ashes were scattered in the Caribbean, Germany and the United States.


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