The Black feminist, lesbian, poet, mother, warrior Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a native New Yorker and daughter of immigrants. Both her activism and her published work speak to the importance of struggle for liberation among oppressed peoples and of organizing in coalition across differences of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age and ability. An internationally recognized activist and artist, Audre Lorde was the recipient of many honors and awards, including the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, which conferred the mantle of New York State poet for 1991-93. In designating her New York State’s Poet Laureate, Governor Mario Cuomo observed: “Her imagination is charged by a sharp sense of racial injustice and cruelty, of sexual prejudice…She cries out against it as the voice of indignant humanity. Audre Lorde is the voice of the eloquent outsider who speaks in a language that can reach and touch people everywhere.”
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.”
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.
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.
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