Queer Feminist Icons: Audre Lorde

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The second in our series, in this blog we spotlight Audre Lorde, the American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist. Self-described as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, Lorde’s work continues to inspire us as she combatted racism, sexism and homophobia through her writing.

Audre Lorde was a 20th century American writer and poet, born in 1934 in New York to West Indian immigrant parents. Her work explores black female identity, whilst she also passionately writes on issues including feminism, lesbianism and racial issues, as she expressed her anger towards social injustices in her life.

Her first poem was published in Seventeen magazine whilst she was a high school student, and from there she evolved to write collections of expressive and emotional works, such as From a Land Where Other People Live (1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award. Other of her most known poetry collections include New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), Coal (1976), and The Black Unicorn (1978). In the latter, she expressed her position as a mother and daughter through potent, mythological imagery.

In her own words (from Black Women Writers): “I literally communicated through poetry. And when I couldn’t find the poems to express the things I was feeling, that’s what started me writing poetry”.

As a poet in residence teacher, Lorde’s experiences as a black, queer woman teaching in a predominantly white academic sphere are presented through her work, as her personal life was intertwined with her political aims, articulated through canonical essays and poems of protest. As she fought for liberation movements against the marginalisation of lesbians and blacks, Lorde was central to activist circles, including second wave feminism and LGBT+ equality.

In 1981 Lorde and writer Barbara Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, dedicated to black feminist writers and their work. Although the Press became inactive shortly after Lorde’s passing, it served as a movement to promote black women’s writing, furthering social and political change. Lorde was also a founding member of Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa, as her activism extended to injustices affecting women under the apartheid, a continent away.

The final experience of Lorde’s life which affected her writing, was her struggle to overcome breast cancer, which she noted through prose in The Cancer Journals (1980), which won the Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award 1981. She broke the silences surrounding many women battling illness, and powerfully drew the reader into her own personal experience as a warrior, not a victim. During the time of her battle, Lorde took an African name, Gamba Adisa, meaning “she who makes her meaning clear”, an impactful message and protest at the silencing of black women.

Poet laureate of New York from 1991-1992, Lorde’s work lives on today, for example, as Sister Outside: Essays and Speeches (1984) is a canonical text in Black studies, and her powerful poetry remains a protest to civil injustices throughout history, continuing to inspire women, minority groups and activists around the world. At a time where the Black Lives Matter movement has allowed ample resources to be shared to promote an outsider’s understanding as well as the insider’s expression, Lorde’s work remains close to our hearts in continuing to amplify those voices that have been victims of civil injustices around the world.

Written by Meghna Amin

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