by Elizabeth Kimmer
Audre Lorde: "Black Lesbian Feminist Poet Warrior"
Audre Lorde sees herself as having many identifying features. As critic Margaret Kissam Morris wrote, Lorde "likes to refer to herself as black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, and warrior" (Morris 168). Since any one of these words cannot wholly identify her; only through seeing all these terms as being intertwined can we begin to understand who Audre Lorde is.
Audre Lorde was born in 1934 in New York City, where she lived most of her life (Baym 2980). Deeply influenced by her African roots, Lorde visited West Africa to study the culture and mythology of her ancestors. Much of her writing displays African influences, including her book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, which takes place in Africa.
Another influence in Lorde’s life and writing is Cancer. While being treated for breast cancer, she wrote The Cancer Journals "so that in giving voice to her physiological, emotional, and spiritual experience [ . . . ] her pain will be of use to other women" (Morris 174). Indeed, all of Lorde’s writing embodies her desire to help fellow women and African-Americans.
In one such poem, "The Evening News," she discusses racial relations in South Africa. Addressing Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, Lorde draws a connection across oceans: "Winnie Mandela our names are like olives, salt, sand / the opal, amber, obsidian that hide their shape well." She goes on to connect herself more intimately with Mandela and African-American women in general: "We have never touched shaven foreheads together / yet how many of our sisters’ and daughters’ bones / whiten in secret." She universalizes her own suffering and unites women when describing "our sisters’ and daughters’ bones" as if they all come from the same family. The end of the poem leaves the reader with an image of violent oppression—an oppression that could be referring to the Blacks in South Africa or the African-Americans in America: "Second rule of the road / any wound will stop bleeding / if you press down hard enough." The bleeding wound can be interpreted as a symbol for the suffering women and children whom society "presses down" with increasing strength.
Another of Audre Lorde’s poems, "Coal," unifies women—not through suffering, but through "the total black, being spoken / from the earth’s inside" (Baym 2980). The poet discusses this "total black" in numerous poems, essays, and stories. According to the Norton Anthology, "This total blackness was, for her, also associated with Eros and with creativity; she celebrated this source as what she called ‘woman’s place of power within each of us’" (Baym 2980). From this blackness flow Lorde’s poetry, prose, essays, and eroticism. In "Coal" Lorde celebrates this womanly well of passion and creativity, emphasizing that language comes from this source:
is the total black, being spoken
from the earth’s inside.
There are many kinds of open
how a diamond comes into a knot of flame
how sound comes into a word, coloured
by who pays what for speaking.
Aside from celebrating female creativity, Audre Lorde’s poetry has a darker, angrier side, as expressed in "The Woman Thing," where all the men are "hunters…snow-maddened, sustained by their rages" (Baym 2981). They are predatory in more ways than one: "In the night after food they may seek / young girls for their amusement." The hunters are not the only ones feeling rage though. Instead of outright saying she is enraged, Lorde makes the reader feel her anger when she illustrates the situation:
All this day I have craved
food for my child’s hunger
Emptyhanded the hunters come shouting
injustices drip from their mouths
like stale snow melted in sunlight.
She feels the maternal anger of a woman who can ignore the growls of her own stomach but finds it unbearable to watch her child go hungry.
Audre Lorde holds an important place in the canon of American Literature because she speaks for the often-silenced minority sub-group of African American homosexuals. Her work is significant from a feminist standpoint because she addresses women, especially African American women, and attempts to unify them in this patriarchal society. Influencing other feminist authors such as Adrienne Rich and bell hooks, she also joins the movement in African American literature to draw extensively from African mythology and culture for her writing. Although Lorde died in 1992, her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and unique identity as a "black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, and warrior" (Morris 168) will live eternally in America’s literary canon.
Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed. Vol. E. New York: Norton, 2003.
Morris, Margaret Kissam. "Audre Lorde: Textual Authority and the Embodied Self." Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 35.2 (June 2002): 168-189.