Audre Lorde

1934 –

Poet, essayist, and novelist Audre Lorde was born Audrey Geraldine Lorde on February 18, 1934, in New York City. Her parents were immigrants from Grenada. The youngest of three sisters, she was raised in Manhattan and attended Catholic school. While she was still in high school, her first poem appeared in Seventeen magazine. Lorde received her BA from Hunter College and an MLS from Columbia University. She served as a librarian in New York public schools from 1961 through 1968. In 1962, Lorde married Edward Rollins. They had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathon, before divorcing in 1970.

Her first volume of poems, The First Cities (Poets Press), was published in 1968. In the same year, she became the writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where she discovered a love of teaching. At Tougaloo, she also met her long-term partner, Frances Clayton. The First Cities was quickly followed with Cables to Rage (Paul Breman, 1970) and From a Land Where Other People Live (Broadside Press, 1973), which was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1974, she published New York Head Shot and Museum (Broadside Press). Whereas much of her earlier work focused on the transience of love, this book marked her most political work to date.

In 1976, W. W. Norton released her collection Coal and, shortly thereafter, published The Black Unicorn (1995). Poet Adrienne Rich said of The Black Unicorn that “Lorde writes as a Black woman, a mother, a daughter, a Lesbian, a feminist, a visionary; poems of elemental wildness and healing, nightmare and lucidity.” Her other volumes include Chosen Poems Old and New (1982) and Our Dead Behind Us (1986), both published by W. W. Norton. Poet Sandra M. Gilbert noted not only Lorde’s ability to express outrage, but also that she was capable of “of rare and, paradoxically, loving jeremiads.” 

Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer and chronicled her struggles in her first prose collection, The Cancer Journals (Spinsters, Ink, 1980), which won the Gay Caucus Book of the Year award for 1981. Her other prose volumes include Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Crossing Press, 1982), Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 1984), and A Burst of Light (Firebrand Press, 1988), which won a National Book Award. She received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1981.

In the 1980s, Lorde and writer Barbara Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. She was also a founding member of Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa, an organization that worked to raise concerns about women under apartheid.

Audre Lorde was a professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Hunter College. She was the poet laureate of New York from 1991–92. She died of breast cancer in 1992. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (W. W. Norton) was published in 1997. In 2021, Lorde was inducted to the American Poets Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.