Release Date: June 25, 2004 This content is archived.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Shortly before her death, the eminently quotable Audre Lorde -- an American original who became a major figure in women's, African-American and lesbian literature -- took the African name "Gamba Adisa," meaning "Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Clear."
Masani Alexis DeVeaux, the author of "Warrior Poet" (Norton, 2004), the long-awaited biography of Lorde, says the name itself can inform our understanding of the poet, who wrote in 1978, "I do believe the poets are our modern amazons -- riders, defenders, explorers of the loneliest outposts of our kingdoms."
In fact, Lorde stunned and inspired a generation by speaking the truth to power.
DeVeaux, professor and chair of the Department of Women's Studies in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, spent 10 years researching and writing the book. In it, she articulates not only the clarity and transcendent force of Lorde's award-winning poetry, but her valiant and determined battle against the many iterations of the oppression that kept women, African Americans and the gay and lesbian communities in their "place."
Lorde is a complicated and difficult subject for any biographer. DeVeaux calls her "brilliant, intimidating, visionary…creatively ambitious…financially generous toward other woman writers, though she was often barely solvent herself."
With her exceptional powers of perception and articulation, she took on racism and sexism, and freely expressed her loathing of violence, hatred and war. An "out" black lesbian mother, she railed against sexism with the complexity of racialized analysis and demanded attention to the movement for gay rights.
At the same time, she carried an acute sensitivity to real or perceived racial slights. At times in her life, she suffered from racial self-loathing, deep depression, maddening loneliness, fear of rejection, attenuated relationships with other black women and an unbridled fury that arose out of the personal and social circumstances of her life.
DeVeaux calls Lorde "at once intensely public and intensely private." In writing the book, she says she had to decide how "to write of (Lorde's) rage and oftentimes violent temper; to present her as real, rather than monstrous. How to walk the bridges of her life, to become -- and not become -- her. How to write of 'the difficult miracle' of being human."
Audre Lorde certainly was a political poet in terms of the topics she addressed, but her work also has been described as "extremely romantic in nature" and is marked by passion, sincerity, perception and deep feeling. Those who knew her claim that she loved deeply and interrogated all that was private within her and was an embattled soul, marginalized by her very honesty and directness, for whom, as she herself wrote, "there is no place/that cannot be/ home/nor is."
"Audre Lorde lived two lives," writes DeVeaux in her introduction to the book, citing the crucial determinants of her first life as the themes of escape, freedom and self-actualization. These, says the biographer, informed her childhood, adolescence and young womanhood, and her identity as a poet, mother, teacher and lesbian. "I have been a woman for a long time," Lorde wrote. "Beware my smile, treacherous with old magic…"
DeVeaux says Lorde's second life began when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy in 1978. Only 44 when initially diagnosed with the disease, she points out that "the impact of cancer performed a transfiguration, not only of Lorde's physicality, but of her personality, creativity and social activism.
"Her life from that point on," she notes, "was defined by her experiences with the cancer, fear of recurrence, denial of the diagnosis of secondary liver cancer and finally the acceptance of its incurability." Lorde died in 1992, having documented her 14-year battle in "The Cancer Journals" and in her book of essays, "A Burst of Light."
Although the last decades of Lorde's life were lived conservatively, her writing, which often is witty, sharply focused and bitingly sardonic, serves as a corrective to that period. DeVeaux points to her protest of the cooptation of black American culture by an indifferent white population, public apathy toward Atlanta's murdered but "expendable" black children, the displacement of the poor and homeless, the escalating arms race, "insufferable unemployment," the U.S. brutality in Central America, the American invasion of Granada, which broke her heart: "…who will say/you have killed my country/what does a conquered people tell their tormenters/clothed & armed & buckled…," Lorde writes.
The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Lorde began publishing poetry while in high school. She graduated from Columbia University and Hunter College, where she later held the prestigious post of Thomas Hunter Chair of Literature.
She published a dozen books of poetry and 10 books of prose, and received many awards and honors, including a nomination for the National Book Award for Poetry and the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, which conferred the mantle of New York State poet laureate for 1991-93.
In designating her Poet Laureate, Gov. Mario Cuomo said: "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."
Lorde's literary work extended throughout and beyond the borders of the United States. She formed coalitions between Afro-German and Afro-Dutch women, founded a sisterhood in South Africa, began Women of Color Press and established the St. Croix Women's Coalition on the island where she was living at the time of her death.
In her books, Lorde affirms her blackness, touches on African mythologies and African goddess symbolism, explores her experiences as a black woman within the feminist movement and discusses her engagement with cancer. They include "Cables of Rage," "Coal," "The Black Unicorn," "The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," "The Cancer Journals," "Sister Outsider," "I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities" and "Turning the Beat Around: Lesbian Parenting."
Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham offered a fitting tribute to Lorde's life and work at the time of her death.
"She took her frailties and misfortunes, her strengths and passions, and forged them into something searing, sometimes startling, always stirring verse," Graham wrote. "Her words pranced with cadence, full of their own rhythms, all punctuated resolve and spirit. With words spun into light, she could weep like Billie Holiday, chuckle like Dizzy Gillespie or bark bad like John Coltrane."
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