November 17, 2017

Twenty-five years after her death, what Audre Lorde left behind most definitely has a life of its own


“I’m finishing this piece of my bargain. And what I mean by that is it doesn’t matter how long it takes to finish it—I don’t know—but that that is the shape of where I am living and functioning, and then I’m going on to something else, the shape of which I have no idea. The only thing I know is it’s going to be quite different. What I leave behind has a life of its own — I’ve said this about poetry, I’ve said it about children. Well, in a sense I’m saying it about the very artifact of who I have been.”

These words were spoken by Audre Lorde, the epochal American poet, essayist, and thinker, not long before she died of cancer twenty-five years ago today.

Born in New York City in 1934, Lorde went on to write more than fifteen books, including the poetry collections New York Head Shop and MuseumCoal, and The Black Unicorn, the essay collections Uses of the Erotic and Sister Outsider, and the autobiographical works The Cancer Journals and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.

In subtle, forceful language that’s often driven by what she once called “the shifting tensions between the dissimilar,” Lorde’s work examines, declares, and reconfigures her place in the world: as a woman, a person of Afro-Caribbean heritage, a lesbian, a cancer patient, a parent, a poet, a fighter, an intellectual. She speaks of identity not as a monolithic kind of belonging, but rather as a field of contingencies, attracting, repelling, and rippling through one another. In “Who Said It Was Simple,” she describes a group of white women eating at a fast-food restaurant before a protest. A “brother” has been waiting to order, but the “almost white counterman” takes the women’s order first, “and the ladies neither notice nor reject / the slighter pleasures of their slavery. ” The poem ends:

But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in color
as well as sex

and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.

Lorde has been on more and more minds in recent years — we wrote last December about some University of Pennsylvania students who took it upon themselves to replace a campus portrait of William Shakespeare with one of her, and quotations from her work have adorned increasing numbers of bookstores, libraries, and social media feeds (“I am deliberate / and afraid / of nothing,” “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and “Women are powerful and dangerous” being maybe the three most often seen). Which is great.

Best of all is his work, of which there is a whole lot to read. And there’s no time like the present to get started, or revisit it.

As for putting some fuel in your Friday morning, the internet is surprisingly low on clips of Lorde. You should, however, definitely watch this brief, affecting trailer for Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson’s documentary A Litany for Survival, from which the quote that starts this post is taken:

And here’s Lorde during a stay in West Germany in the mid-eighties, reading her poem “A Woman Speaks”:

And here is some amazing footage of Lorde, back in Berlin nearly ten years later, shortly before her death (ignore the music somebody has inexplicably dubbed over the first half of the video.):

And finally, if you’re going to listen to anyone else talking about Audre Lorde today, you couldn’t do much better than to make it Angela Davis, who spoke at Medgar Evers College in 2014 about Lorde’s hard work “to pull apart the assumption that sameness is a prerequisite for unity”: