Audre Lorde: ‘Black, Lesbian, Mother, Warrior, Poet’

Audre Lorde was unapologetic about who she was. A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Lorde’s left her mark on poetry forever.

Author's Corner Black Voices Diverse Voices Female Voices LGBTQ Voices
Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was more than just a poet. She was a feminist, womanist, librarian, civil rights activist, and ally for the LGBTQ+ community. She used her platform to speak up for the voiceless and speak out against racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. In other words, she’s a true pioneer.

To close out our series on Poetry’s Pioneering Women series, we’re taking a look at the legacy of Audre Lorde and the mark she left on not just literature, but the world.

Early Life

Audre Lorde was born as Audrey Geraldine Lorde in New York City to two Caribbean immigrants in 1934. As a young child, Audre dropped the “y” when spelling her first name because she loved the symmetry of the two “e’s” at the endings of her first and last name, especially when placed next to each other. Her family settled in Harlem and she grew up listening to stories from her mother about the West Indies. Lorde attended Catholic schools before graduating from Hunter College High School in 1951.

As a young child, Lorde struggled with communication, so she turned to poetry. Lorde saw poetry as a form of expression and memorized poems to use to help voice her feelings to others. When existing poetry didn’t quite satisfy her, Lorde began writing her own.

I used to speak in poetry. I would read poems, and I would memorize them. People would say, well what do you think, Audre. What happened to you yesterday? And I would recite a poem and somewhere in that poem would be a line or a feeling I would be sharing. In other words, 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, and that was when I was twelve or thirteen.

Audre Lorde

The Beginnings of a Legacy

Audre Lorde- Poetry's Pioneering Women

Audre Lorde’s first poem appeared in Seventeen magazine- while she was still in high school! After high school Lorde received her BA from Hunter College and then an MLS from Columbia University. In 1962 she married Edward Rollins, with whom she had two children. They divorced in 1970.

“Coal” (1976)

In 1968 Lorde published her first collection of poems, The First Cities. The collection is described as “quiet,” but overall an “introspective” book. The First Cities includes the poem “Coal,” which describes a sense of power in being black and explores, in vivid detail, how words and language shape our very existence.

“Coal” by Audre Lorde

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 a sound comes into a word, coloured   
By who pays what for speaking.

Some words are open
Like a diamond on glass windows
Singing out within the crash of passing sun
Then there are words like stapled wagers
In a perforated book—buy and sign and tear apart—
And come whatever wills all chances
The stub remains

An ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.
Some words live in my throat
Breeding like adders. Others know sun
Seeking like gypsies over my tongue
To explode through my lips
Like young sparrows bursting from shell.
Some words
Bedevil me.

Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth’s inside   
Take my word for jewel in your open light.

A Quick Analysis of “Coal”

In “Coal,” Lorde likens words to being a source of power, especially for her. Some words are as impactful as “a diamond on glass windows/ Singing out within the crash of passing sun.” In this line we can almost hear the sound of a diamond breaking glass and visualize it shining in the sunlight. The imagery she injects into her lines are beautiful and make this poem all the more impactful.

She describes some words as essentially begging to be set free from her: “Some words live in my throat/ Breeding like adders. Others know sun/ Seeking like gypsies over my tongue/ To explode through my lips/ Like young sparrows bursting from shell.”

The metaphor of coal is extremely important in this poem and works in tandem with the idea of words being powerful. By the end of the piece coal becomes a “jewel.” Using words as a source of power and describing coal as “total black… From the earth’s inside,” Lorde creates a sense of power in being black. With coal being tied to the earth, a literal source of power for civilization, she lifts up her black readers and empowers them to be proud of their heritage.

A Lasting Career & Speaking Her Truth

Audre Lorde- Poetry's Pioneering Women

In the same year she published The First Cities, Audre Lorde also lead a poetry workshop at at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. It was here that she discovered a passion for teaching and witnessed the deep racial tensions in the South. She led workshops with young, black undergraduates who were eager to discuss civil rights issues of that time.

She also met Frances Clayton, who would become her long-term partner. Lorde published her second collection of poetry, Cables to Rage, in 1970. The collection tackled themes like family, love, and addressed her sexuality in the poem, “Martha.” Shortly after, Lorde published another collection, From a Land Where Other People Live in 1973, and New York Head Shot and Museum in 1974.

As Audre Lorde grew older and more confident in her sexuality her poetry became more personal and open. In 1976 Audre Lorde saw the publication of two more of her poetry collections, Coal and The Black Unicorn. Black Unicorn earned praise from Adrienne Rich, a fellow poet. Rich said of Black Unicorn, “Lorde writes as a Black woman, a mother, a daughter, a Lesbian, a feminist, a visionary.”

The Berlin Years

Perhaps one of the most impactful periods in Lorde’s career was the “Berlin Years,” from 1984-1992. In 1984 Lorde began a visiting professorship at the Free University of Berlin in West Berlin, Germany. While there Lorde worked with a group of black women activists, coining the term “Afro-German” and giving rise to the black movement in Germany.

Lorde became a mentor to a number of women during her trips to Germany, including May Ayim, an educator, poet, and activist who fought against racism in German society. Lorde encouraged the women of Germany to speak up for for what they believed in rather than resorting to violence.

The Legacy of Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde- Berlin Years

Audre Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and underwent a mastectomy. Unfortunately the cancer came back six years later, and while undergoing treatment she wrote The Cancer Journals, which documented her trails with cancer. She unfortunately passed away in 1992 at the age of 58.

Audre Lorde’s work in Germany helped to increase awareness of intersectionality across racial and ethnic lines. In the States, her influence is still felt today, especially among the African American, LGBTQ+, and female populations. She used to power of her words to fight personal, political, and societal battles. She uplifted not just herself, but also the groups of people society looked down upon.

From 1991 until her death, Audre Lorde was a New York State Poet laureate. In 2001 the Publishing Triangle instituted the Audre Lorde Award to honor works of lesbian poetry, and in 2019 was one of the 50 American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. Besides Lorde’s poetry, her prose and essays, like Sister Outsider and A Burst of Light have earned national recognition, with Light winning a National Book Award.

Before her death, Audre Lorde participated in an African naming ceremony. She took the name Gambia Adisa, which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.”