Audre Lorde died just as she was writing her best poetry. A brief review of the titles of her works indicates much about her life and her writing, for the two were inextricably bound. Lorde was one of the first women in the United States to admit honestly to all of her “affiliations,” as she sometimes would wryly call them. She was a mother but also a feminist and a lesbian. She was part African American and part German. She was an educated woman who had grown up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, although she was too young to remember its writers or events personally.
All these affiliations and events were to affect her writing, in addition to the one event that Lorde thought of absolute importance to her and her friends, and those who read her work. She was a cancer survivor, or at least she was for most of her last thirteen years. Her autobiographical The Cancer Journals were written at a time when cancer was still considered one’s private illness, and certainly no African American had written what it was like to have breast cancer, to take treatments, to be scared, and to go through a ritual scarification of her body. No woman, moreover, had testified to these truths with the precise lucidity of Lorde’s slim volume. Unfortunately, the book was brought out by a small press (perhaps because of its content), so its initial circulation was limited. It went out of print and stayed that way until 1997, five years after Lorde’s death as a result of the cancer.
As any of her books testify, Lorde was a stubborn woman, but a sensitive one. The same woman who wrote beautiful poetry could swear down a room full of men who ignored the needs of women. Through her own willpower, Lorde fought to get out of Harlem, but she always believed that black people needed to hear her, so she stayed in New York her whole life.
The causes that...
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