Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
Audrey Geraldine Lorde was born on February 18, 1934, in New York City, the third child of Linda Gertrude Belmar Lorde and Frederick Byron Lorde. Her parents had immigrated to the United States from Grenada ten years previously. After the births of his three daughters, Lorde’s father attended real estate school and began to manage small rooming houses in Harlem. Lorde later remembered how consistently her parents shared responsibility for the family.
Lorde was an inarticulate child who did not begin to speak until she was approximately five years old. At that time, she was charmed out of a tantrum in a library by a librarian who read several storybooks to her. The young Audrey then began to interact with the world, learning to read, then to speak, and then to write. As she was growing up, Lorde communicated through poetry, responding to questions or comments with poems she had memorized. When she was twelve or thirteen, she began to write her own poetry to express feelings that were not reflected in what she had been reading. Initially, Lorde did not write down her poems; rather, she preferred to memorize them.
Even as a child, Lorde exhibited independence in her approach to life. For example, as she recounts in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), when she was first learning to print her name, Lorde disliked the tail of the “y” in “Audrey.” Instead, she liked the evenness of “Audre Lorde,” a lifelong preference. Part of her unique view of the world may stem from the fact that Lorde was vision-impaired. When she was three years old, she recalled that “the dazzling world of strange lights and fascinating shapes which I inhabited resolved itself in mundane definitions, and I learned another nature of things as seen through eyeglasses.”
Lorde progressed through grade school in New York, finally spending four years at Hunter High School, where her poetry became an accepted effort rather than a “rebellious vice” and where she was elected literary editor of the school arts magazine. This period in her life was tumultuous and was marked by a strained relationship with her parents, her mother especially. However, her first published poem was accepted during her high school years by Seventeen magazine. About her first love affair with a boy, the poem was judged by her English teachers to be “too romantic” to be included in the school paper.
Two weeks after her high school graduation, Lorde moved out of her parents’ home and became self-supporting. After a few years of working as a nurse’s aide and at various other jobs, she had saved enough to take her to Mexico, where she attended the National University of Mexico in 1954.
After her return from Mexico, Lorde worked as a librarian while continuing to write poetry and essays. She completed her bachelor of arts degree at Hunter College in 1959 and her master of library science degree at the Columbia University School of Library Science in 1960. In 1962, Lorde married Edwon Ashley Rollins and subsequently gave birth to a daughter and a son. She and Rollins divorced in 1970. In 1968, shortly after the publication of her first book of poems, Lorde was offered a position as poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College, an experience she called pivotal. Her first trip into the South, it was also her first time away from her children and the first time that she had to deal with young black students in a workshop setting. During this time, she realized that writing and teaching were inseparable and that she had found her calling.
Lorde had continued to teach, write, and travel when, in 1978, she discovered a lump in her breast which turned out to be malignant. Though battling breast cancer, Lorde kept writing and, later, collated some of her writings into The Cancer Journals (1980), a remarkable story of despair, hope, support, and courage. A Burst of Light: Essays (1988) similarly documents her illness. Such candidness was typical of Lorde, whose life experiences and work are inextricably woven together.
Among other honors, Lorde was the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts grants (1968 and 1981), and she received the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, which conferred the name of poet laureate of New York in 1991. The following year, she succumbed to cancer, though recognizing that “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.”
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