The Poetry of Lorde The Importance of Names

Audre Lorde

The Importance of Names

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

At readings or interviews, Audre Lorde often introduced herself by naming the qualities that defined her: black, feminist, lesbian, poet. After her operation for breast cancer, she frequently added, “post-mastectomy woman.” By naming, she brought into the light of day subjects that are often hidden. Lorde insisted on candor, on examining issues that are often viewed as divisive, and, moreover, throughout her work she calls for honesty, justice, and bringing together divergent human perspectives that seem to divide but that Lorde insisted need not.

Her insistence on naming began early. When she was still a child first learning to write, she changed the spelling of her name from Audrey to Audre, a symbolic gesture indicating that she would be her own self. Her direction was thus clearly set while she was still in grade school. She recounts this incident in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), a volume she calls a “biomythography.” Naming imparts immense power, and it is therefore no surprise that Lorde seems to have instinctively realized this early in life. She uses naming also when she writes of her recognition of her lesbianism, saying in “Artisan,” from The Black Unicorn, “I did not recognize/ the shape/ of my own name.” In “Between Ourselves,” she pleads for tolerance through the use of names: “Do not mistake my flesh for the enemy/ do not write my name in the dust.”