Audre Geraldine Lorde was born in New York City on February 18, 1934. Her parents were immigrants from the Caribbean island nation of Grenada who settled in Harlem.
Her parents enrolled her in Catholic elementary school, where Audre excelled. She applied to the prestigious Hunter High School and was accepted.
Audre loved poetry since childhood. She would read and memorize poems. When someone asked her how she was doing, she recited a poem that reflected her feelings. Around the age of twelve, she struggled to find poems that expressed her emotions, so she started writing her own poetry.
After high school, Audre attended Hunter College in New York City. While still a college student, her first poem was published in Seventeen magazine. She received her bachelor’s degree in library science in 1959 and completed her master’s degree from Columbia University, in the same subject, two years later.
Audre married Edwin Rollins in 1962. They had two children together. Edwin was a white man, and interracial marriage was uncommon at this time. It was even illegal in some states. But there was another reason why their marriage was unusual. Edwin was a gay man and Audre was a lesbian. Audre had been living openly as a lesbian since college. But discrimination against LGBTQ+ Americans meant that for many members of the community it was safer to stay closeted and marry someone of the opposite sex. Audre and Edwin agreed to allow each other to pursue same-sex relationships during their marriage.
With her library science degree, Audre started working as a librarian at the Town School in New York City. She also continued writing poetry.
Audre published her first poetry volume in 1968. It was called The First Cities. The book caught the attention of administrators at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, who offered her the position of poet in residence.
In 1970, Audre and Edwin divorced. Two years later, Audre met Frances Clayton, a white psychology professor, who became her long-time romantic partner. They lived openly as a lesbian couple.
As a teacher in academia, Audre was an outsider in many ways. In the 1970s, most professors were straight white men. Audre possessed none of those identities. Her experiences as a queer Black woman in this environment influenced her work. Inspired by the civil rights and feminist movements, the world of academia was changing. New fields like African American studies and women’s studies broadened the topics scholars were addressing and brought attention to groups that previously had been rarely discussed. Being in this new academic environment inspired Audre to write not only poetry but also thoughtful essays and articles about feminist theory, queer theory, and African American studies.
Audre continued to publish works of poetry as well, with six collections released between 1968 and 1978. From a Land Where Other People Live from 1972 was nominated for a National Book Award. She moved back to New York City in 1972, and Frances joined her. They settled in Staten Island, where Audre continued to write and teach.
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
Audre did not shy away from difficult topics in her poems. She believed it was important to share the truth, however hard and painful that might be. In 1973, a 10-year-old Black boy named Clifford Glover was fatally shot by Thomas Shea, a white undercover police officer, in Queens, New York. when she learned the officer had been acquitted, she had the following thoughts which resulted in her poem Power:
“A kind of fury rose up in me; the sky turned red. I felt so sick. I felt as if I would drive this car into a wall, into the next person I saw. So I pulled over. I took out my journal just to air some of my fury, to get it out of my fingertips.”
Audre’s poetry collection Coal, released in 1976, gave her wider recognition with the American public. She expressed her anger toward continued racism against Black Americans in some of the poems. In others, she explored her identity as a lesbian. Audre established herself as an influential member of the Black Arts Movement with this publication. This movement was led by Black American artists and focused on Black pride through art and activism.
In 1978, Audre was diagnosed with breast cancer. She made the difficult decision to undergo a mastectomy. She wrote about her experience in The Cancer Journals, released in 1980. This book explores her feelings facing death and includes excerpts from her diary. After her surgery, Audre refused to feel sorry for herself, and she characterized herself and other cancer survivors as warriors.
Audre used her literary talents as an activist as well. She wrote essays and gave speeches about feminism, racism, and LGBTQ+ rights. While continuing to write poetry, she also published several collections of her essays and speeches. One of these books, Sister Outsider, is still considered an important work for Black studies, women’s studies, and queer theory. In 1981, Audre co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press with Cherrie Moraga and Barbara Smith to help lift up other Black feminist writers.
As Audre got older, her work became increasingly personal. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name was published in 1982. Audre called it a “biomythography,” a combination of history, biography, and myth, telling the story of growing up in New York City.
Several years after defeating her first cancer diagnosis, Audre learned that the cancer had returned and spread to her liver. Instead of choosing to have more surgeries, she decided to explore alternative cancer treatments. She wrote about that experience in A Burst of Light, published in 1989. The book won an American Book Award.
By this time, Audre had moved to the island of Saint Croix of the U.S. Virgin Islands. She lived there with her partner Gloria Joseph, whom she had met after her relationship with Frances ended. Although Audre struggled with her cancer treatments, the two women founded several charitable and activist organizations on the island.
On September 18, 1989, Hurricane Hugo swept through the Caribbean and devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands. The hurricane caused widespread power outages and damaged almost every building in Saint Croix. Three people died and over 3,500 people became homeless. The U.S. Virgin Islands are an American territory, but the U.S. government was slow and inadequate in its response to