Unsung Heroines: Audre Lorde

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” – Audre Lorde


Despite the diverse and disparate nature of the world itself, the world of Literature – or rather, the world of publicised, canonical literature – remains disappointingly homogenous. Audre Lorde sought to change this. A librarian by trade, Lorde was a writer, poet, feminist (and womanist) who largely focused on issues of and relating to: civil rights, feminism and the exploration of black female identity. Writing right up until her death in 1992, Lorde described herself both as a part of a “continuum of women” and a “concert of voices” within herself.


Noticeably bright from a very young age, Lorde grew up in New York city as a daughter of Caribbean immigrants. Stories always played a large part in Lorde’s life, from a young age, she was near-sighted to the point of being classified as ‘legally blind’, and thus spent a great deal of her childhood listening to her mother’s stories about the West Indies. Lorde often struggled with communication as a child and began to use poetry as a way to express her emotions; at around the age of twelve, she began writing her own poetry and identified with others at her school who were considered ‘outcasts’, as she felt she was.


Lorde’s education played a pivotal role in helping her to cement her own identity. It was whilst studying at the National University of Mexico that she confirmed herself as both a lesbian and a poet, and on her return to New York, became an active participant in the gay culture of Greenwich village. In turn, Lorde spent many years of her life educating others. In 1984, Lorde started a visiting professorship in West Berlin, making a monumental impact on the women there and becoming a large part of the Afro-German movement (a term which she coined). Lorde’s love of language shone through, and instead of fighting systemic issues through violence, she strongly believed that words were the most powerful form of resistance and encouraged the women of Germany to speak up instead of fight back. The impact of her work was not restricted to just Afro-German women and instead touched nearly all of those around her; many white women and men found Lorde’s work to be very beneficial to their own lives, too – they started to put their privilege and power into question and became more conscious of intersectional lives.


In order to recognise large parts of Lorde’s work which was widely dismissed, Dagmar Schultz put together a documentary to highlight the Berlin chapter of Lorde’s life, entitled “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992”. The documentary was accepted by the Berlin Film Festival Berlinade and had its World Premiere at the 62nd Annual Festival in 2012. The film received many awards, including the Gold Award for Best Documentary at the International Film Festival for Women, Social Issues, and Zero Discrimination, and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Barcelona International LGBT Film Festival. The documentary revealed the previous lack of recognition that Lorde received for her contributions towards the theories of intersectionality.


Above all, Lorde deserves recognition for her contributions to the Literary sphere; she had an incredible ability to mimic the many layers of ‘selfhood’ – Birkle writes that “her multicultural self is thus reflected in a multicultural text, in multi-genres, in which the individual cultures are no longer separate and autonomous entities but melt into a larger whole without losing their individual importance”. Despite the success of many other bodies of writing produced by Lorde, including the wonderful poetry of From a Land Where otherPeople Live, it was the release of Coal in 1976 which cemented Lorde’s position as a key figure of the Black Arts movement.


For someone who accomplished as much as she did, it seems Lorde has been systemically ignored due to her status as a black, queer woman. Lorde forever worked to increase the representation of Black Women within Literature and the wider world and should be remembered for her uniquely inspiring voice within all the causes she supported, along with her incredible talent for the written word.