Feminist, lesbian, warrior, poet: rediscovering the work of Audre Lorde

The American activist showed a generation how to fuse the personal and political.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

To write is to create something that will have its own life, Audre Lorde thought. A writer needs to hold her nerve, conquer her fears and speak out. Her great mantra – and the title of this Lorde reader, which collects for the first time in a single volume a selection of her poetry and essays – was: “Your silence will not protect you.”

It’s strange to think that Lorde would now be 84. (She was 58 when she died in November 1992.) Trying to imagine what she would have made of the world we live in today is not the least bit difficult. Her words are current and run alongside our lives. Her writing did not just have its own life, but now has an afterlife – though the term “afterlife” is not altogether satisfying when it comes to Lorde, because it immediately makes you think of death. To read her now is to feel accompanied through these strange and surreal political times.

Her work still speaks directly to us. This is from an essay entitled “Age, Race, Class and Sex”, included in the reader:

For we have, built into all of us, old blueprints of expectation and response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Audre Lorde was born Audrey Geraldine Lorde in 1934 in Harlem, New York. Her parents were from Barbados and Carriacou. Near-sighted and defined as legally blind, Lorde nonetheless taught herself to read at the age of four and memorised poetry from a very young age. (She dropped the Y in Audrey as soon as she learned to read.) Poetry was a survival tool. “I am not only a casualty,” she later said. “I am also a warrior.”

Lorde attended the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1954 (which gave her a lifelong love for the country) and Hunter College, New York, in 1959. She worked as a librarian and was a visiting professor for many years in Berlin. (Dagmar Schultz made an award-winning documentary about her time there.) She was New York’s poet laureate from 1991 until her death the following year, an honour that meant a lot to her.

Lorde – black, feminist, mother, lesbian, poet, teacher, Zami – always introduced herself with a long list. It was unusual then to name yourself so particularly. She wanted to show that she was complex, that she contained multitudes, that she would not prioritise one aspect of her identity over another. The kind of person who would ask, “Is being black more important to your identity than being a woman or a lesbian?” baffled and annoyed her.

In her work, too, Lorde was hard to define. She wrote across the forms; her poetry, her essays and her memoirs are equally loved. Lorde was a polymath, a poly-mother. She made you want to invent new words. She created unique forms and encouraged a generation of people to fuse the personal and the political. She was passionate about the body as well as the body politic. The Cancer Journals is a brave, beautiful book that could double as a handbook to accompany anyone on their journey through cancer. It is questioning, and it has not a note of self-pity. It was ahead of its time.

I first met Audre in 1984. At the time, I was working for Sheba Feminist Press, which produced an English edition of her wonderful “biomythography” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. It had pink waves on the cover. Back then, I lived with three other lesbians in a house on Manor Road in Stoke Newington, and I invited Audre to stay as she was attending the first International Feminist Book Fair. She wrote back saying that it was kind of me to offer and that she would accept, but that if she found she needed her own space she would move to a hotel. (She stayed with me for the whole time.) We held a welcome party and a group of black feminists and lesbians came to meet her. She was a presence in a room but at the same time easy to get along with. She had already had her cancer and a mastectomy. (She had come from Germany, where she was receiving an unusual treatment involving mistletoe.)

Though weak and unwell, she still had plenty of energy. I was struck by how she had refused to wear a prosthesis – covering things up was not in Audre’s nature. Instead, she made a dynamic virtue of being her true self: she would wear one long earring and one stud to mirror being one-breasted. She wore her one breast like a Dahomey warrior queen.

She had to have a special diet of steamed food (no oil), but I remember us going into a Jewish bakery in Stamford Hill, and her delightedly buying a huge box of cakes. She was great fun to be with; nothing escaped her attention. She was fascinated by the natural landscape and had been a geologist, so just walking out with Audre was a treat. She always stopped to pick something up, to tell you the story of a stone.

I first tasted a black fig when I visited Audre in her house in Staten Island, New York, where she then lived with her long-time partner Frances Clayton – though she was in transition and was shortly to move to Saint Croix, in the US Virgin Islands, to be with her last partner, Gloria I Joseph. She asked me if I had ever tasted one before. “No?” she said. “Then you haven’t lived.” And she peeled the fig and fed it to me, standing outside in her garden
by the fig tree.

Audre was just three years younger than my mother, but she never struck me as someone from that generation. She articulated for many people that strange and emergent newness you feel when you have decided to come out. Her message was clear: we should transform silence into language and action.

Death… might be coming quickly,
now, without regard for whether
I had ever spoken what needed to
be said, or had only betrayed myself
into small silences…  I was going to die,
if not sooner then later, whether or not
I had ever spoken myself. My silences
had not protected me. Your silence
will not protect you.

In those early days of the black feminist movement – of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) and the Black Lesbian Group (BLG) – Audre’s words were a breath of fresh air. We had only just found each other. We were only just hearing each other’s stories. Some of the 50 or so members of the BLG had never met other black lesbians before. We’d come from all over the country, from Glasgow and Glossop to London, and the two things converged – discovering each other and reading the work of Lorde. She encouraged people to find their voices. She made a big impact on me when she told me, “You know, Jackie, you can be black and Scottish. You don’t have to choose.”

Everything she said seemed fresh, but it also contained a deep and ancient truth: poetry is not a luxury. “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call America, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson – that we were never meant to survive.” In an interview that Pratibha Parmar and I conducted with Audre for Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women, Lorde said: “Don’t let them muck around with your realities. You may not be able to make very much inroad, but at least you’ve got to stop feeling quite so crazy. Because, after a while, constantly exposed to unacknowledged racism, black women get to feeling really crazy.”

During that first week’s visit to London in 1984, I accompanied her to interviews with radio stations and to readings at places such as Conway Hall and the Africa Centre. Driving her around – driving Ms Lorde – I was struck by the enthusiasm that greeted her. Audre had such a huge following, even though her work had only just been published here. People had sought her out (as they sought out some of her contemporaries, such as June Jordan and Alice Walker). She helped people to survive.

There was a fervour that greeted Audre. She had the aura of a superstar. To hear her was to be aware that you were in the company of somebody who would become legendary. You knew that her words would reach an ever-widening audience. She had a way of reading, of enunciating her lines and letting the vowels hang in the air, one line perhaps belonging to the one in front of it or the one behind. Her readings captured the rich ambivalence of her line breaks, the complexities of what she was trying to say: “For those of us/who were imprinted with fear/like a faint line in the center of our foreheads…”

A framed poster of “A Litany for Survival” signed by Audre hangs in my kitchen. It has come with me from house to house since she first gave me the poem when she came to stay in 1984 and I was 23. It is probably the poem that captures the essence of what she wants to say about silence. Many of the poems from The Black Unicorn are included in this reader, as are many of my favourites. It is perhaps her most unified collection, effortlessly weaving ancient African myth with contemporary reality.

Her work is so quotable. It has the zeitgeist factor. The other day at the Edinburgh Festival, I went to see Hot Brown Honey, a fantastic cabaret and variety group of black women from Australia. On the screen behind them appeared Audre’s words: Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, revelling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.

Lorde’s body of work is best approached holistically. You need the whole picture, which is why this book is so welcome. When you read all of her work, you see her poetry in conversation with her prose, how her ideas cross-pollinate her forms; you see that her work should be digested and taken in the same spirit that she introduced herself. She was somebody who mashed things up, who questioned the borders between things, who knew that the stories our bodies tell were important, who knew that hiding things could be destructive and corrosive. She was not afraid to say the difficult thing, to fall out with people. She had felt very alone, the aloneness that came with being ahead of her time. And yet she embraced the huge contradictions and complexities of being a black lesbian in the 1970s and 1980s.

Black lives mattered to Audre Lorde before Black Lives Matter. In her poem “After-images”, she wrote:

I inherited Jackson, Mississippi.
For my majority it gave me Emmett Till
his 15 years puffed out like bruises
on plump boy-cheeks

his only Mississippi summer
whistling a 21 gun salute to Dixie
as a white girl passed him in the street
and he was baptized my son forever
in the midnight waters of the Pearl.

She is here, in this future that she hoped we wouldn’t have, through the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, through Charlottesville and the inauguration of Donald Trump. She would have been standing side by side. She might have worn a “pussyhat”, or might not have, but she would have been on the women’s marches, still making her voice heard and still finding something to be hopeful about.

Audre Lorde speaks not just for the living. She also speaks for the dead, for all those people who stood up and were knocked down, for those who spoke out and were silenced. She spoke in advance of the dead lives she did not live to see. Her rage rings through these times. It has the power of a huge bell rung across centuries. Now, just as much as ever, we need the voice of Audre Lorde. Your Silence Will Not Protect You is both a perfect introduction and a lovely way to remake her acquaintance. 

Jackie Kay is the Scottish Makar (poet laureate). Her collection “Bantam” is published by Picador on 19 October and she appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 26 November: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Essays and Poems
Audre Lorde
Silver Press, 230pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy