Photo by K. Kendall, April 1980, Austin, TX, via Flickr
African American, Cultural Theory, Philosophy, Library Work
Audre Geraldine Lorde was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet and essayist” whose work highlighted the tenets of intersectional critical theorizing in race, gender, and sexuality. Lorde was born in New York City to West Indian immigrant parents. She graduated from Hunter College (1959) and later earned an MLS from Columbia University (1961). She began her career as a professional librarian in the New York public school system but soon pursued a career in writing. In 1968, Lorde served as a poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College, followed by study at the National University of Mexico, where she further developed her artistry. She first taught at Lehman College Department of Education (1969-1970) before becoming a Professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (1970-1981). She later accepted the Distinguished Thomas Hunter Chair at Hunter College (1981-1986). After an eight-year marriage, she divorced in 1970, raising two children as a lesbian parent.
As a Black, queer woman in white academia, Lorde’s contributions to feminist theory, critical race studies, and queer theory illustrate how the personal is political. She articulated early on the intersections of race, class, and gender in canonical essays such as “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (1984). In this essay, Lorde alludes to W.E.B. Dubois’ notion of double consciousness as the way African Americans and other subordinated and colonized peoples view themselves through the lens of dominant society. She suggests that the concept of hegemony, or the relationship between power and difference is embedded in formal and informal institutions across every level of society and is central to their experiences in dominant society. Her work asks: Who has the power to define a person’s or groups’ characteristics? Who is pressured into upholding a dominant group’s features, even as they are marginalized for embodying their own characteristics? Lorde asserts that the creativity of individuals will be the catalyst for the genuine change needed to reshape society. She foregrounds the subversive role of “watchers,” who adapt the folklore of the oppressors to navigate society on their own terms, and heralds creativity as a way people live out everyday cultural and social complexity from their own perspectives. Lorde collaborated with Cherrie Moraga and Barbara Smith in 1981 to found Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, dedicated to publishing the writings of Black feminists. Her honors and awards include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and her appointment as poet laureate of New York (1991-1992). During an extended battle with terminal cancer, she documented her experiences in The Cancer Journals (1980) and A Burst of Light (1989). Nearing the end of her life Lorde took the African name “Gamba Adisa” which means “she who makes her meaning clear.” She published twelve books during her lifetime. Among her publications of interest to folklorists are:
The Cancer Journals (1980)
“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, pp. 110-114. (1984)
“Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” In Beverly Guy-Sheftal ed., Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought pp. 284–291 (1995)