Praise the Lorde: reading a new biography of Audre Lorde, Rebecca Walker reflects on the life and work of the legendary poet

Rebecca Walker

Although I remember running my fingers along the spines of The Black Unicorn and Zami in our bookshelves, and my mother tells me that the author visited our apartment in San Francisco when I was a teenager, I didn’t have my definitive Audre Lorde moment until years later, during my flint year at Yale. I was assigned Sister Outsider, the now-classic Lorde collection of passionate essays and speeches on a wide variety of topics, including raising a son in a lesbian household and the use of the erotic as a transformational social force. Inspired by both the intellectual dynamism and the emotional resonance Lorde brought to her subjects, I became, over the course of a few hours in my favorite campus reading room, hooked.

Two weeks later I had written my first Lorde-inspired essay, a strident piece called “On the Detriments of Educating Our Oppressors and Not Ourselves,” which summed up my experiences on campus as a tireless explainer of all things racist and sexist to people who may or may not have given a damn. I argued that my own education was more important than the one I was requested to provide my fellow students in the name of diversity and multiculturalism and that all freedom fighters should consider carefully the amount of time they spent cultivating the minds of those who oppress them. If we weren’t careful, I maintained, even our movements for liberation would be defined by servitude.

What is most significant to me now, 15 years later, is not the opinion of the essay, which seems a bit dualistic and heavy-handed, but the forceful, self-assured voice in which it is written. Lorde’s work encouraged me to find, as a budding writer and activist, a place from which to speak that honored my full subjectivity. My rage, sadness, exhaustion, disgust, fear were all worthy of expression because, according to Lorde, my feelings could be an accurate guide, a reliable platform upon which to construct social and political theory. True self-preservation, Lorde offered, necessitated being brutally honest about one’s complexity, even if it intruded on the comfort zone of one’s comrades. For what good is a liberation movement if one cannot be oneself within it? All of my work thus far, including my books on third-wave feminism and growing up mixed-race, has been shaped by this question.

I am not the only one with an “Audre Lorde changed my life” story. She was one of the most influential poets and thinkers of our time. Perhaps best known for her “theory of difference,” Lorde articulated for a generation the psychic and political necessity of celebrating and not denying one’s multiple identities. As a self-defined “black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet warrior,” she demanded that the women’s movement be held accountable for its racism and homophobia and that the civil rights movement be at least cognizant of the ongoing oppression of gays and lesbians. Due to her West Indian ancestry and extensive world travel, Lorde was also able–like W.E.B. DuBois, Prod Robeson, and other civil rights leaders before her–to contextualize American struggles for equality within a global movement against tyranny of all kinds.

But Lorde was even more complex than that. For many years she was also a wife in an interracial marriage to a white gay man and an unapologetic bisexual polyamorist, maintaining at least two intimate relationships at any given time. Unlike many artists who felt that political themes could invalidate the “universal” in their work, Lorde saw no contradiction in making art that was both overtly political and deeply human. A full two decades before Samantha on Sex and the City defiantly ripped off her wig at a benefit for breast cancer research, Lorde herself came out as a survivor. She documented her fight in her first prose classic, The Cancer Journals, before succumbing to the disease 12 years later, in 1992, at age 58.

Alexis De Veaux’s nuanced and insightful biography, Warrior Poet (Norton, $29.95), is an important contribution to Lorde’s legacy, and takes the next step in the ongoing attempt to canonize her achievements within the annals of American letters. It’s part traditional biography, part American history seminar, and part intimate portrait of a driven master artist, and De Veaux skillfully reveals the journey of vigorous sell-proclamation that was Lorde’s Life. The book begins with the emigration of Lorde’s excessively color-conscious parents to Harlem from the island of Grenada and charts Lorde’s development from rebellious literary teen–she befriended other budding poets like Diane di Prima and moved out of her parents’ house at 17–to world-renowned black lesbian icon and mother of two.

De Veaux’s thorough and compelling research, fluid and concise writing style, and attention to the emotional and psychological core of Lorde’s being makes file book a riveting page-turner. Excerpts from Lorde’s own journals flesh out the subtext of her very public relationship with her long-term female partner Frances Clayton as well as provide generous insight into Lorde’s own fears about losing touch with her muse. Correspondence with Adrienne Rich, a lifelong friend and staunch ally, and Gyn/Ecology author Mary Daly offer important testimony to the on-the-ground battle of women of color to be understood and respected by powerful white women within the women’s movement. Details of meetings with June Jordan and James Bald win, Michelle Cliff and Pat Parker, as well as specifics of contact with my mother, Alice Walker, when they were both nominated in 1974 (with Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsberg) for the National Book Award, serve to further locate Lorde within her artistic milieu.

Especially brave is De Veaux’s willingness to tell details that might ordinarily be omitted, including Lorde’s sporadic use of amphetamines, abusive fits of anger (she hit her husband on more than one occasion), and ambivalence about intimacy with black women. While other reviewers have found De Veaux’s attention to Lorde’s “flaws” problematic, I found it reassuring. In ray opinion, a good biography gives us something to aspire to and also cautions us against the heady pull of ego, of believing we are right even when we are not. Nowhere is this evenhandedness more needed than when reviewing cultural figures who are revered and even worshipped–deified, if you will–by their fans. De Veaux’s comprehensive rendering, in that it attempts to re-create Lorde whole and not fragmented, can also be seen as an act of love.

Walker is author of Black, White and Jewish and What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future (Riverhead).

COPYRIGHT 2004 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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