"I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood," wrote Audre Lorde in her essay, "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action." 1 Poet, activist and icon, Lorde profoundly shaped the women's and gay liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s, and her words resonate powerfully today. This comprehensive biography, the first about Lorde to be published, fully renders Lorde's life and legacy, providing a vivid account of the development of her activism and documenting the evolution of her ideas over the course of her working life.
Organized chronologically, Warrior Poet is divided into two parts, which cover "two lives." As Alexis DeVeaux explains in her introduction, Lorde's first life was determined by "the three themes of escape, freedom, and self-actualization," and this part comprises most of the book, covering her childhood, adolescence, and coming of age as a poet, mother, an out lesbian, and later as a public figure. Lorde's "second life," covered in a single chapter and a five-page epilogue, began in 1978 after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy; in DeVeaux's words, "the impact of cancer performed a transfiguration not only of Lorde's physicality but of her personality, creativity, and social activism" (xii). The book concludes in 1986, when Lorde moved to St. Croix to live with the scholar and activist Gloria Joseph, thus returning to the Caribbean her parents had emigrated from; it was the place where she would die at the age of fifty-eight. The symmetry of this return aside, DeVeaux notes that a compelling reason why she ended the narrative at that point is because she "did not wish to overemphasize" Lorde's long struggle with cancer (xiv).
Born in Harlem in 1934, the youngest of three daughters, Audre Lorde was reared in a strict household that, ironically perhaps, did much to spur her drive and ambition. Her parents were Catholics with strong work ethics and definite ideas about how their daughters should behave. Lorde's mother in particular was emotionally distant, a light-skinned woman who constantly disparaged dark-skinned people. Alienated from her parents, different in temperament and interests than her two sisters, Lorde was driven to become an excellent student, thereby gaining a certain measure of freedom. Her academic success led to admission to Hunter High School, where she forged friendships with other serious, iconoclastic students. She had crushes on other girls and on female teachers, experiencing "mixed feelings" about her sexuality. She also began publishing poems. By graduation life at home had become intolerable, and Lorde found a job, moved in with a friend, and later began studies at Hunter College. She dropped out of Hunter in 1952, leaving New York and traveling to Mexico, where she had brief but significant relationships with women, developing "a deeper sense of herself as lesbian" (53). She remained [End Page 662] largely closeted, though, returning to New York, her studies, and a complex social life that included sexual relationships with women and men. In 1962 she married Ed Rollins, a white, gay lawyer; they had a daughter and a son before the marriage fell apart in 1970. By then Lorde had begun a relationship with Frances Clayton, a white academic Lorde met when the two were exchange instructors at Tougaloo College. Lorde's commitment to Clayton (though not to monogamy) led her to live openly as a lesbian for the first time. Together they formed a new household, sharing responsibilities for parenting Elizabeth and Jonathan, Lorde's children. They purchased a house on Staten Island, where they had more trees and space than in Manhattan, but where, initially, the family was the frequent target of racist and homophobic antagonism.
With her domestic life more settled...