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Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 65-67
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Searching for Audre Lorde *
Alexis De Veaux
Part 1: In the Family
Before Audre Lorde died, she directed two of the executors of her estate, her daughter, Elizabeth, and partner, Gloria Joseph, to make sure a biography about her was written. In the tumultuous, cancer-ridden two years before her life ended on November 17, 1992, she committed to several hours of interviews with Gloria Joseph, for that biography. When Gloria called me in September, 1994, and invited me to assist in bringing this biography forward, I did not leap at the opportunity, giving, what I thought was careful consideration to a project I immediately understood as a major undertaking. I did not know Audre personally. Others knew her far better, had worked with her on a number of significant projects and were certainly more intimately connected to her work. Besides that, I thought, what more could be written about a woman who'd written so extensively about herself? True, we'd known of each other and of one another's work. We'd shared the stage at a couple of poetry readings in New York City in the early 1980s. As part of the opening act, for me, these were major events. For Audre, whose public persona then was larger-than-life, I'm sure these were minor gigs, obligations, in an extremely busy schedule.
In 1985, we were both members of a delegation of black women writers who'd been invited to Cuba, a trip sponsored by The Black Scholar and the Union of Cuban Writers. The delegation included Toni Cade Bambara, Mildred Pitts Walter, Jayne Cortez, Rosa Guy, Gloria Joseph, Verta Mae Grosvernor, Mari Evans and sculptor Melvin Edwards, the only man in the group. It was during that March trip I had my first, and only, conversations with her.
We were on the roof deck of the Hotel Havana, where the delegation was staying. Most of the women were from New York, and we were glad to have escaped from a winter we all agreed had been depressingly cold. Several of us shed our tops, letting the Cuban sun warm our winter-tired bodies. I'd chosen a lounge chair right next to Audre's, sharing suntan oil as we talked. She was open and funny, to my surprise, and easy to converse with. When I shared with her that I was ill at ease in such an illustrious group, she was immediately generous. The affirming nod of her head, her words, her acknowledgment of our shared sisterhood as black women writers, paid me the highest compliment at a time I sorely needed someone like her to shore up my resolve, and to keep writing. She gave me a hand to hold, and a mirror to hold in my other hand.
I'd read her book, The Cancer Journals, and knew of her battles against breast cancer. From it, I knew she was a woman intimately knowledgeable about her own body. So it wasn't the bathing suit top she slid off, or the shameless pleasure of baring her one great breast to the sun, that made me peek. It was the scar where the breast wasn't. How she rubbed it with oil, lovingly nonchalant. How she embraced it. I think she meant for me to see her scarification, which was [End Page 65] like a written text. She meant for me to know that the scar from my own surgery a year before--and the multiple fibroid tumors I was now free of--bound me to a history of "texts" written upon women's bodies.
Over the course of our time in Cuba, we shared more about ourselves; as we bussed around Havana with the delegation, visited with the Cuban poets Nancy Morejon and Nicolas Guillen, took pictures, shared meals, talked with others in her room at night about whether the Cuban revolution had truly challenged racism, and what was the real status of lesbians and gays there. Although I saw her at readings and other events after that trip, we never spoke again...