first met Audre Lorde in 1977, when I was a student in one of Gloria Joseph's social science classes at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts. The course may have been "Racism, Sexism, and Monopoly Capitalism," or it may have been "Black Women and White Women." Whatever the topic, Dr. Joseph's courses were usually the most talked-about classes in the college, as well as in the surrounding five-college area. Having Audre Lorde as a guest speaker was perfectly in keeping with the level of seriousness Gloria's students had become accustomed to.
At that time, Audre was the only person any of us knew of who was fighting societal oppression on every front. Who she was--a Black feminist, lesbian, poet, mother, and person living with cancer--embodied more struggles than most of us had ever thought existed. It had taken her all her life to become who she was, and she insisted on owning all of it. For Audre, owning her identities meant taking pride and celebrating herself as a whole person, an integrated person. She was not alienated from herself or her work in the way so many of us are. She insisted on doing meaningful work, and she took responsibility for creating a life for herself that would enable her to do so.
In such essays as "Poetry is Not a Luxury" and "The Power of the Erotic," Audre spoke eloquently about the importance of being in touch with one's feelings and creativity. In a way, this is where Lorde's sense of "community" began: understanding that if we don't have a valued relationship with ourselves, we won't have meaningful relationships with others.
Audre cultivated her understanding of herself. She knew herself very well. She believed that the worth she had learned to put on herself and her own perceptions were how she managed to survive being a "sister outsider," someone "never meant to survive."
Having learned to listen to herself, she also knew how to listen to and hear other people. She asked questions and responded to our answers in ways that got us interested in our own lives. And it was a delight to make her laugh or trigger her characteristic "h-m-m-m-m." Most importantly, she got us talking to each other--despite painful divisions, family resemblances, and herstories of not being able to see "eye to eye."
hen I returned to New York from college, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to study poetry at Hunter College with Audre Lorde. Audre put an excitement and intensity into her classes that made us feel like whatever we were discussing was the most fascinating topic in the world. She showed us the power we each had within ourselves; told us to use that power and to always remember that we had it, despite forces that sought to misname, dismiss, ignore, or obliterate us. She taught us to respond to each other's poetry by talking about how the poem made us feel. If the poems didn't make us feel anything, then it wasn't working.
One young African-American Gay poet named Donald Woods wrote a poem for Audre's class, called "'Cause You Afraid of Guns." This poem was about a sixty-seven year old grandmother named Eleanor Bumpers, who was shot and killed by cops who were evicting her from her Bronx apartment. The impact that this poem had on the class could still be felt ten years later by students who were there the day it was read. One student remembers a classmate saying, "This is the best poem I've ever written." The whole class laughed and, while the student tried to correct her error, Audre told her not to worry, because it was the best response anybody could have given. The power of Donald Woods' poem came from getting inside the head and body of Eleanor Bumpers, to convey what it was like to be sitting alone in her kitchen when a S.W.A.T. team started banging down her door.
This poem was a perfect example of what Audre Lorde continually told us poetry could do. It gave face to an atrocity occurring within a Black urban community. By creating Eleanor Bumpers for us, Donald Woods kept her from being just another statistic. We could see that this brutal killing was done to a real person with a real past and a real family. We could understand why she put up a fight rather than staying seated in her chair. Donald Wood's poem showed us the history of one Black woman's oppression and the process by which she came to resist and die defending herself and her home. In other words, through his one voice, Donald Woods used the poem to give Eleanor Bumpers a voice. He reached inside his own body and found the part of himself that was this woman.
While Audre Lorde brought out the best in
her students, her work as a teacher extended into and informed
her work in the public/political arenas. She was a woman who touched
her world and shaped it. Through her confrontations and dissections
of all forms of prejudice, she had a profound influence on the
many communities to which she belonged: Queer, African-American,
African-Carribean, Feminist, and others. The books she wrote about
living with cancer were pioneering, in that they charted her journey
as a Black woman who was not only fighting a deadly disease within
her own body, but was also challenging the elitist white male
attitudes of a dehumanizing medical system. In addition, as a
founding member of Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa
(S.I.S.S.A.), she was unceasing in her fight against apartheid.
t her memorial service on January 17th, 1993, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Harlem, over 5,000 mourners listened to eulogies by her son and daughter, and by Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Blanche Weisen Cook, Barbara Smith, and others. This memorial, on a bitterly cold day, was attended by as wide a range of progressive individuals as exist on or off the planet, yet the indelible impact of Audre's untimely death was not given the news coverage that it warranted. In death as in life, Audre represented a force that was too threatening to a media controlled by racists and homophobes.
We celebrate Audre Lorde's life and mourn her passing, not because she was brilliant, famous, prolific, brave and creative, but because, while she was all these things, she claimed each of us as her own and acknowledged our lives and our deaths with a caring that was both genuine and fierce. Years before it became a popular slogan, Audre equated silence with death, in a poem called "A Litany for Survival," in which she challenged us to speak up and to come out.
Audre was a model of someone who knew how to let good things into her life. She gave the same kind of attention to the woman selling mangoes outside the supermarket in St. Croix as she gave to her friends, family and professional associates. People treated her with respect because she treated them with respect. And if she felt "dissed" in any way, she would eloquently confront the offending party, unless it was an individual obviously too lost to be reached.
miss Audre. I miss her telephone calls that awakened me from unwanted dreams into something positive, like her thirst for Spring, her glorying at sunsets, her awe at the dawning sky. I miss how she could stare at the static "snow" on a television screen, marveling at how much more she could see between stations than on the regularly scheduled programs.
There were times in my relationship with Audre when I felt too caught up in my own personal dramas to be open to what she had to offer, or to be able to give what she needed when she asked. Audre loved me anyway. Besides being my friend, she was my teacher and mentor. She gave me support, encouragement, and tips for how to get through difficult situations. In the midst of her own battle with cancer, Audre Lorde helped me through the death of my father, the break-up of a relationship, and more. She remembered me on holidays, and sang Happy Birthday over the phone from St. Croix. Audre was one of those rare champions who understood the importance of being there for the people in her life. She taught, through her example, the necessity of getting up and keeping going--mourning our losses and valuing the beauty and power of each of us--the ones who carry on.
Original Graphic Images ©1995 by Lenni J. Calipo