Why We Wear Our Crowns: The passion of Audre Lorde
Why We Wear Our Crowns is a series that highlights social justice advocates from the African American community and throughout the African Diaspora. We hope that by showcasing those who dedicated their lives for us to own ours, you’re inspired to wear your crowns proudly.
February 18, 1934 – November 17, 1992
“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”
Does anyone hear your screams if their trapped inside your mind? How do you make your voice heard? It’s easy to be quiet. It’s easy to be silent instead of being honest. It’s easy to ignore instead of being present. Being quiet is easy. But, silence is deadly. Whether we recognize it, or choose to ignore it, making the choice not to exercise your voice and let it be heard is the root for your own demise. As Audre Lorde has said, “Your silence will not protect you” and as her life’s work proved, she made a conscious choice, time after time, word after word, to let everyone hear her what she had to say. Between poems, books, and essays of love and resistance, she raised the consciousness of her readers and gave a voice to the voiceless. Throughout her career, the evolution of her revolution is evident and as she became an active agent in her own liberation, she inspired many others to take a stand in fighting their own oppression(s) and become survivors in their fight for acceptance and equality.
Born in Harlem, New York to Caribbean immigrants and being the darkest complected of her siblings, Lorde learned early on that she was different. Her displaced sense of belonging was a result of a strained relationship with her mother due to colorism, an extreme case of nearsightedness that left her nearly blind, a lack of communication skills, and her chubby appearance. Early on, Lorde relied upon words she created in her mind or that were eloquently crafted by others to do the talking for her. After learning how to read and write by the age of four, she built a mental library of poems that she could pull out of her mind at a moment’s notice to express how she was feeling or what she was thinking about at that time. Her coping mechanism would serve as a foundation for her later literary career and undoubtedly was influential in her ability to use her voice as her platform.
As Lorde began to build confidence in her writing abilities and became more comfortable in her own skin, she became less and less tolerant of the barriers imposed around her. While the only black girl in her high school, she worked on the school newspaper and in 1951 at the age of 17, had her first poem, entitled “Spring,” published in Seventeen magazine. After her high school teacher dismissed her poem because of the sexual context Lorde explored in her writing, she sent it to Seventeen Magazine where it was published. She ended up making more money for it than she did in the first ten years of her career. When she left high school and began her journey at Hunters College, she thought she had finally found a community among her lesbian friends and intellectuals. However,, Lorde faced difficulty, following the death of her father, and homophobia that began to run rampant around her. It was in Mexico that Lorde found refuge and the chance to finally live her life freely and as she saw fit. Surrounded by a community of women who affirmed who she was and encouraged her to live in her truth, Lorde’s poetic prowess was renewed and she returned to the United States with a vision and a new voice.
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.“
During the 1960’s, Lorde’s work was regularly published and well-received by readers and critics. Her first book of poems, The First Cities was described as “quiet and introspective,” but also gave insight into Lorde’s reconciliation with her blackness, and made it clear that she had grown a new affirmation with the dark skin she once doubted.
In the volumes of poetry Lorde would come to publish in the years that followed, she addressed themes of anger, injustice, class, gender, race, and social inequality and did so in a way that made her readers aware of her struggles with intersectional identity. The self-professed “black lesbian feminist mother lover poet” wrote of how her human characteristics conflicted with hetero-normative stigmas and stereotypes she faced in her life through family and friendship. As she grew to come to terms with those differences it allowed her work and her personal life to flourish in ways that cultivated her writing and made her more open to share her growth. Her book Cable to Rage, addressed Lorde’s lesbian identity for the first time and invited her into a new club of thinkers and revolutionaries that would lead her work into a much more radical, feminist perspective.
The significance of Audre Lorde was her courage and willingness to actively participate in her own personal activism and self-exploration. Along with using her weapon of words and voice, and connecting with writers and artists who valued the same issues as her, Lorde also extensively traveled to different areas of the world to engage and learn more about the vast identities of blackness. She explored the diaspora to better understand how she was connected to and aligned with those identities. Traveling throughout Africa inspired her to write, Between Our Selves in 1976, in which she explores how African spirituality had a strong impact on her writing, as evident by the poem of the same name.
“Do not mistake my flesh for the enemy. Do not write my name in the dust before the shrine of the god of smallpox, for we are all children of Eshu. God of chance and unpredictable and we each wear many changes inside our skin.”
Along with her books providing narrative to Lorde’s own personal awakening, they also featured aspects of her activist perspective, evident in the works From A Land Where Other People Live, New York Head Shop and Museum, and Coal. Speaking on her intolerance of racial injustice and challenging the Eurocentric status quo, she was widely sought out for public speaking engagements and lectures in academic and political spaces. It was in these spaces that Lorde gave outstanding speeches and encouraged people to stand in their own truth as she did in hers. She also became a relevant force in the feminist and Civil Rights Movements because of her commitment to addressing the political and societal structures that ignore the complexities of identity in the United States.
Since the beginning of her writing career, Lorde gave voice to the visibility and invisibility of black women and other marginalized identities. In an effort to alleviate the instance of erasure, in 1980 along with black feminist thought pioneer, Barbara Smith, Lorde created the first U.S. publishing company for women of color, Kitchen Table.
Towards the end of life, Lorde continued to find refuge in her writing. It was while battling breast and liver cancer that she wrote The Cancer Journals and A Burst of Light. In each book she explored her diagnosis and journey through her illness from a non-fiction perspective, not allowing illness to stop her as she examined the West’s approach to medicine and terminal afflictions. Unfortunately, she lost her battle to liver cancer in 1992. Her legacy lives in her “biomythography” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, the Audre Lorde Project, a community organization addressing progressive issues through radical non-violent activism, and a number of streets, centers, and the novels she wrote. She inspired a new wave of feminist writers and leaders and her memory lives on as her words continue to act as a guiding principle for understanding and facing the complexities of humanity.
Audre Lorde was known for being a revolutionary woman. Her approach to life was simply to address it, give it a voice, and in turn liberate other people to do the same. She used her words to reclaim and take back the power that society tried to take away from her. Her words were her lifeline for survival. Her truth was clear. Use your voice or become a victim to your own story. Audre Lorde is one of the reasons why we wear our crowns.