Dare to be Powerful: Audre Lorde

Apr 20, 2021 | Author Spotlight

Black Women’s History month in April is all about celebrating the achievements and contributions of black women. One such woman whose legacy continues to make an impact is Audre Lorde, in fact it was her words that inspired our April theme. She writes, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether or not I am afraid”. In making this statement Lorde shows that power is not only about bravery or fearlessness but is just as much about making a conscious decision to use the gifts we have at our disposal to achieve our goals.

Born in 1934 in New York City, Audre would go on to dedicate her life to advocating for the disadvantaged and giving voice to the unheard. She did this largely through her writings and published her first collection of poetry in 1968. In that same year she went on to teach a poetry workshop at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. As her poetry became increasingly political in the themes it addressed, her audience and platform also increased and in 1976 she released her first collection with a major publishing house. 

Refusing to be defined by society, Lorde constructed an identity for herself as a “Black feminist, lesbian, poet, mother and warrior”. She was an activist and a prolific writer whose work spanned decades and included essays, a novel and several collections of poetry. In her poem ‘ A Woman Speaks’ Lorde plays on the inherent fear and distrust that white America held towards black women during the time of her activism, writing: 

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic   
and the noon's new fury
with all your wide futures   
I am
and not white

In this verse, she warns the reader to beware of her smile which may belie an ancestry that is of magic and is categorically not white. This freedom that Lorde felt in owning her blackness and acknowledging the perceptions that some white people held of her based solely on the colour of her skin is reflected in her work and in her activism. She took the rage she felt at this unfair treatment, channelled it into change and spoke for all women not just those who shared her particular struggles. 

Lorde is famous for having said: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you.” The 1981 essay from which this quote is taken, ‘The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’, explores the idea that freedom is only meaningful when it is true for all and not just a privileged few. This concept that each individual will face unique challenges where different aspects of their identity may overlap was later given the name ‘intersectionality’ – a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Intersectionality is increasingly forming part of the feminist conversation which had until recent years been predominantly the domain of white, middle and upper class women. 

Dealt a cruel hand by fate, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and underwent a double mastectomy as part of an aggressive treatment strategy to rid her body of the tumours. Though undoubtedly a strong woman, she did not always want to be particularly during her illness. In ‘The Cancer Journals’ she writes: “I don’t feel like being strong, but do I have a choice?… I am defined as other in every group I’m a part of. The outsider both strength and weakness”. This idea that her otherness was both a source of strength and weakness is something Lorde used to fuel her activism and it is what ultimately encouraged those she inspired. 

Six years after her first diagnosis, she was told that the cancer had metastasized in her liver and she eventually died from the disease in 1992. Having long recognised the importance of a name, she died having undergone an African naming ceremony where she took on the new name Gamba Adisa which means ‘Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known’. True to her life and her legacy, she remained a warrior to the very end.

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