Audre Lorde never felt like she fit into a box — and any category she did identify with reflected just one sliver of who she was. “I am not one piece of myself,” she said in a 1979 interview. “I cannot be simply a Black person and not be a woman too, nor can I be a woman without being a lesbian.”
The only way she felt she could express her identity was through poetry, which she started writing in middle school, becoming a published poet by the time she was 15. But her works revealed a sensibility far beyond her age as they reflected themes of racism, sexuality, classism and homophobia.
Born in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in 1934, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants called herself “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and she explored the depths of how all those facets were tied together. She taught poetry in West Germany and New York City and became a leading voice, advocating for racial and social justice. “I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain,” she once said.
While she did also write essays and prose, it was Lorde’s poems that carried the most power, including her collections The First Cities (1968), From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), New York Head Shop and Museum (1975) and The Black Unicorn (1978). She also became New York State's poet laureate in 1991.
Lorde, who passed away in St. Croix in 1992, continued to raise her voice on essential issues throughout her lifetime, saying: “I write because I am a warrior and my poetry is my primary weapon.”
Here are just a few of Lorde’s most inspiring works:
First appearing in her 1968 debut collection The First Cities, “Coal” might be Lorde’s most defining work. Not only did it later become the title poem for another book, but the poem is her declaration of her own identity and celebration of being Black. She starts it off saying, “I / Is the total black, being spoken / From the earth’s inside,” while contemplating how rhetoric, language and politics tie together. “Love is a word another kind of open— / As a diamond comes into a knot of flame / I am black because I come from the earth's inside / Take my word for jewel in your open light,” she concludes.
'Who Said It Was Simple' (1973)
Every part of Lorde’s identity was outside the acceptable mainstream, a heavy burden to carry. And that’s what she puts into “Who Said It Was Simple,” part of her 1973 collection From a Land Where Other People Live, which was nominated for a National Book Award. “But I who am bound by my mirror / as well as my bed / see causes in colour / as well as sex / and sit here wondering / which me will survive / all these liberations,” she ends the four-sentence poem.
“Power” captures the devastation caused by the 1973 murder of a 10-year-old Black boy, Clifford Glover, by police officer Thomas Shea, in New York City’s Queens neighborhood. “Today that 37-year-old white man / with 13 years of police forcing / was set free / by eleven white men who said they were satisfied justice had been done / and one Black Woman who said / “They convinced me,” the poem recounts. Lorde said of the work that she was “trying to make power out of hatred and destruction.”
'The Black Unicorn' (1978)
As the title work of her 1978 collection, the 15-line “The Black Unicorn” paints the reality of being outcast, both racially and sexually. In its simplicity of calling the black unicorn “greedy,” “impatient,” “restless” and “unrelenting,” she takes a deep dive into the poignancy of being “mistaken for a shadow or symbol” and how the “fury” stings so deeply as it grows. It ends with the dark truth that “the black unicorn is not free.”
'A Woman Speaks' (1978)
Lorde grapples with racial identity in “A Woman Speaks,” juxtaposing beautifully crafted lyrical images on the surface (“Moon marked and touched by sun / my magic is unwritten”) with deep frustrations bubbling underneath (“I am treacherous with old magic / and the noon’s new fury”). She then builds up to the unjust reality of “wide futures promised” that can’t be fulfilled because “I am woman and not white.”
Divided into four sections, “Afterimages” is among Lorde’s longer works. In it, she merges impressions of a white victim of the 1979 Pearl River floods in Jackson, Mississippi, and of the 1955 murder of Black teen Emmett Till. “A woman measures her life’s damage / my eyes are caves, chunks of etched rock / tied to the ghost of the black boy,” she writes, contemplating the images from the incidents that have stuck with her since “However the image enters / its force remains within / my eyes.”
'Sisters in Arms' (1986)
The theme of oppression Lorde so often touched on emerges in “Sisters in Arms” through the image of lovers forced to separate after political violence, as they “lay together in the first light of a new season.” She also addresses media bias head-on as newspapers covered murdered white South Africans, with no mention of the Black children killed. But, for its time, the boldest statement here might be in the sharing of the bed with another woman.
'Never to Dream of Spiders' (1986)
After publishing her journey with breast cancer in 1980’s The Cancer Journals, Lorde was then diagnosed with liver cancer. She captures her feeling about the diagnosis, writing, “death lay a condemnation within my blood.” But she then pivots from describing how the disease has taken her own body (it ultimately took her life in 1992) to symbolizing the cancer eating away this nation, in the form of racism.