Perhaps it’s symbolic that Audre Lorde didn’t start speaking until she was five years old. “I was very inarticulate as a youngster,” she once said, explaining that it wasn’t until she learned to read and write that she eventually spoke. But once she did, her words came with an extra flair. In fact, she often expressed her emotions through poetry, starting to write her own around the time she was in eighth grade.
Her works conveyed a sensibility well beyond her years. A poem she wrote in 1951 called “Spring” was turned down by her high school’s literary journal for being unsuitable, but when she was 15, Seventeen magazine printed it, officially turning her into a published poet.
The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, Lorde was born in 1934 in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, going on to become the first Black student at the school for gifted students, Hunter High School, and then earning a master's degree in library science at Columbia University in 1961. While working as a librarian and teacher, she kept writing.
Famously identifying herself as “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” she tackled essential topics head-on, ranging from homophobia and racism to identity and sexuality. Among her most notable works were the poetry collections The First Cities (1968), From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), and The Black Unicorn (1978), as well as her essay collection Sister Outsider from 1985. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she also wrote the noted memoirs The Cancer Journals in 1980 and A Burst of Light in 1988.
An American Book Award winner, Lorde became New York State's poet laureate in 1991. “Her imagination is charged by a sharp sense of racial injustice and cruelty, of sexual prejudice,” Governor Mario Cuomo said at the time. “She cries out against it as the voice of indignant humanity. Audre Lorde is the voice of the eloquent outsider who speaks in a language that can reach and touch people everywhere.”
Lorde passed away in St. Croix in 1992 after a 14-year cancer battle. “She was as passionate an educator as she was a fighter,” her children told Google. “It was very important to her that her work be useful—and she would be enormously gratified to know that her words are now used as a rallying cry of people fighting for justice all over the world.”
Here are just 15 of Lorde’s most enthralling quotes.
On finding poetry: “I literally communicated through poetry. And when I couldn’t find the poems to express the things I was feeling, that’s what started me writing poetry.”
On sharing painful moments: “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.”
On self care: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
On living in the moment: “Life is very short. What we have to do must be done in the now.”
On breaking barriers: “What does it mean, that a black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, poet, mother is named the state poet of New York? It means that we live in a world full of the most intense contradictions and we must find ways to use the best we have, ourselves, our work, to bridge those contradictions, to learn the lessons that those contradictions teach.”
On the power of writing: “I write because I am a warrior and my poetry is my primary weapon.”
On seeking true change: "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not lead single-issue lives. Our struggles are particular, but we are not alone. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities.”
On celebrating differences: “In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction."
On ideology: “There are no new ideas, just new ways of giving those ideas we cherish breath and power in our own living.”
On embracing flaws: “Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat."
On identity: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds.”
On finding common ground: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.”
On the search for self: “I learned that if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
On purpose: “That is the work of the poet within each one of us: to envision what has not yet been and to work with every fiber of who we are, to make the reality pursuit of those visions irresistible.”
On speaking out: “When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent we are still afraid, so it is better to speak.”