BBC’s ‘Great Lives’ lauds US lesbian poet Audre Lorde
WHAT I like about BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives programme, writes CALLUM O’CONNOR, is that your get to hear erudite people discussing outstanding individuals – some dead, some very much still with us.
One recent episode I particularly enjoyed was an examination of the life of Audre Lorde by Professor Laura Serrant of Sheffield Hallam University, named as one of the most inspirational figures in healthcare. She chose the black, gay poet and activist who still inspires the women’s movement today.
Serrant went at lengths to explain to Matthew Parris, a gay man who hosts the programme, why Lorde has meant so much to her both personally and professionally in her work in nursing.
Lorde was born in New York City in 1934 to immigrants from Grenada. She didn’t talk until she was four and was so short-sighted she was legally blind. She wrote her first poem in eighth grade.
Lorde was openly lesbian before the gay movement existed. Her wise words often seem eerily prescient. “Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time and the arena, and the manner of our revolutions, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.”
Back in the 1970s and 80s Lorde’s was an important and singular voice: “I began to ask each time: ‘What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?’ Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, ‘disappeared’ or run off the road at night . . . our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered for ever.”
Back in 2011, Scottish writer and poet Jackie Kay revealed in a Guardian piece entitled “My hero: Audre Lorde” that she first met Audre in 1984.
“She told me her grandfather had been Scottish, and that I didn’t need to choose between being Scottish and being black. ‘You can be both. You can call yourself an Afro Scot,’” she said in her New York drawl. “Lorde was Whitman-like in her refusal to be confined to single categories. She was large. She contained multitudes.”
Lorde, who died in 1992 aged 58, wrote the poetry collections From a Land Where Other People Live (1973) and The Black Unicorn (1978), as well as memoirs such as A Burst of Light (1988).
She attended Hunter College and Columbia University and was a librarian for several years before publishing her first volume of poetry, First Cities, in 1968.
After graduating in 1959, she went on to get a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961.
In 1968, Lorde taught a poetry workshop at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, witnessing first-hand the deep racial tensions in the South. There she would publish her second volume of poetry entitled Cables to Rage (1970), which took on themes of love, deceit and family, and which also addressed her own sexuality in the poem, “Martha”.
In The Black Unicorn she explored her African heritage. It is considered one of her greatest works by many critics. Throughout her poetry and other writings she tackled topics that were important to her as a woman of colour, lesbian, mother and feminist.