A Biography of
By Alexis De Veaux
HB, $29.95, 446 pp.
Warrior Poet is a loving portrait of the life of Audre Lorde that does not shy away from difficult subjects. Especially difficult is the examination of Lorde’s inner struggles with depression and rage, twin battles that would become a cloud over Lorde’s relationships with her intimate partners, particularly in Alexis De Veaux’s depiction of Lorde’s life with her husband, Ed Rollins, and her partner, Frances Clayton. Despite Lorde’s struggles with homophobia, racism, sexism and her battle with cancer, as readers we are confronted with a life well-lived.
De Veaux divides Warrior Poet into two parts: “The First Life” describes her childhood and the early years of her career; “The Second Life” chronicles Lorde’s rise to iconographic status as one of the black lesbian feminist writers and thinkers of her time. For anyone who is familiar with Lorde’s biomythography Zami, much of the first three chapters of “The First Life” is familiar territory. Using interviews with Lorde’s sisters Phyllis and Helen, along with unpublished journal entries, previous interviews with Lorde herself and scholarly material about New York in the 1950s, De Veaux contextualizes Lorde’s early life in Harlem with her parents and siblings.
Warrior Poet picks up with descriptions of Lorde’s life as a confident, sexually active young woman. After her affair with Eudora Garrett, a “sister—confidant—teacher—loving mother figure” during her life-changing trip to Mexico, Lorde came back to New York a “puzzle of oscillating subcurrents.” In her early twenties she engaged in mature sexual relationships with both women and with men, exploring the “gay-girl” scene of Greenwich Village and the world of leftist intellectuals. However, she suffered a “maddening loneliness of the soul” that came from her detachment from other black women, and the “great and inescapable pain” of unfinished business with her family.
Readers will be pleased to find that the biography includes more information about her twenties than Lorde included in Zami, or that had been previously discussed in the documentary about her life, A Litany for Survival. Most notable is the information De Veaux gathered through interviews with Lorde’s husband of seven years, Ed Rollins. Neither Lorde nor Rollins ever spoke publicly about their marriage; however, Rollins discloses some information for the biography.
During the beginning of the 1960s, Lorde finished her master’s degree in library science at Columbia, where she fell into an intimate friendship group of white liberal intellectuals. “Within the group, the lines between heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, love and friendship blurred,” De Veaux writes. Included in this group was Ed Rollins, a young Jewish lawyer who was interested in getting married. As Lorde grew and matured she longed for a more stable relationship and children. Like many other self-identified lesbians and bisexual women of the time, Lorde married. She and Rollins had two children together, Elizabeth and Jonathon.
Lorde and Rollins embarked on a “new kind of marriage” in which both partners maintained extramarital same-sex sexual relationships. The “social experiment” that was their marriage continued on an emotional and financial roller coaster with Lorde maintaining disciplined control over Rollins and the children. De Veaux provides reminiscences from friends and Rollins of the explosive nature of their relationship, including times when Lorde’s rage overcame her and she took out her frustrations on Rollins.
De Veaux characterizes Lorde as a person who was able to reinvent herself throughout her life. The marriage with Rollins, though fraught, allowed Lorde to invent herself as a mother and later, the seventeen-year relationship with Frances Clayton allowed Lorde to satisfy her lust for “her own name” as a lesbian feminist poet and writer. However, that position as the outspoken black lesbian came with a price. Lorde continued to suffer the isolation of often being the only black lesbian feminist in certain white lesbian feminist circles. She longed for a “community somewhere, someday” of women of color that could become her spiritual home.
Lorde frequently found herself in between the homophobia of the African American literary and political establishment and white feminist academic and publishing institutions. Of particular interest was Lorde’s conflict with the editor of Broadside Press, Dudley Randall. Randall requested that Lorde remove a poem that was explicitly about love for a woman from her collection before publishing it in From a Land Where Other People Live in 1973. Lorde’s desire for “black community’s embrace” led her to comply with Randall’s request, but it did not quiet her outspokenness. That same year she came out during a coffeehouse reading and never looked back. During this time Lorde relied on her friendships with her peers and the younger generation of writers to support her.
The line between lovers and friends blurred in Lorde’s personal relationships, making an uneasy negotiation between her commitment to building solidarity with feminists and enduring sexual tensions. Barbara Smith recalls how she and Lorde “hammered out a friendship” that was not based on sexual intimacy. Lorde, Michelle Cliff and Adrienne Rich worked out similar contracts between them, establishing long and productive friendships. Her relationship with Rich was particularly loaded as Rich maintained alliances with white feminists who Lorde criticized for their racial politics and practices. She demanded “undivided loyalty from Rich” who felt torn between her allegiance to Lorde and her commitment to fostering antiracist consciousness among white women.
Lorde encountered other conflicts with white feminists. She frequently struggled with the editors of Chrysalis, a feminist literary journal, to include women of color in the content and decision-making of the journal. Lorde often “risked her popularity by publicizing issues others could not—or refused to—see.” Her public disagreement with Mary Daly proved to be a significant moment that crystallized her fury at what she saw as white women’s refusal to confront their own racial privilege. “She refused to play ‘house nigger,’ risking her status within the feminist movement,” writes De Veaux. However, at the same time, Lorde’s candid confrontation with homophobia, racism, sexism and her ability to celebrate all the different parts of her identity “established a discursive space for contemporary black feminism.”
|Celebrating difference became a mantra in Lorde’s life and work; she constantly reminded people that there was no “easy blackness.” She made the point that “racism, sexism, and homophobia stem from the same root: an inability to tolerate difference, or to recognize difference as a beneficial force.”
If Lorde’s “First Life” was characterized by her self-creation as a poet and mother and a deep need to find Black women’s community, her “Second Life” can be summarized by the formulation of the internationally recognized poet warrior. De Veaux situates Lorde’s “second life” in the late 1970s as Lorde transitions from recognized poet on the publication of her seventh collection of poetry to celebrated intellectual as she begins to collect her essays and drafts the beginnings of what will later become Zami. Her essays crystallized her thoughts about black women and anger, and the roots of the self-destructive hatred that kept black women suspicious of each other instead of forging alliances with each other. Celebrating difference became a mantra in Lorde’s life and work; she constantly reminded people that there was no “easy blackness.” She made the point that “racism, sexism, and homophobia stem from the same root: an inability to tolerate difference, or to recognize difference as a beneficial force.” Her recognition of the heterogeneity of Blackness and her recognition of the power of alliances with other people of color sent Lorde on an international journey of sisterhood to Germany, Australia, New Zealand, England, Switzerland and the Caribbean.
The publication of Zami introduced Lorde’s identity in the context of a “transnational blackness” at home both “there” (the Caribbean) and “here” (the United States). In the early 1980s, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Grenada affected Lorde deeply. She was “proud to be of stock from the country that mounted the first Black english-speaking People’s Revolution in this hemisphere” and “angry about the pretenses of america.” Over the years Lorde decentered her American identity, calling herself an “African-Caribbean-american” when she went abroad, purposefully using a lower-case “a” in an act of critique of U.S. imperialism. She reclaimed the Caribbean as her spiritual home, making frequent trips to Grenada and St. Croix to spend time with black lesbian writer, scholar and activist Gloria Joseph.
The relationship with Frances Clayton grew more and more strained as Clayton managed their domestic household on Staten Island while Lorde traveled around the world, taught and wrote. “Lorde was furious that Frances…expressed some resistance to the role of housewife,” De Veaux writes. By the mid-1980s Beth and Jonathan had graduated from college, Lorde had gone through one mastectomy and was facing liver cancer. Her time with Clayton was over, but Lorde found the loving black women’s community she always wanted in St. Croix with Joseph.
We are given no more than a brief sketch of Lorde’s life from 1986 until her death. The biography reveals parts of Lorde’s family that were previously unknown publicly. In her last year, she also found her twin half sisters whom she had never met before. The children of her father’s secret life, Lorde managed to meet one of her sisters and correspond with the other before passing away on November 17, 1992.
It is clear that De Veaux ended the book early because she did not want Lorde’s last years fighting cancer to define and overtake the narrative of Lorde’s life. However, it also leaves out key moments of her career. De Veaux includes only a brief mention of her inauguration as poet laureate of New York (1991-1993) and she does not talk about the I Am Your Sister Conference which took place in Boston in 1990. Given Lorde’s lifelong search for an international community of women of color, the tribute at I Am Your Sister solidified her legacy. We are left to wonder how she felt about the conference and if it fed her soul.
Ultimately, Warrior Poet is more than a tribute to Audre Lorde; it is a much needed contribution to feminist scholarship. In it, we are exposed to many other sides of Lorde—to her private life as a wife, lover, friend and mentor. Also, we are privy to a perspective on the literary and political movements of the latter half of the Twentieth Century from the complex perspective of a “Black, feminist, lesbian, mother, poet warrior,” deepening our understanding of her life and broadening our appreciation for her literary legacy.
Mattie Udora Richardson is a writer and activist; her fiction and essays have been published in various journals and anthologies. Her most recent work, “No More Secrets, No More Lies: Compulsory Heterosexuality and African-American History,” was published in the Journal of Women’s History (Fall 2003). She is a Ph.D. candidate in African Diaspora Studies at the University of California-Berkeley.