WBAI interview explores the poet/activist’s life with her biographer, Dr. Alexis De Veaux
NANCY KIRTON: Audre tried going back to the homeland, so to speak, to the birthplace of her parents. Her mother was from Grenada; her father from Barbados. She did get to visit Barbados, but while she was there she never made it to Grenada. Did she ever make that trip?
ALEXIS DE VEAUX: Yes, she did go to Grenada several times.
NK: Do you think her trip to Africa was just a way of encapsulating where her parentage was from?
ADV: I think Audre Lorde’s trip to Africa wasn’t that much different, ideologically, than it would be for those of us who are African-Americans, or Africans living in America, who have a sense of affinity with the continent. For us, not necessarily knowing where in Africa we come from, going to Africa is a way of making that connection. And that larger connection was part of what Audre needed to develop a spiritual consciousness. So, she goes to Africa. She travels through West Africa, for the most part. She leaves with the sense of the spiritual import of Africa to her and to other Afro-Caribbeans or Africans living in America.
When she makes her various trips to the Caribbean, her spirituality becomes a bit more specific, if you will. She begins to think about… not Africa necessarily as home; Africa as a kind of spiritual “home,” but the Caribbean has a—is much more focused in terms of her spirituality and this sense of home. So she treats with home in the larger sense—that is, in terms of the African Diaspora—and then she treats with the issue of “home” in a more specific sense in terms of her visit, and ultimate, return to the Caribbean.
NK: Alexis, you cite in your introduction to “Warrior Poet” that Audre Lorde lived two lives. The first encapsulates the themes of escape, freedom and self actualization. What was noticeably different in Audre Lorde’s second life and in what year ranges did it begin.
ADV: The cancer was notably different in her second life, and I think that we have to recognize that while some similarities exist between the “two lives” and that we are actually talking about one person—that is Audre Lorde—we have to really think about the impact of cancer. The impact of the reality of mortality. The impact of the finiteness of a life, which is what I think she began to treat with and began to live differently as a result of. So, it’s really the cancer that makes for the second life. It’s living with a deadly disease. We are talking about someone who was very vibrant. Who had a fiery personality. Who was making change—social change—every day of her life and was then in a very brief period having to think about what it would mean to not live and not be able to make the contributions that she knew herself of being capable of making.
And we have to remember that when Audre was diagnosed with cancer she’s young. She was in her 40s and we are talking about her 40s, thirty-something years ago. And the research in cancer care is much different now, but then the likelihood was that most women were not going to survive, where the statistics were not in her favor.
NK: I want to go back in time to the beginning—Audre Lorde as a youngster in a household of Caribbean parents, who were somewhat distant. Bound by duty and the immigrant striving to make it in America. Who was that young Audre Lorde?
ADV: Well, we are talking about a very, very, very bright child, who, in her brightness, was very different and parents could not deal with. They were very conservative Caribbean immigrants. They believed that children should be seen and not heard. And they didn’t believe that children had a right to talk back. Well Audre came along. She was the third of three daughters—she was the baby. And she was completely different from her two sisters. And her parents really had a time. I mean their response to her was to treat with her in a very conservative way. Punish her. Beat her. Attempt to re-mold her, but I think she came into that family as a different spirit. So, when Audre talks about being an outsider, she actually felt herself as an outsider within her family first. And her family, as people from the Caribbean, were outsiders in Harlem. So, she understood herself, very, very early in life as an outsider within a family of outsiders.
She also thought of herself as fat, black and ugly, quote, unqoute.
So, as a child, there were multiple things that were going on that were painful for her in terms of constructing a place in this society.
She saw herself as the dark child in a family that was light-skinned, but when you really look at—other than her mother, who could pass, pass for white—when you look at Audre’s sisters they could not pass for white themselves.
So, all of these notions of what color she was; how that shaped up in terms of her mother’s color, her father’s sense of himself as a race man; her mother’s sense of black people as not being…as “you-shouldn’t trust them”; [her mother’s sense that] you shouldn’t trust white people; and Audre’s sense of herself as being the ugly child — the ugly duckling, if you will — all of this swirls around her as a kid.
Then, too, she’s beyond gifted. She’s an extraordinary child. She resists any sense of the Catholic school nuns of… again… trying to mold her into a good girl. Into an obedient girl. Into a non-thinking girl. So she is something that most people around her had not seen before, and didn’t know how to treat with.
NK: Right. And unfortunately, not having had that model, her parents, for [them] to rear a gifted child, a gifted black child, a gifted black child living in America… just created more layers of that distance that always made her feel so lonely throughout her life. She never seemed to find that reference point to hold onto, and mushroom, so she just went along life creating and reinventing herself, but that was part of what her brilliance brought her for survival in the world, I think.
ADV: I think so, too. And it reminds me of when you were speaking, Nancy. It reminds me of an essay by Alice Walker. She talks about Van Gogh, and Van Gogh not having had—as an artist not having had models, and, that lack of models caused him to cut off his ear, of not being able to be mirrored in society. And, I think that’s true for many black artists, for lesbian and gay artists, for those of us who identify as queer, for any of us who are in some ways not part of the mainstream, we… the search for models is important in terms of our health and well-being, but it’s also important in terms of recognizing creativity.
NK: You spoke in the book about how she was often depressed. For a depressed individual, she seemed to thrive phenomenally well. But again, it was her genius pulling her towards the world. As I read the book, thought: Audre did not have to impose herself upon the world; the world took her with impositions or not.
ADV: Well, that’s also an interesting view of her, because, to some extent, I am not sure you can have genius or that level of creativity without those down sides—without periods of depression, without periods of insecurity, without periods of wondering what it is that I am doing, and will anyone really ever appreciate it.
NK: Alexis, Audre Lorde as a teenager and young woman—who was she?
ADV: I think she was searching for who she was—having come out of this family that was fairly conservative, having a sense of herself as having feelings for other young women, as getting all sorts of messages from the culture that something was wrong with that, and, of wanting—certainly by the time she was graduating from high school—of wanting to have a more free life. She was clearly after a more free life after having lived with parents who, as we have looked at, were very conservative.
So, she was searching for self-freedom. She was searching for a creative community, or creative communities. And, she was on the search, as a young woman, certainly, for answers to the questions of who am I as a sexual being. Now, I want to make clear, because I think it’s important, that she had male lovers—at least a couple while she was a young woman—and that was critical to her sense of developing both a lesbian identity later in her 20s and in her adulthood and also in terms of her desire to marry.
NK:Another interesting thing that seems to strike me with Audre’s life is that in developing her intellectual self, she did not yet find the common bonds with other black women. She seemed to be bonding a lot with white people around her. This was another layer that came on later on in life to make her feel more distant from a community that she really wanted to be a part of, and never really was within. What is that phenomenon about? Can you speak on that?
ADV: When she was growing up she got mixed signals from her parents about whiteness and blackness. Her father was a race man, and so he was pro-black. Her mother was deeply mistrustful of black people and of white people. When Audre goes to school, the schools that had the most impact on her were white schools so she was socialized in communities of young white girls. At home she was socialized in this community of black people.
So there were two worlds.
But, once she goes out on her own—once she goes out into the public, if you will, at 18, she really becomes more comfortable in environments where her friends are, more often than not, young white women. She does have some young black women friends, but she moves away from those friendships as she tends to search for a community in which her sexuality is—where she is able to express that.
And, we are talking about the ‘40s, ‘50s, so the likelihood then—at least in terms of living in the Greenwich Village, living in a more bohemian life, moving her social… her sense of social ties away from Harlem into the freer spirit of Greenwich Village, the gay girl bars of the East and West Side—she was more likely going to be engaged with… socially engaged with white women than she was going to be with black women. Which is not to say that there weren’t black gay women at that time, but history tells us, for the most part, they would be uptown, or they would be more in black environments, whereas Audre was moving away from those black environments more towards what would appear to be the freer environments of the Village that were more peopled by white women.
NK:Well, one overriding obstacle of Audre’s, clearly, seemed to be to write as a black woman and lesbian. Do you think that she would have bridged that gap today to be able to become a more forceful voice in the black communities, and, could she have risen above the homophobic frame more easily as a writer coming of age, or the seasoned writer she would have now been?
ADV: That’s a great question. I think the model of Audre’s life was in… one of the models of her life was in showing us how she had to make a way out of no way. How she had to maintain and discover her identity as black, and how she had to maintain and discover her identity as lesbian, and how she repaired a black lesbian identity and made it impossible for people to treat with her—whether they were in the black community or the lesbian community — as one or the other.
And that’s one of the real models of her life. We can look at her life and see her pacing herself towards an integration of identities so that those identities could not be split off.
And, we all invent ourselves on some level.
Kirton’s interview with De Veaux ends with a poignant exchange about the sometimes public but finally very private yet brave process Lorde engaged to distance herself from her public persona in order to be able to take care of herself when challenged by death. Monday’s broadcast also features readings of Lorde’s poetry and writing by acclaimed fiction writer Jewelle Gomez; noted poet Cheryl Clarke, director of the Office of Diverse Community Affairs and LGBT Concerns at Rutgers University New Brunswick; and human rights, AIDS and veterans’ welfare activist, James Credle, dean of students at Rutgers University Newark. In a roundtable that I host, Clarke and Credle offer guidance to activists after the 2004 presidential election, answering the question: what would Audre Lorde do?
To listen to the entire program live at 11 a.m. on Monday, tune into 99.5 FM or go to wbai.org and click the “Listen Online” link at the top of the page.