Easily summarized by her officially recognized merits, AUDRE LORDE’s life is also understood through her evolution as a learner and a teacher. Born in Harlem in 1934 to Grenadian parents, Lorde grew up feeling like an outsider. Excluded from the games of her two older sisters, raised by a mother furiously committed to correcting her waywardness, and instructed by punitive teachers at Catholic schools where she was the sole Black student, Lorde’s intellectual life grew out of an early experience of being different. Amid the lonely feelings that accompanied her sense of being outside, Lorde would begin her experiments in creative identity formation, such that the experience of being not them, would transform into the activity of imagining me. This realization of self as a poetic-aesthetic activity would ultimately drive both her art practice and her teaching practice.
As a teenager, Lorde found others with whom she could, at least partially, share the position of outsider. At Hunter High, an all-girls school for gifted students, Lorde ran with a group of working and middle class girls—including a teenaged Diane di Prima—who called themselves “The Branded.” They skipped school to write and recite poetry together in downtown cafés, or to hold séances invoking the spirits of dead poets—together sustaining an attachment to learning outside formal educational environments.
She moved, at age twenty, to Cuernavaca, a bohemian enclave on the outskirts of Mexico City, and studied for a year at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) in Mexico City. There, she was inspired by learning amidst other brown-skinned people. In that environment—amongst the sweeping mountain vistas of Cuernavaca—Lorde realized that access to beauty is not only for the rich, and decided it was her task as a poet to reflect this access accurately and in a way that could be heard and shared.
Upon returning to New York, Lorde pursued her BA at Hunter College and her masters from Columbia University. Her most enriching moments of learning in the classroom would come later, however, when she began to teach. Her time at Tougaloo College as a writer-in-residence confirmed in her the need to take herself seriously as a poet, as well as revealed within her the desire to teach. Inspired by her students’ use of her poetry workshop to explore their personal commitments to political and racial struggle, Lorde’s activist teaching began to take form. The collaboration produced a magazine of student poems and inspired Lorde to compose the body of writing that would constitute her poetry collection, Cables to Rage.
Returning to New York, Lorde began teaching in the CUNY system, beginning in the SEEK program at City College (1968-69), then at Lehman College (1969-70), John Jay (1970-81) and finally, Hunter College (1981-85), where the Women’s Poetry Center is dedicated to her. Throughout her years at CUNY, Lorde’s work became internationally known. Her teaching remained central to her life, however, and her work in the classroom inspired many of her poems, essays, and speeches. Beginning in 1984, while she was on leave at Hunter College, she took a position at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin. There, she brought together a group of Afro-Germans in her workshops, igniting the Afro-German movement that began with invigorating discussion, and her students’ newspaper Brown published in 1986, entitled Showing our Colors. Fighting liver cancer as she taught in New York and Berlin, Lorde eventually left teaching and made her permanent home in St. Croix until her death in 1992.
IEMANJÁ BROWN is a teacher and a PhD candidate at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She works at Queens College, The Cooper Union, and in the field of New York City. Her activist life is largely devoted to shutting down fossil fuel infrastructure.
MIRIAM ATKIN, PhD candidate at the Graduate Center, CUNY, is a writer based in New York City. Her work has been largely concerned with the possibilities of poetry as an oral medium in conversation with avant-garde film, music and dance. She has taught composition and poetry at CUNY, and is a member of Kaf, an art and publishing collective.