by Rev. Irene Monroe
Have you ever wondered what unseen photos, faux pas, untold stories, and unfinished works surviving partners of famous people are left with?
Dr. Gloria I. Joseph has a treasure trove of memories of the renowned Audre Lorde. Joseph’s long-awaited new book “The Wind is Spirit: The life, love and legacy of Audre Lorde” gives us a rare glimpse of Lorde, as told by people who knew Lorde or, whose work was greatly impacted by her.
Who was Audre Lorde?
While I gasp at having to pen such a query I realize there’s a generation who are the beneficiaries of Lorde’s prodigious body of work and social activism, but who don’t have a clue who she was.
If she were among us today this “poet, warrior, feminist, mother, pioneer, lover, survivor” would be 80 years old. She was born February 18, 1934 in Harlem to Caribbean immigrant parents.
I met Lorde in my early 20’s after returning home from Wellesley College looking for a LBTQ support group. I was taken to African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change (AALUSC)—the first out LBTQ sister organization in NYC. Back in the day AALUSC was known as Salsa Soul Sisters, and Lorde facilitated workshops helping us to love ourselves regardless of family and church rejections.
But Lorde’s indefatigable spirit fought on many fronts—and white feminist exclusion was just one of the battles.
The rise of the Second Wave Feminist Movement was intentionally an exclusive women’s country clubs. Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique of upper-crust “pumps and pearls” wearing white women was the audience, and poor white women and women of color —straight or gay—had neither voice nor visibility.
Lorde not only addressed Friedan’s omission of us, but she also called out Mary Daly’s hubris in an open letter.
“To dismiss our Black foremothers may well be to dismiss where european women learned to love…. What you excluded from Gyn/Ecology dismissed my heritage and the heritage of all other noneuropean women, and denied the real connections that exist between all of us.”
Lorde had shaped contemporary feminist and womanist thought before her 1984 seminal book “Sister Outsider”—a collection of speeches and essays unflinchingly depicting black lesbian women’s lives as interlocking oppressions-sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class—as a clarion call for change and activism.
“As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.” From my membership in all of these groups I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression,” Lorde wrote in Sister Outsider. Today among scholars and activists Lorde’s depiction of “hierarchies of oppression” is lauded as a theory on intersectionality.
Imani Rashid, Lorde’s girlhood BFF, shared with me her insights of when Lorde began to witness multiple oppressions on her.
“Audre and I were little girls together. We both grew up in Harlem during the post World War II era. We both attended the same little Catholic School, St Marks The Evangelist. Audre was, I believe at an early age, aware of the race, class and gender issues of our times. Even though the school was co-ed, only little boys were selected to be altar boys.”
Lorde struggled mightily with breast cancer and wrote “The Cancer Journals” that helped me through my bouts. Lorde not only leaves us with a body of work to reflect on, but she also leaves us humbly trying to uphold and to implement her vision of radical inclusion and wellness.
“Audre was an eloquent, charismatic revolutionary. And while she may have left this dimension, Audre is still being our mentor. She teaches women how to live with the challenges life has to offer,” Rashid told me.
Joseph is keeping Lorde’s legacy alive. Joseph is Lorde’s surviving partner, and they resided on Joseph’s native familial island of St. Croix. Joseph in her day was a firebrand and still is one in her 80’s.
Now a retired professor in the School of Social Sciences at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, her legacy is not only the nationally-renown Black Studies Department she and others developed in the 1970’s, but, also, her inimitable pedagogical style of blending scholarship, the arts with activism her students so richly enjoyed and still speak about until this day.
Collaboratively Joseph and Lorde, while quite ill with cancer, continued their activism founding several organizations, including the Che Lumumba School for Truth, and the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, to name a few.
Joseph and Lorde together produced “Hell Under God’s Orders,” a compilation of wrenching personal accounts of Hurricane Hugo, which devastated St. Croix in 1989 and our government’s slow hand in assisting this U.S. Caribbean Island. Lorde’s piece titled “Of generators and survival – a Hugo letter,” addressed the devastation and geopolitics of Hugo.
In honoring the wishes her beloved partner before her death in 1992 Joseph presents her book. Joseph depicts her book as a “bio/anthology” on Audre Lorde. It is a compilation of essays, photos, and recollections by a diverse group of contributors ruminating on Lorde – how she impacted their life, work, and activism.
In Joseph’s eclectic style of creatively being outside the box her book is also compilation of the various written genres Lorde employed throughout her lifetime, and it’s narrated in the classical “griot style,” a West African oratory form blending history, storytelling, poetry and music that organically emerged as a result of the slave trade.
Joseph’s book is a must read not only to carry out Lorde’s vision but to also help us make all of our lives better.