A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde

by Ada Gay Griffin Michelle Parkerson

 


Poet Audre Lorde from A Litany for Survival. Photo by Salimah Ali.

 

The documentary, A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde is the result of an eight year struggle to create a film that would expose a wide audience to Audre Lorde’s genius. First and foremost a poet, Audre Lorde’s work has contributed to social justice and visionary writing by providing countless examples of how to be brave, especially as an outsider, and do one’s work, using “whatever piece of power you own, no matter how small, in the service of what you believe.”

I first met Audre during the late ‘70s after a reading at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts. She had recently undergone surgery for breast cancer and was in the process of finishing The Cancer Journals. This was a woman who definitely knew where her power was located—inside herself; and had obviously spent a lot of time refueling. I began reading everything she wrote, before or since, that I could get my hands on. On the page, as in person, I found a black lesbian feminist who could articulate unique complex analysis using language that was truthful, loving and accessible; someone who could connect with the experiences and progressive visions of others, as Adrienne Rich put it, “from her own location.” I began to construct a film about Audre after realizing that in the face of her recurring bouts with cancer, a film about her life and literature was not only necessary, but possible. It was inconceivable to me to miss the opportunity of working with her to accomplish the task. The fruits of this decision have been rich, bitter and sweet, immensely gratifying and nourishing rewards of a decade’s work.

Litany is an opulent tapestry of history, poetry, music and politics. It charts Audre’s roots in the Caribbean, Harlem and Greenwich Village, her involvement in movements for Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, Lesbian and Gay Liberation, and as a leader in the development of Black Lesbian Feminist thought, activism and expression. The film also charts her experience with cancer and exemplifies her roles as a teacher and orator.

The narration is provided by Lorde herself: taken from her recordings of poetry, prose, and from interviews conducted during the last six years of her life. Audre’s seductive narrative is interwoven with the voices of people who knew her: her children, students, colleagues and contemporary poets, such as Sonia Sanchez, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Smith, Maua Yvonne Flowers, Sapphire, Essex Hemphill, and Jewelle Gomez.

The creation of the film involved collaboration among myself, Audre Lorde, Michelle Parkerson (Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey & the Rock, But Then She’s Betty Carter) and ultimately, editor Holly Fisher (Bullets for Breakfast) who was invaluable in translating the world of the writer to the medium of film. None of us had worked together previously. Each of us represented very different identities, politics and backgrounds, yet each understood the importance and appreciation of her own point of view.

After making its world premiere at Sundance in January 1995, Litany went on to win major awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Creteil Film de Femmes International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. A 50 minute version of Litany will be telecast on public television this summer as part of the celebrated P.O.V. series. The excerpts published here are from the longer film version.

MOTHER, LOOSEN MY TONGUE OR ADORN ME WITH A LIGHTER BURDEN

CALL, Audre Lorde, 1986

 

Audre Lorde I’m finishing this piece of my bargain. And what I mean by that is: it doesn’t matter how long it takes to finish it. I don’t know. But that is the shape of where I am living and functioning, and then I’m going on to something else, the shape of which I have no idea. Only thing I know is, it’s going to be quite different. What I leave behind has a life of its own. I’ve said this about poetry, I’ve said it about children. Well, in a sense I’m saying it about the very artifact of who I have been.

I grew up in Manhattan, I grew up in New York, I was born here. My parents were West Indian. My father was from Barbados, my mother from Grenada, and we were always told when we were growing up, that home was somewhere else. So no matter how bad it got here, this was not our home, you see. And somewhere there was this magical place that if we really did right, someday we’d go back.

I was born almost blind, ya hear. They didn’t pick that up. No one picked that up until I was about three years old; I was falling and so forth. But I observed the world in a very, very different way because the focus was about two inches away from my nose. So the things that were very, very close I saw very, very well and I saw nothing else out there.

When I wrote my first poem, I was in high school and I was a mess. I was a mess. I was introverted, hypersensitive, I was all of too intense. All of the words that other people used for little, wild Black girls who were determined to live.

 

AND WE WERE
NAPPY GIRLS QUICK AS CUTTLEFISH

SCURRYING FOR COVER
TRYING TO SPEAK TRYING TO SPEAK
TRYING TO SPEAK
THAT PAIN IN EACH OTHERS MOUTHS

HARRIET, Audre Lorde, 1978

 

Audre Lorde I learned about sonnets by reading Edna St. Vincent Millay’s love sonnets and loving them and deciding I was going to try. I learned to write love poems by reading poems I never understood but the words would get me high. I remembered all of these particular things. I started writing because I had a need inside of me to create something that was not there.

I was editor of my high school magazine and I wrote a poem about love. And the student advisor, the faculty advisor said it was a bad sonnet. And I really knew that it was a good one. But I knew that she didn’t like it because of the things that I said in it. So I sent if off to Seventeen magazine and they bought it. And I made more money from that one poem than I made for the next ten years.

Joan Sandler, Friend We lived in Harlem, below Central Harlem on 113th Street. Audre lived further uptown on what was close to the area called “The Hill.” Audre’s coming to terms with feeling sexually different than other people and discovering her own gayness was not what drove her away from Harlem. But I think, with Audre, there were so many other things that she had to explore that Harlem would have been almost too provincial for her. She had to explore intellectual ideas, political ideas, relationships with other kinds of people who weren’t Black; moving away from the family, cutting those ties.

Audre Lorde ✴ I came to the idea of a lesbian community of gay girls through the Village, through Downtown. Through my friends and I going down and going to Washington Square Park and trying to decide, “Is she one?”

✴ We had all left our families for one reason or another. We were self supporting young women, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. And we duplicated or reached for with each other some kinds of networks because we knew that it meant survival. In other words, we could not make those connections with the people we worked with or with who we went to school with, so it was us.

 

I SAW
YOUR HANDS ON MY LIPS BLIND NEEDLES

BLUNTED FROM SEWING UP STONE
AND
WHERE ARE YOU FROM
YOU SAID
YOUR HANDS READING OVER MY LIPS FOR
SOME ROAD THROUGH UNCERTAIN NIGHT
FOR YOUR FEET TO EXAMINE HOME
WHERE ARE YOU FROM
YOU SAID
YOUR HANDS
ON MY FOREHEAD LIKE THUNDER
PROMISING RAIN
A LAND WHERE THE LOVERS ARE MUTE
WHY ARE YOU WEEPING YOU SAID
YOUR HANDS IN MY DOORWAY LIKE RAINBOWS
FOLLOWING RAIN
WHY ARE YOU WEEPING
I HAVE COME HOME.

PIROUETTE, Audre Lorde, 1957

 

Blanche Cook, Writer Audre and I met over 30 years ago when we were both students at Hunter College in New York. A lot of things were different then. Audre was editor of the student literary magazine called Echo which was a very innovative magazine of poetry and literature and essays.

We would go to these bars and we would dance and we would drink and we would smoke, how dissolute. But we had fun. And then we worked our tails off and we really did good political work, I have to say, even then.

Audre got married at the height of all this and really stunned a lot of the women who loved her, including me. I think you really have to appreciate the difference between the ‘50s and the ’90s. I mean, one of the things that I grew up really believing, largely because Audre got married was, that’s what we did, we did it all. We could always have each other, but we also got married and had children.

Audre Lorde There is a certain kind of reality that we all want to spare our children. But when I say that I really felt that I wanted to raise you all as warriors, that I had to because it was part of your survival, it was a price. It was a price for me and I think it was a price for you and your brother. But it felt to me that it was part of a vision, and I hoped it worked out. I hope it works out for you in your life. Time will tell.

Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins ✴✴ There are times when I don’t feel like much of a warrior, you know, but one thing that I think really carries through is not only, you raising us to fight, and to look at things in as real a way as we can possibly perceive them, but also raising us as, not the children, but as developing human beings. I really see this at work in my classroom.

Jonathon Rollins My mother raised my sister and I to fight for what we wanted, to fight for what we believed in, to fight for what we cared about. And she never, ever let us get away with not fighting. We could lose, but we couldn’t not fight.

Audre Lorde Let me tell you first about what it was like being a Black woman poet in the ’60s, from jump. It meant being invisible. It meant being really invisible. It meant being doubly invisible as a Black feminist woman and it meant being triply indivisible as a Black lesbian and feminist.

At this time, I was a young adult librarian doing work that I was very involved in. I loved library work, I had two children. I was coming out of what was essentially a three year depression, struggling to keep my writing going in the total absence of any kind of literary reflection. No one bought my poems. There were no readings. No one listened to them. I just wrote in isolation and raised my two children and warred with my husband who did not see in many respects what I was about but nonetheless was the only man I had ever met that I would even consider sharing life with.

Yolanda Rios, Friend Audre and I raised our children together. Beth is 18 months older than Jonathan, and Jonathan is 18 months older than my daughter, Stephanie. In the summer of ’68, we rented a house up in Hoppatcan for the summer. And we used to ride around the town and we noticed this particular house had a Black jockey standing in front of the house. And it was a little offensive. So we decided that we were gonna change the color of the jockey. And one night, after we had bought the paint, we put the children in the back of the car and drove to the house and politely spray painted the Black jockey white. The next day, or maybe a couple of days later, we passed by the house again and noticed that they left the jockey painted white but fixed up the drips where we had so callously sprayed it white, and we hollered.

Audre Lorde In 1968 I was invited as poet in residence to Tugaloo College, which is a small Black college in Jackson Mississippi, and it changed my life. It changed my life. I had a chance to work with young Black poets in what was essentially a crisis situation. I mean white townspeople were shooting up the edges of Tugaloo at night. Many of the students had been arrested. It was siege situation. But I also needed to bring to it everything that I was. Because I had never spoken as a poet before, I had never spoken at all as a matter of fact. I had certainly never taught. But I knew that there was something urgent happening and there was something inside of me that could be shared with these young people and something they had to teach me. The six weeks that I spent at Tugaloo convinced me that I wanted to work with my poetry in other ways than hitherto I thought poetry was. That took care of me privately, and there was the other work that I did in the world. I was a librarian. I could get people to read. I could open up heads and touch feelings through other people’s words. I realized I could take my art in the realest way and make it do what I wanted. Not as propaganda, but as altering feelings and lives. And that in order to really, really do that—I had to be everything I was. I was married to a White man. I was in an interracial marriage at a time when certainly any kind of congress between Black and White people was anathema, a growing anathema within the Black community. I needed, for example, to have that be clear to the Black students I was working with at Tugaloo because it was a contradiction that they needed to be aware of as well as I. How did this become so integrated within me? So it was at that point that I began looking at using and bringing my poetry and my deepest held convictions together; and it’s a journey that I’m still on.

It was an incredible year. I just came back from Tugaloo. A week later, Martin Luther King was killed.

 

THE FIRST TIME I TOUCHED MY SISTER ALIVE
I WAS SURE THE EARTH TOOK NOTE

BUT WE WERE NOT NEW
FALSE SKIN PEELED OFF GLOVES OF FIRE
YOKED FLAME

 

I knew I could never go back only to libraries, that I needed to be involved in a much more active way. I began teaching soon after that.

 

I WAS
STRIPPED TO THE TIPS OF MY FINGERS

HER SONG WRITTEN INTO MY PALMS
MY NOSTRILS MY BELLY
WELCOME HOME
IN A LANGUAGE I WAS PLEASED TO RE-LEARN

 

I was immersed at this point in the Black Civil Rights movement and in the beginning women’s movement that was attempting to come together.

Sonia Sanchez, Poet Coming out of the 1960’s. Audre coming out of the 1960’s. June Jordan coming out, Gwendolyn Brooks, all of us—although we had been there before, we all came out and said simply, “We’re here.” The first thing we said at that time of course is that “we’re Black.” Which immediately made people panic.

I became a Muslim once. People insisted that they couldn’t talk to me anymore. Poets said they couldn’t read on stages with me anymore, I’m serious about this. But Audre always could. Because she always recognized that we were in a sense, outside not only the establishment, which meant the larger literary establishment, but also sometimes outside that Black literary establishment.

I’m a Black woman poet. Boom! Deal with it. And America says: “I don’t have to deal with it. I not only don’t have to deal with it, I will not publish you.” And so all of a sudden some of those little avenues that had been opening up to us in some of the small magazines closed. And so Dudley Randall came along with something called Broadside Press and asked for manuscripts and Nikki [Giovanni], Ethridge [Knight], Haki [Madhubuti], Gwendolyn, Audre and myself, we sent our manuscripts and we were the Broadside poets and we were some bad people. We sold millions of books for Broadside Press my sister.

 

I CANNOT RECALL THE WORDS OF MY FIRST POEM
BUT I REMEMBER THE PROMISE

I MADE MY PEN
NEVER TO LEAVE IT
LYING
IN SOMEBODY ELSE’S BLOOD

 

TO THE POET WHO HAPPENS TO BE BLACK, Audre Lorde, 1986

 

Sonia Sanchez When she came out in America people closed doors, people ran for cover. Make no mistake about this. People said, oh maybe I can’t be seen with you or I’m not too sure I can invite you to my classroom, or whatever.

I would be revisionist if I did not say to you that people talked about Audre. About what she said, about what she said on television, how she lived, etcetera. I would be a revisionist if I did not say that sometimes, even though we talked on the phone, sometimes I wondered what did this mean in terms of our motion and movement toward liberation in this country. But the joy of living, let me tell you my sister, the joy of growing, the joy of understanding, you know. We were not different people we were the same people. But if she chose to love a woman and I chose to love a man, if she chose to teach at Baruch and I chose to teach at Amherst, did not make us different. You know what I’m saying. It made us sisters. And there would be no one at that point when I recognized this that could keep me from the arena of an Audre Lorde or anybody else.

Sapphire When I read I’m not satisfied unless I’m terrified. And that’s when I know I’m doing the right thing. I’m doing what I think Audre did when she stood up in front of Black Nationalists and shit and said, “I am a lesbian,” I mean that blew my mind, you know what I mean? And this was back to Africa niggers talking about, “Let’s kill the lesbians, let’s eliminate the homosexuals” and shit. And there was great terror about being different in those days, and for her to stand up and say, “I am a lesbian” was, you know, like not just moving the mountain. It was creating, it was creating a new world for us.

Audre Lorde One of the lessons I think that the ‘60s needs to teach us is that, liberation is not the private province of any one particular group; that Black people are not one big vat of homogenized chocolate milk, you know. We are individuals. We are particular people. And we have differences that we can use; that we need to recognize, identify and use in our common goals, in our common struggles. I don’t have to be you in order to work with you. I don’t have to be you to honor your Blackness.

Francis [Clayton] and I began living together when the children were six and seven; so we essentially raised the children together and we decided very early on that we had to arm them in the same way we armed ourselves. We lived of course in Staten Island which is probably the most regressive borough of New York City. It was green and there was a lot of space for us which are things that we needed. But both Francis and I decided that the position of strength was one of knowledge and so we spoke to the children very early on about what they could expect. About the fact that we were lesbians, what it meant and what they would expect. In the same way that we spoke about what it meant to be an interracial family.

Jonathon Rollins Manhood in the household in which I grew up was something that was left entirely to me to define. My mother provided a list of things that were repugnant in other men, society provided a list of things that were required in every quote man end quote. And I was left to find for myself the definitions that would provide the operating structure within which my personality would grow and exist. And obviously I could not live by negatives, which was what my mother was giving, and I couldn’t be what society wanted, first because it was a society for which I had very little respect. Second off, it was a society that, the manhood it would force me to become was completely anathema to my mother, whom I love very much. And none of it really fit me anyway. So I was sort of left to my own devices to come up with these definitions of manhood and being a man and growing up.

Audre Lorde And finally one day, Jonathan said, “She is not the maid, she’s my mother’s lover.” This is when he was in junior high school. This was when he was I think about 12. And of course the rumor went all around school that Jonathan was telling stories about his mother. And I said to the teacher, who called, who was Black, a Black teacher at his school called me and said, “Do you know that your son is going around spreading rumors about you?” And I said, “Well it’s not a rumor at all, it’s truth.”

Don’t wait for inspiration. Remember. Do not wait for inspiration. You don’t need to be inspired, to write a poem. You need to reach down and touch the thing that’s boiling inside of you and make it somehow useful.

 

SO WHEN THE SUN RISES, WE ARE AFRAID
IT MAY NOT REMAIN

WHEN THE SUN SETS WE ARE AFRAID
IT MIGHT NOT RISE IN THE MORNING
WHEN OUR STOMACHS ARE FULL WE ARE AFRAID
OF INDIGESTION
WHEN OUR STOMACHS ARE EMPTY WE ARE AFRAID
WE MAY NEVER EAT AGAIN
WHEN WE ARE LOVED WE ARE AFRAID
LOVE WILL VANISH
WHEN WE ARE ALONE WE ARE AFRAID
LOVE WILL NEVER RETURN

AND WHEN WE SPEAK WE ARE AFRAID
OUR WORDS WILL NOT BE HEARD

NOR WELCOMED

BUT WHEN WE ARE SILENT

WE ARE STILL AFRAID

SO IT IS BETTER TO SPEAK

REMEMBERING

WE WERE NEVER MEANT TO SURVIVE.

A LITANY FOR SURVIVAL, Audre Lorde, 1978

 

Jonathon Rollins After she got cancer in 1978, her life took on a kind of immediacy that most people’s lives never develop. The setting of priorities and the carrying out of the highest prioritized tasks assumed a much greater importance. And there’s I think, a real change in the tone of her writing.

Audre Lorde I had been very privileged to have been able to go to Europe. To have been able to become involved with the anthroposophic and homeopathic remedies. So that I did not feel that I was totally dependent upon western medicine.

If I had not been there at the particular time that I got sicker with my liver disease, I would not have known that there was any other way except biopsy. I believe if I had had a liver biopsy in 1984, I would be dead now.

Hey Beth. I told you. I really can’t live in New York any more. This has been coming on, quite seriously, this has been coming on for a couple of years, I can’t take the cold. One of the things about having cancer is that I need to be warm, but in addition to that, there’s another kind of life that I want to live. And I love New York and I’ll always come back to it for a kind of energy, but I’m tired of moving everyday though life like going to war.

 

HUNTER POETRY WORKSHOP

Audre Lorde You have got to go on. No, but you don’t need me. Don’t you understand? The me that you’re talking about you carry around inside yourselves. I have been trying to show you in these past ten weeks how to find that piece in yourselves because it exists. It is you. You have got to be able to touch that, to say the things, to invite, to court yourself out. And you can get together, you can do it for each other until you do it for yourselves. Don’t mythologize me.

It’s too late for a speech. But I want to tell you how really fulfilling this is. It has always been life-sustaining to me to know that the work I do is used. I’m taking away a tremendous amount every time we come together. I hope you are too. We have huge, enormous work to do. This is what feeds us collectivity and must, and must. Because we are going to survive.

I took who I was, and thought about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do and did my best to bring those three things together. And that is perhaps the strongest thing I wanted to say to people. It’s not when you open and read something that I wrote. The power that you feel from it, doesn’t come from me. That’s a power that you own. The function of the words is to tick you in, “oh hey, I can feel like that” and then to go out and do the things that make you feel like that more.

 

Audre Lorde

1934–1992

Gamba Adissa

Warrior who makes her meaning clear

 

Text as recorded by Amber Hollibaugh

✴✴ From a conversation with her daughter, Elizabeth Lord-Rollins, 1987

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BOMB 56
Summer 1996
The cover of BOMB 56
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