Audre Lorde was born Audrey Geraldine Lorde on 18 February 1934 in New York City. She was the youngest of three children born to parents who had arrived from the West Indies in 1924. She began spelling her name without a ‘y’ at the age of four and attended Hunter College High School on the Upper East Side, one of the best high schools in the US. She published her first poem, in Seventeen magazine, while there. In 1948, as part of the Committee to Free the Rosenbergs, she picketed the White House.
Lorde moved to Mexico for a year after graduation, and on her return to New York worked in odd jobs before studying for a degree in literature and philosophy at Hunter College. In 1961, she earned a master’s degree in library science from Columbia, and then worked as a librarian. In 1962, she married Edward Rollins, a legal aid lawyer; they had two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan.
In 1968, Lorde published her first collection of poetry, The First Cities, and became poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College, Mississippi. During her time there she met the psychotherapist Frances Clayton, who would become her partner for many years, and began writing the politically engaged work first collected in 1970 as Cables to Rage. That year she divorced her husband and set up a household with her children and Frances on Staten Island. From a Land where Other People Live appeared in 1973, and was nominated for a National Book Award the following year. In the 1970s, Lorde began corresponding with Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker, among others, as well as publishing five more books of poetry. In 1977, she gave a speech at the Modern Languages Association conference in Chicago that would become ‘The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action’. She would continue to speak at academic conferences, gay pride marches and readings for the rest of her life. In 1978, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, and in 1980 she published her first book of non-fiction, The Cancer Journals.
Following a conversation with the writer Barbara Smith in 1980, Lorde helped to found Kitchen Table Press, to publish books by and about women of colour. In 1982, she published her autobiographical novel, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and two years later her essays and speeches were collected as Sister Outsider. She began teaching at the Freie Universität Berlin in 1984 and in 1987 was the first woman to be named Thomas Hunter Professor at Hunter College. She began living in St Croix on the US Virgin Islands that year with Gloria Joseph, a professor of Africana studies. She was named New York State Poet Laureate in 1991, and died of cancer, aged 58, on 17 November 1992 in St Croix.