The legacies of Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison and the influential spaces they both hold across a wide range of readers places them as towering giants of American literature. Lorde and Morrison share a birthday on this day, and we examine their lives, work and ongoing contributions to Black history.
Lorde was born Audrey Geraldine Lorde in 1934 and was raised in Harlem, N.Y. by her parents, who both hailed from the Carribean. Lorde discovered a love of poetry as a young girl and published her first poem while attending Hunter College High School. She later entered Hunter College while working as a librarian ahead of enrolling in Columbia University. Throughout the 1960s, Lorde continued her librarian work, marrying attorney Edwin Rollins, a gay white man with whom she had two children. That union ended in divorce.
In 1968, Lorde’s career as a writer took hold with the publishing of her first collection of poems, The First Cities, which coincided with her leaving her librarian post in New York City to teach poetry in Tougaloo College in Mississippi. In 1970, Lorde’s second collection Cables To Rage was the first of her works to feature thoughts regarding her sexuality. Lorde began growing in stature as a writer and educator and in 1976, Lorde’s book Coal made her a literary star and notable figure within the Black Arts Movement.
Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and all of these facets of her being largely informed the work she produced. While often hailed as a feminist writer, she was both supportive and critical of the tenets held in that space. She is also credited with joining the sea of thought that Alice Walker introduced with womanism, feminist ideals as they related in particular to women of color.
In 1981, Lorde was given the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award for her book The Cancer Journals, which depicted her journey in dealing with breast cancer. In 1989, Lorde won the American Book Award for her book A Burst of Light.
Lorde’s battle with cancer was well known among her readers and colleagues, and she bravely faced the disease while still continuing to work until the very end. In 1991, then New York Gov. Mario Cuomo made her the Poet Laureate for the state, a role she held until her passing in November 1992. Given Lorde’s prominence as a poet and an advocate for the LGBT community, Publishing Triangle created an award in Lorde’s name given to writers of lesbian poetry in 2001.
Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931 and raised in Lorain, Ohio. Like Lourde, Morrison discovered a love of words early on and she carried that passion with her as a high school student and member of the debate team and drama club. At the age of 12, Morrison took the baptismal name of Anthony after joining the Catholic denomination, leading to her nickname, Toni.
Entering Howard University in 1949, Morrison was surrounded by Black culture but she also faced rampant segregation, which wasn’t her experience back home. Leaving the university with a degree in English, Morrison earned a Masters of Arts from Cornell University in 1955 and entered into a career as a college professor at Texas Southern University for two years then returned to Howard for another faculty position. It was at Howard where she met Harold Morrison, marrying in 1958. The couple had two children but the union later ended in divorce.
Around this period, Morrison took a job as an editor for L.W. Singer, a division of Random House in Syracuse, N.Y. She then relocated to New York City and became Random House’s first Black woman senior editor in its fiction department. Morrison was responsible for placing Black literature in front of audiences at a higher clip than previous times, which included her editing of the Contemporary African Literature collection that featured the writings of Chinua Achebe, Athol Fugar, and many others.
Under Morrison’s leadership, she helped bring to publication the 1975 biography of Muhammad Ali titled The Greatest: My Own Story. Morrison also edited The Black Book, a collection of photographs, drawings, and essays focused on the lives of Black Americans.
Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, was released in 1970 and written while she cared for two young children and maintained her day job, with some accounts stating she would wake up ahead of her workday to construct the work. In 1973, Morrison’s novel Sula became a breakout hit among critics and readers alike, culminating into a National Book Award nomination. However, it was 1977’s Song of Solomon that made her a national star after it was selected by the Book of the Month Club, the first since Richard Wright’s Native Son was chosen by the group in 1940. The book also won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
In 1987, Morrison published the novel Beloved and is considered a masterpiece among her many celebrated releases. The following year, Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved and book was adapted into a 1998 film starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton and more. Beloved was partly inspired by a real-life figure, Margaret Garner, and is part of a trilogy that includes the books Jazz and Paradise. In the time period of releasing the trilogy, Morrison became the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
In the 2000s, Morrison took her talents to the world of opera, penning the libretto for the production, Margaret Garner in 2002. It was first performed by the New York City Opera in 2007. She also continued to release fictional work in the form of the novel Love in 2003 and a children’s book Remember in 2004 which marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Morrison also continued to teach at Cornell University around this period.
Morrison’s final novel God Help The Child was published in 2015, although she continued to loom large in the writing world and kept busy until her final days. Morrison’s final release, 2019’s The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, is a collection of non-fiction work and thoughts on globalism, race, and other momentous events. She has never released an autobiography, but The Source of Self-Regard may be the greatest insight outside of interviews into the mind of Morrison as she waxes about a wide range of topics that didn’t always inform her fictional pieces.
Morrison passed away last August. The Toni Morrison Society, first established in 1983, is now based at Oberlin College and keeps Morrison’s legacy alive and intact in a variety of ways.
Both women are seen as feminist or womanist figures, although Morrison challenged the designation in times past despite many of the central themes of her writing centering the trials of Black women. Both Lorde and Morrison’s contributions to the arts are astounding when one considers the barriers they faced as women and mothers in a world that is often cruel to both, especially while Black. They were able to pull from deep within and share parts of themselves with bravery and wit. Even in these times where more women have access to academic and literary spaces, and it clearly isn’t enough, Lorde and Morrison forged quite a mighty path for them to follow.
To learn more about Audre Lorde, please click here.
To learn more about The Toni Morrison Society, please click here.
Honoring The Legacies Of Audre Lorde & Toni Morrison For Black History Month was originally published on hiphopwired.com