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REFLECTIONS | Black Sheroes: Audre Lorde

The Cancer Journals

by Lindsey Norward

Reflections of Black Sheroes is a series is devoted to highlighting the legacy of Black women’s diary and journal writing throughout the Diaspora. We bring light to the experiences that Black women have had in their journeys to becoming trailblazers; the trials and tribulations, the celebrations and triumphs, and the nuances and complexities around their identities. Each provides a glimpse into their private lives, their vulnerabilities and reflections providing a larger picture of the public and courageous lives they led. In this installment, we explore The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde.

Art credit: “Audre Lorde” by Pauline N’Gouala

When confronted with racism during her childhood, writer, feminist, and activist Audre Lorde endeavored to give it a name. Her parents had always sought to caution their children, primarily to “protect [them] from the realities of race in America”. But as a child drawn to poetry, Lorde searched for the words to describe the injustices she felt. Born in Depression-era Harlem in 1932, Lorde encountered anti-blackness intensely; being spat at on 142nd Street, being ridiculed in school, noticing how differently her lighter-skinned mother was treated compared to she and her siblings. Even as her mother described it, as “low-class people who had no better sense nor manners than to spit into the wind”, Lorde wanted to understand it. In Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, the author’s 1982 book which spawned a new literary genre – biomythography, which combines history, biography, and myth – Lorde speaks of this quiet denial that threatened to stifle her own voice. 

But she would not be silent for long. Describing the “silent agonies” of her youth, Lorde would strive to make her presence known throughout her life, from dropping the ‘y’ on the end of her name to her determination to empower other voices as exemplified through her work. Famously, she wrote, “Your silence will not protect you,” emphasizing the ways in which we can empower ourselves through the use of our voices. Eventually and most deservingly, Lorde, the self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” would go on to become one of the most prolific, feminist scholars and activists of the contemporary era.

Audre Lorde first began writing as a teenager, exploring familial relationships and the intensity of adolescent love. At 15, her first poem, “Spring”, was published in Seventeen magazine. She would later go on to study Library Science during her undergrad years at Hunter College, earn a Masters degree in the subject from Columbia University by 1961, and start a family a year later while working within the field. But it wasn’t until 1968, when Lorde published her first volume of poetry, First Cities, that she would leave her job in the stacks to pursue more writing and teaching. The decision would prove to be a defining moment in Lorde’s career and of coming into her own personally, as she went on to publish numerous works including the seminal classics, Coal and The Black Unicorn

Lorde was unafraid, often sharing with readers her deepest feelings. And though she wrestling with the realities of a suffering society, Lorde dedicated herself to articulating pure honesty, unabashedly. What made her work extraordinary was this ability to express her innermost thoughts – consequences aside – and give voice to her trials and triumphs proportionately. 

“I have a duty,” Lorde said in an interview with Claudia Tate in 1982, “to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigated pain.”

Her work, deeply personal as it was political, never ceased to convey Lorde’s vulnerabilities along with her fervor for activism. This remained a consistent thread in her essays, speeches, poems, and other books over the years, but was probably most evident in The Cancer Journals. In this extraordinary work, which Lorde was motivated to publish upon receiving her breast cancer diagnosis five years earlier, Lorde strives to confront her illness using her quest for identity and societal issues as parallel themes. As a result, The Cancer Journals, published in 1980, reveals a radical journey, full of dips and falls, and climbs towards empowerment for herself and others diagnosed with the disease. Broken into three sections, it is a compilation of Lorde’s journal entries from 1977-1979, speech excerpts, and commentary, that exemplify a fuller picture of breast cancer as it affects millions of people. 

Leading with entries that span from 1979 and 1980, The Cancer Journals begins six months after Lorde’s modified radical mastectomy. In her words are the reality of the pain and uncertainty she endured since being diagnosed through to the treatment of her disease; from her days feeling “very hopeless,” to her mood full of “despair [sweeping] across [her] consciousness like luna winds across a barren moonscape”.

As Black women often do, consciously or subconsciously, Lorde takes her pain in stride, deeply acknowledging the ways in which allowing the grief to consume her will affect her vitality. She writes, “I must let this pain flow through me and pass on. If I resist or try to stop it, it will detonate inside me, shatter me, splatter my pieces against every wall and person that I touch.”

This desire to surmount her anguish is echoed in the section, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”. Here, Lorde speaks about transforming suffering into speech and its implications. Modified from a speech she delivered in a panel discussion presented by the Modern Language Association, Lorde highlights the risks of her speaking being “bruised or misunderstood”. And while she attempts to prevent silence from “choking us” are noble and connects women through their experiences, she ladders up this personal epiphany to the significance of language as a tool to dismantle systems of oppression. 

In a day-to-day account of her experience in the chapter “Breast Cancer: A Black Lesbian Feminist Experience”, Lorde describes her stay in the hospital as accentuated by loneliness and isolation from her family, friends, and partners:


“The status of untouchable is a very unreal and lonely one, although it does keep everyone…I began quickly to yearn for the warmth of the fray, to be as good as the old even while the slightest touch meanwhile threatened to be unbearable.”


Here Lorde unearths the powerlessness that many women, and also men, battling breast cancer must feel. And still, an overwhelming warrior spirit coupled with the ability to overcome circumstance through transformation might just be Lorde’s greatest strengths. She even finds meaning in choosing not to wear prosthetic breasts after her operation. Lorde writes:


“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether or not I am unafraid. As women we were raised to fear. If I cannot banish fear completely, I can learn to count with it less.” 


Keeping this connection to other women in mind, Lorde further describes her life after having her mastectomy in ‘Breast Cancer: Power vs. Prosthesis”. She examines the necessity of prostheses:


“Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. …the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.”


No judgements are made on women who do opt for prostheses though. Lorde, writes:


“The woman who has chosen the path of prosthesis, of silence and invisibility, the woman who wishes to be ‘the same as before’…she has survived on another kind of courage, and she is not alone.”


And on the options in alternative medicine, she invites women to recognize their own agency with an assertion of life that renders full of sorrow and joy:


“I would never have chosen this path, but I am very glad to be who I am, here”. 


Silence… What does silence actually mean for women? For Black women? For queer Black people? For marginalized communities in general? We remember the full version of one of her most memorable quotes:


”My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you…. What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.”


After writing The Cancer Journals, Lorde’s reach expanded in international spheres, most especially as a professor teaching in Berlin. Back and forth between the States and Germany, writing and teaching, publishing many other works including A Burst of Light in 1989 – eventually Lorde found comfort in igniting and shaping the rising voices of a new movement nestled in an Afro-German experience. The Dagmar Schultz documentary film, Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992, explores this epilogue in Lorde’s life, and the lasting impact she made before and after the reunification of Berlin.


Near the end of her life, she assumed a new name, Gamba Adisa, an African name meaning “she who makes her meaning clear’. And then on November 17th, 1992, Audre Lorde died of liver cancer at the age of 58 on the island of St. Croix.


Using one of her last poems, we recognize Audre Lorde for her fire and perseverance, and for never allowing injustices to suffocate her voice or ours.


”Today Is Not the Day” by Audre Lorde

I can’t just sit here
staring death in her face
blinking and asking for a new name
By which to greet her
I am not afraid to say
I am dying
but i do not want to do it
looking the other way
Today is not the day.
It could be
But it is not.

Today is today…

I dare not tremble for them
Only pray laughter comes often enough
To soften the edge.

Lindsey Norward is a Philadelphia-based journalist, researcher, and storyteller, who writes primarily about history and culture in America. Having recently completed her graduate studies in Global Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University, where she was a MacCracken Fellow, Lindsey joins MoCADA as the Social Media and Digital Editorial Associate. Her responsibilities include research, writing, and editing stories that connect the shared values within Black communities worldwide to expand and uplift the core narrative of the African diaspora.

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