A self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde had a poem for every occasion, says her daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins, in this week’s conversation with Katie Hafner.
Lorde's lifelong love of words led her to a life as a renowned poet and author of more than a dozen volumes. Her poetry is unflinching, raw and filled with rage against social, racial and sexual norms.
In 1978, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy. Her experiences and emotions at that time were chronicled in her diaries, which were then published in a book titled, The Cancer Journals.
The Cancer Journals was among the first narratives to lend voice to the physical and emotional isolation of breast cancer, is now being republished 40 years after its original release.
Elizabeth, an ob-gyn who is currently studying acupuncture, speaks about her reactions to her mother's work when she was young, her mother's life and legacy, and the continued relevance of her work.
Fittingly, Penguin Classic's new edition coincides with Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Forty years after The Cancer Journals was first published, Black women still have the highest breast cancer death rate of all racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., and they’re 42% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women are. This is just plain wrong and it needs to be redressed.
To coincide with its literary tribute to Audre Lorde, Penguin Random House has pledged its support to Black Women's Health Imperative, an organization that supports health and wellness initiatives for Black women.
We hope you'll support BWHI, too. Here's their Web site.
Further ways you can donate: Susan G. Komen organization, Ralph Lauren's Pink Pony Campaign and/or Breast Cancer Action, an organization we think Audre would heartily approve of.
Don't forget to visit us at ourmothersourselves.com. And while you're there, please contribute your word to the mother word cloud.
Music composed and performed by Andrea Perry.
Artwork by Paula Mangin. (@PaulaBallah)
Producer: Alice Hudson
Intern: Rosie Manock (@RosieManock)
Hello, and welcome to Our Mothers Ourselves. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. In September 1978, when she was 44 years old, the renowned poet Audre Lorde, went into the hospital for a breast biopsy. She woke up in the recovery room hurting and horrified. "I have cancer," she wrote in her landmark book, The Cancer Journals. "I'm a black lesbian feminist poet. Where are the models for what I'm supposed to be in this situation." Lorde became her own model. After her mastectomy, she chose never to hide the fact of her missing breast. Lorde died in 1992 when she was 58. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Cancer Journals and Penguin Classics has just come out with a new version of the book. In her forward to the new edition, the former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes that the book bears witness to Lorde's radical re envisioning of self, body and society. I spoke recently with Lordes daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Lorde Rollins. She's an OB-GYN at the Ezra Choilim Health Center in Monroe, New York. And she's studying acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine at the Pacific College of oriental medicine in New York City. Elizabeth Lorde- Rollins, I'd like to thank you so much for coming on to Our Mothers Ourselves to talk to me about your mother, who I would venture to say was one in a million.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Agreed. In fact, actually, let me just ask you this right off the bat, if you had one word to describe her, what would that word be?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
And that came to mind? Like right away? No question.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Yeah, pretty much.Katie Hafner:
So I'd like to start by asking you to read a poem of your choosing written by your mother, and why don't you introduce us to the poem, give us a little bit of context. And then go ahead.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Both my brother and I would go hear our mother read poetry. And I remember being very intimidated as a five or six year old-Katie Hafner:
-because it was your mother and she was the big person in your life or because you were worried you wouldn't understand it?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
I identified her intensity as anger. And remember thinking, you know, Did I do something wrong? Are we gonna be in trouble when we get home? Now I know, okay, this is kind of, before you begin to understand that there are events that happen outside of yourself that have nothing to do with you, and you do not cause them. So I wonder if an adult had kind of said, Hey, this is, you know, this is mommy reading, if I even would have sort of got that. As an adult, I read these poems and I, I see some of the other things in them. The fear for us, the uncertainty about what kind of world we'll be inhabiting as, as a parent an emotion that I share and at the end of this poem, What My Child Learns of the Sea, sort of an uneasy certainty that despite your best efforts, you're going to do some things wrong, and, and your child is going to have to work them out. And whether he or she works them out with you or without you, you know, has yet to be seen, but no matter what your best efforts are, you will certainly-Katie Hafner:
-screw up.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
So please jump right in.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
This is, what my child learns of the sea. What my child learns of the sea, of the summer thunder, of the bewildering riddle that hides at the vortex of spring. She will learn in my Twilight and childlike revise every autumn. What my child learns as her winters fall out of time, ripen did my own body to enter her eyes with first light. This is why more than blood, or the milk I have given, one day a strange girl will step to the back of a mirror, cutting my ropes of sea and thunder and sun, of the way she will taste her autumns, toast brittle or warmer than sleep. And the words she will use for winter. I stand already condemned.Katie Hafner:
You know, what I want to tell you first of all, is that you have an absolutely beautiful poetry reading voice. And I remember when I was a kid, I would listen to record scratchy old records of Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. And, and I have to say, You sound just like them. It's the sing-songy quality of it. It's the, it's the, it's the it's the savoring every word and every syllable quality of it. Is this something you've practiced?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
You know, I have not practiced this ever. And the first time I was asked to read a poem of my mom's, um, I guess it was maybe a few months after she had passed away. And everybody in the room was just silent for a long time. And I, it's really not conscious, I can't read her work any other way. Because I, it was years of hearing her read. So before I even knew, I mean, I didn't really have an appreciation for who my mother was in the world, until I was about 16. That's a whole other story. But we were going to poetry readings as little children, so I can't really read it any other way. But, you know, it's interesting, um, because, you know, our mother loved words, just loved words, and adored poetry. And she'd read us poetry all the time. Shel Silverstein and Emily Dickinson and Phillis Wheatley. I remember, you know, had a poem for every occasion. I remember coming home crying about my math homework one day, I think I was in fifth grade. And she ran to the bookcase and drug out this volume. And read me, read me Euclid alone has looked on beauty bear, which is a poem about math.Katie Hafner:
So let's let's jump into her life. And I just want to say that the, the reissue of The Cancer Journals um, it's the 40th anniversary. Is that right? Of the publication of the book?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Yeah, I believe.Katie Hafner:
Uh huh. And what a wonderful excuse, we now have to talk about it all over again. And it's absolutely no less relevant. Just saying than it was 40 years ago.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Yeah. And this is a really nice excuse to relive with you, the story of your mother. And let's start with when she was born, where she was born, who her parents were. Well, my, my mom was born in 1934, February 18th in New York City. She was the youngest of three girls. And born to my grandmother and grandfather. My grandmother, Linda Belmar Lorde, who was originally from Grenada, and my grandfather, Frederick Byron Lorde, who was originally from Barbados. And they had met in Grenada, when my grandfather was a constable at the time, came to the general store where my grandmother was working, because in those days, the constables would come to the general stores, and make sure that the proprietors were doing weights and measures correctly, and not cheating their customers. So that's how they met. And within I think, a year, a year and a half moved to New York City to follow Linda's two older sisters. They actually move to Manhattan. You know, there is a fair amount of colorism for lack of a better word that, you know, happens in the Caribbean. My grandmother was a very light skinned woman, lighter than I am. Her father had been a Scottish sailor, and she actually passed for white when they first came to New York City, because my grandfather who is darker literally could not get a job. Even though he was highly skilled in a bunch of fields, and my grandmother got a job at the Waldorf Astoria passing for white um with her Caribbean accent, they thought she was English. She was fired because she got no pneumonia one winter, and my grandfather went to the job to pick up her check. And when they saw my grandfather, they realized that she must be something other than English and white as they had assumed, and told my grandfather, tell your wife don't come back to work. And by this time, you know, it was full blown depression. Right? By this time, it was the mid 1930s. And New York, like the rest of the country was really gripped in depression. My grandmother took in wash independently. At that point, my mother has written about how she would see her mother doing the wash, and how her mother's hands would just have chill blades all over them from doing the wash all day, and then taking it out in the winter, you know, wet and delivering it to places and, and just how cold her hands would get. And my grandfather did odd jobs and really catches catch can until World War Two started. So things were bad. And my mother was the darkest of the three girls. And my mother was closer to my grandfather's coloring. And also, her hair quality was much more like my grandfather's. So some of the early battles in my mother's family of origin was her asserting herself that she was not going to have the hot comb, she was not going to undergo, you know, all the chemicals and so forth to get her hair straightened. Um, and that these battles happened at a fairly young age. And one of the major ones, my mother was only in the sixth grade, and she'd get beaten with a brush that my grandmother, there was no way she could go to school, leave the house with that afro and way before her time. I mean, we're talking let's see, my mother was 13. So we're talking, it was 1947.Katie Hafner:
Oh, wow, that is very early.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Yeah. Yeah. So she was ahead of her time, in a lot of ways,Katie Hafner:
In a lot of ways. She had a sense of self from the get go, it sounds like.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Yes, my grandfather, and I think my grandmother, too, always had this dream that all three of their girls would go to college.Katie Hafner:
And they had not I take it, they had not had a college education.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
No one in the family at this point, had had a college education.Katie Hafner:
So what was behind the dream of an education for their girls?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
You know, I guess, the same dream that had moved them to come from the Caribbean, to the states in the first place, which was that, you know, there would be a better life, a changing of the family fortunes, that their descendants would no longer be dependent on getting jobs from the man, for lack of a better term. I don't necessarily think that my grandmother and grandfather conceived of it in that fashion. They certainly were not as radical in their political outlook, as, as my mother ended up being, you know, but they were immigrants, with the kind of upwardly mobile dreams for their children that most folks who emigrate to the states have no matter what their ethnicity.Katie Hafner:
Right? It's, it's an absolutely incredible sort of thread that runs through the entire podcast series. However you want to put it like the American dream, or the dream of an education or education as, as furthering your chances. Did all three of their daughters get to go to college?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Yes, they did. My mother went to college, she graduated from Hunter College, and then went to Columbia and got a graduate degree in library science.Katie Hafner:
And then tell me about the transition from that to full time poet.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Well, as a child, I wasn't really too Well, let's, that's a, that's a nice transition to this incident aware of when my mother would write. I found out as an adult, through conversations with Blanche Cook and, and Frances Clayton, that my mom would write midnight to two o'clock in the morning, usually, at the kitchen table. You know, there is this quote, that talent does what it can and genius does what it must. And I think my mother was in the genius category. I mean, she needed poetry like all of u need air. And so whether she w s going to write or not was n ver in question. But what h ppened with those poems, was, y u know, something else e tirely. In 1968, in the summer f 1968, she was invited to ougaloo and that was a real atershed moment I think for h r to teach poetry and to pass so e of that love of words and the power of poetry to pass that on And it's such a time as the sum er of 1968. I mean, in in Toug loo, Mississippi, of all place . I think that it just chang d her trajectory. It made her s e her work in her light in a dif erent space. So a lot of the i formation that I'm impar ing to you is how it looke to a small child and then a a teenager growing up kind o seeing, oh, how these event really did change the way my mo her saw her work. when you were 16. And I call it that, how you met your mother? Yeah.Katie Hafner:
Tell me what happened.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Well, up until the time I was 16, Jonathan and I had gone to poetry readings in junior high school, I think both of us were aware that her work was becoming more celebrated. But I remember having a family meeting at one point and, and both my brother and I rounding on our mother and Frances and saying, you know, you guys think you're so cool, but you're just like all the other parents, you know, it's like chores and have the dishes done, and, you know, you're gonna get docked your allowance because the garbage cans weren't taken out in a timely fashion. And the two of them looked at each other and just laugh, because I think to be accused of being average suburban parents was really on some level, something that they wish the rest of the world could see.Katie Hafner:
Certainly, when they went to PTA meetings, the last thing anybody else in the room was thinking was they were just like all the other parents. And here were their, you know, tween kids just sort of saying, yeah, you guys think you're so cool, you're hopelessly square.Katie Hafner:
I love that.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
But you know, as things go on, you know, we certainly, my mother and I had our differences in our frictions, and it really reached the head, the year that I was 15. And then 16, it only got worse. And during that year of high school, I guess it was in the early spring. When my mom said to me, look, you and I are not going to survive a summer in this house together. And I'm not going anywhere. So I'm sending you to Diane's house for the summer. And Diane was Diane di Prima who had, I believe it was in the early 1970s that she had sort of picked up and relocated to San Francisco. So I went out to San Francisco for the summer and stayed there for six weeks or so. It was during that time and really only in the first week or so that I was with Diane, was the summer of 1979. I was looking for something to read and the entire length of the hallway was bookcases. I was traveling down the hallway and, and I first saw my mother's book out of nowhere, so I picked it up, I grabbed it. I think it was, Cables to Rage, if memory serves. Um, Cables to Rage has a picture of my mother in a black lambskin coat. And these 1960s butterfly black rimmed glasses and she's sort of looking very stern. And I just grabbed that book and started reading it. It really gave me a look at my mother as Audre Lorde, the poet. She'd always been mom, and only mom and mom who writes poetry and mom who goes on trips and how come she's gone so long. But there had really been no digestion of Audre Lorde, the poet on my part up until reading those books at Diane's and maybe it was the space of being away from my mom for six weeks that made it possible.Katie Hafner:
So when you were reading the cables to rage, does that mean cables as in telegrams to rage or is that, what it is?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
You know, good question. I mean, it could be cables as in telegrams. I always thought it was cables like electrical wire cables, cables to rage conduit, conduit to rage.Katie Hafner:
I see. Yeah. Interesting. Speaking of which I read, I read somewhere that Audre Lorde is she owns anger the way Monet owns the lily pad. And I can imagine that when you were little It was scary. Because you thought you had done something and then when you were a teenager and you read cables to rage it was just probably epiphonous.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
There was something about the separation of reading her work in a book, as opposed to hearing her read. That really allowed me to see my mother is not belonging to me as belonging to the world in a way that I had never really appreciated before.Katie Hafner:
How old were you when she was first diagnosed with cancer?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
And how did she share the news with you?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Well, she had had a scare the year before. Both she and Frances thought that the lump she fel was cancer. And she underwe t a biopsy at that time. And the news was, oh, you don't have ca cer. And it was only a year af er that, that she felt another lump and went into the surgery not knowing whether they we e going to find was cancer r not. And when she woke up, she had a radical mastect my. This was before the days of needle guided biopsies.Katie Hafner:
Mm hmm.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Um, and so in many cases, you'd go into the operation, not really knowing what the operation was going to be when you woke up. My brother and I were both starting at Stuyvesant High School, which was right across the street from Beth Israel. We made an arrangement that at 10 o'clock in the morning, every day, when I was in a classroom that faced her hospital window, she'd go to the window, and I'd go to the window, and we wave. So a bunch of my classmates said, What are you doing every day at 10 o'clock, and I said, oh, my mom's in the hospital across the street. So one day, they all went to the window and started waving, which was really, Oh my gosh. Yeah.Katie Hafner:
Now we skipped over a little bit. You've mentioned Francis, but so Francis, was your mom's partner after she and your dad divorced?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
There was a little bit of an overlap there. My mom and dad both knew they were gay when they got married. They loved each other. But they both knew they were gay.Katie Hafner:
Did they know they were gay, and they wanted to have kids. And how did that work?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Well, my mother definitely wanted to have kids. I think he wanted to have kids too. But mostly he wanted to marry her. She would have been fine with having kids without getting married, but he insisted on getting married.Katie Hafner:
Mm hmm.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Um, sort of a role reversal, for male, female, from the stories you usually hear.Katie Hafner:
But you know, I think that my dad had relationships with men, but they were more transitory. His heart always belonged to our mom. I mean, on his deathbed, he was in his 80s. He was calling her name. So I mean, and they divorced in the early 1970s. They separated in 1970. I don't think the divorce was final until 1975. But you get the idea. I mean, even though he went on to have other loving relationships, both with men and women at the end of his life, that was the one that got away for him.Katie Hafner:
Wow. So she, your mom had a powerful effect on people, it sounds like.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Oh yeah, Frances Clayton, was also I mean, I don't even have word for Frances. She was, her dece cy and anti racism is also some hing that was way ahead of its ime. Frances and my mom fell in love when my mother was teac ing at Tougaloo and Frances was eaching at Tougaloo as well And it was 1968. Frances was owheaded blond, blue eyed, very Nordic looking. And they met t at Tougaloo and fell in loveKatie Hafner:
Getting back to your mom's diagnosis, her surgery, and then several years later, I guess she had a liver metastasis. Is that what happened?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
But then she lived for so many years after that.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
And The Cancer Journals, when did she start writing it?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
The Journals that end up in The Cancer Journals proper begin with that first surgery, the radical mastectomy, the rehabilitation from that, the visits from the ladies from reach for recovery, who talk about getting back to normal and said, well, this is just a sample of the prosthesis, you'll get the real one is going to feel much more like a real breast-Katie Hafner:
-and that's when she said, no.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Yeah, that's when she said no. And there was the physical fact of losing her breast and the loss and the mourning that went with that. When our mom came home, we had a family meeting about how things were going to be a little different. And my brother and I had, you know, we were taught how to cook, we were responsible for one family meal each per week, even as kids growing up, but our mom said, you know, I will drive you to the grocery store, but you and your brother are going to do the grocery shopping, you're going to bring in the food, you're gonna pack it away, you know, there's a certain amount of quotidian activity that I just don't have time for and you guys are capable of doing it and this is going to be part of your new responsibilities. I don't remember whether she explicitly stated this, but I was aware that it had to do with this feeling that she didn't have a lot of time necessarily. Or maybe she did have a lot of time, but it wasn't going to be spent going to the a&p.Katie Hafner:
Got it. Different priorities. I wanted to read something to you that Mario Cuomo said about her when he named her poet laureate of New York in 1991. He said, her imagination is charged by a sharp sense of racial injustice and cruelty, of sexual prejudice, she cries out against it as the voice of indignant humanity. Audre Lorde is the voice of the eloquent outsider who speaks in a language that can reach and touch people everywhere. Do you remember that when, when you must remember that when he said that, and when this all happened, when she became poet laureate of New York?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
I do. I do remember that day, vividly. Thank you for reading that quote by Mario Cuomo. He is also an impressive figure, for, you know, how differently he approached the political job, in my, in my opinion, and those words to me couldn't say it clearer, not just what they mean about my mother, but what they mean about him, that he saw that.Katie Hafner:
Because, you know, it's absolutely true. And from a young age, she was the outsider with maybe an eloquence that she didn't feel free to express. She didn't speak her first words until she was five, because of the, this outsider thing she knew better than to speak.Katie Hafner:
I hope you don't mind if I turn to what I can I, I believe is probably the most memorable, I guess you call it a declaration of hers, the Master' tools will never dismantle th Master's house. How do you re d that? It's been read a d interpreted so many differe t wayElizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
I think it's pretty clear, actually. I think that my mother, again, sort of ahead of her time, had a recognition that although we may work within the confines of the system, as we know it, true and lasting change, sometimes has to come outside the parameters of those systems. I also think that the Master's tools will not d smantle the Masters house, is a arning, a warning that we're living through. I mean, I'm, 'm a proud American, and I haven t lived really, for any lengt of time in other count ies. So I can't comment upon hether America is the great st country in the world. I do kn w that it feels like 1934 in Ge many right now. We've been in a onstitutional crisis since the i ception of the Const tution in this country. It's ust that large segments of the p pulation have had the luxur of not having to recog ize that. And I think that' what, the Masters tools will ot dismantle the Masters house speaks to.Katie Hafner:
What do you think your mom would say about what's going on right now?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
It's about time. That's what she'd say about the protests. And with regard to Mr. Trump and his band, because it's not, you know, of course, it's not just Mr. Trump. She'd say, yes, these people have existed and been allowed to flourish. And where have the rest of y'all been?Katie Hafner:
What would you say her legacy is?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
Wow. I see her legacy every day because I, I work with patients and every patient who comes into my office and slams a copy of, hysterectomy no more, down on my desk and says Doctor, have you read this, um, I see her legacy.Katie Hafner:
I see her legacy in every woman I see who takes her health into her own hands. I see her legacy in the young people who are out in the streets.Katie Hafner:
Alright, so my last question, finally, I promise is that as you were reading the poem, I was thinking to myself that just there's so many wonderful lines in it. But I thought to myself, did Elizabeth and her brother see this, it was this like their guide for life. Have you tried to live that way?Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
One of the most salient lines is, if you do not learn to hate, you will never be lonely enough to love easily. And I believe that characterizes me. I don't pretend to be the warrior, my mother was. My ways are very different from hers. You know, when I see people protesting, you know, out on the streets, this rally that I went to in Brooklyn, which was a beautiful and peaceful gathering, but characterized by complete outrage, and rightfully so and say their names is not just a rallying cry, it goes to the very heart of really each and every one of us. And that that is her legacy too. The killing of unarmed people of color or was going on before my mother was born, and continued after she died. But the very vocal expression of our outrage, as well as the promise that we may live to see a day when it's different. I see that as part of her legacy.Katie Hafner:
And those, this very last line that you, that you read, speak proudly to your children, wherever you may find them. Tell them your offspring of slaves, and your mother was a princess in darkness. Well, on that note, I'd like to thank you so much for spending all this time talking to me about your really incredible mother and congratulations on the republication of the book.Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins:
I'm thrilled. It's a beautiful volume. I've seen it and it's just, my mother would have loved it. So my thanks go to Penguin and and really, my thanks go to you.Katie Hafner:
And that's it this week for Our Mothers Ourselves. You probably already know that it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. What you might not know is that 40 years after The Cancer Journals was first published, black women still have the highest breast cancer death rate of all racial and ethnic groups in the US and they're 42% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women are. This is just plain wrong and it needs to be redressed. To coincide with its literary tribute to Audre Lorde, Penguin Random House has pledged its support to, black women's health imperative, an organization that supports health and wellness initiatives for black women. We hope you'll support BWHI too by going to bwhi.org/donate. Our theme music is composed and performed by Andrea Perry. Paula Mangin is our artist in residence. Rosie Manock is our intern, and the show's producer is Alice Hudson. Our Mothers Ourselves is a production of Odradek Studios. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. Have a great week, everyone.