A conversation with Professor Ethelene Whitmire about Audre Lorde’s time in the library field
Audre Lorde was a revolutionary activist who knew the danger of denying parts of yourself. In an interview she did with Shelley Savren and Cheryl Robinson in 1982, she stated, “As long as you let one piece of yourself be cancelled out by another, you will always be subject to the kind of turmoil that sucks energy away” (as cited in Lorde & Hall, 2004, p. 82). As a feminist, Lorde celebrated her black identity and spoke powerfully about how black women’s struggles differed from those of white women and black men. She saw racism as a destructive force within the feminist movement and blasted white feminists who refused to attack it head on. She was a lesbian feminist who spoke openly about her sexuality and criticized homophobia in the black community. She was a born poet whose work revealed a complex inner world, and she challenged simple literary labels. In an interview questionnaire issued by Mari Evans between 1979 and 1980, Lorde had this to say about critics’ categories: “It’s easier to deal with a poet, certainly with a Black woman poet, when you categorize her, narrow her so that she can fulfill your expectations. But I have always felt that I cannot be categorized” (as cited in Lorde & Hall, 2004, p. 71).
Audre Lorde the Poet was interwoven with all the other identities that made her the force she was: Black lesbian feminist warrior poet mother (her self-description). A lover. A woman living with cancer. A teacher.
And a librarian. Lorde earned her library degree from Columbia University in 1961 and worked in New York’s libraries between 1955 and 1968. It is a part of her past that is not discussed frequently. This is somewhat surprising given how long she worked in the field, but unsurprising, too. Consider this reference to Lorde’s library career on Encyclopedia.com:
“Audre Lorde might have drifted into the financially comfortable, relatively obscure work of a community librarian. Instead she became engaged as a political activist, a feminist, and a writer” (Audre Lorde, 1934-1992; 2020)
The job title “librarian” just does not mesh easily in some people’s minds with the radical feminist persona that has defined Lorde for years. Yet libraries shaped Lorde’s life from the very beginning. At the age of four, she encountered an African American librarian, August Baker, who read three children’s books to her. She recalled the impact of that experience in a conversation with Nina Winter in 1976:
“I remember thinking that reading was something I was going to do. What she did, I was going to do too and was going to have it for my own…I learned how to read, I learned how to talk, I learned how to write. Later I became a librarian” (as cited in Lorde & Hall, 2004, p. 10).
Although Lorde enjoyed being a librarian, she decided to abandon the career because she needed more than librarianship could offer her. “I became a librarian because I really believed I would gain tools for ordering and analyzing information,” she told Adrienne Rich in 1979. “I couldn’t know everything in the world, but I thought I would gain tools for learning it. But that was of limited value” (as cited in Lorde & Hall, 2004, p. 66). As limited as it may have been, the value, I think, was real. Anyone who has read her interviews knows that Lorde knew her way around sources and understood the value of information gathering. This proved especially vital in her later years, when she devoted significant time to researching alternative treatments for the cancer that eventually ended her life.
In the early 2010’s, Dr. Ethelene Whitmire began doing research into Audre Lorde’s library career. Whitmire, who is a professor in the Afro-American Studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of the biography Regina Anderson Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian, a book which received a 2015 Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) Contribution to Publishing Citation and the 2015 Wheatley Book Award for First Nonfiction from the Harlem Book Fair. Dr. Whitmire talked with me recently about the research she has done into Lorde’s life as a librarian.
Conversation with Dr. Ethelene Whitmire
This is an edited version of the full conversation.
ST: So, when exactly did you start doing the research into Audre Lorde’s life, in terms of, like, the year, and how have you gone about doing that research?
EW: I’m guessing it was around 2012 or 2013 when I heard that Audre Lorde was also a librarian. I was familiar with her as an activist, and a few places mentioned her career in librarianship, but I decided I really wanted to explore that. I applied for funding through my university to go to various archives around the United States, and I also applied for a grant to go to Berlin. I think I started first by going to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. I also went to Spelman, where they have a huge amount of her records in their archives [and] Columbia University, where she went to library school. That [Columbia University archival material] was not processed, so it was just a lot of old papers and boxes. Very dusty. But I was able to find syllabi. I knew of courses she took from her transcript that was in her archives at Spelman. I was able to find the documents about the curriculum, the tuition, all that information about when she was in school. I looked at census data to try to get a sense of how many African Americans were librarians during that time period. Very few. I applied for a grant, and I got a month of funding to go to Berlin and look at her archives. There wasn’t a lot about librarianship; it was more about her teaching poetry, but also about being an activist in Germany and encouraging black women to become activists in Germany.
For almost a decade, she worked as a librarian, in very interesting spaces: as a children’s librarian; a young adult librarian; at a private school in New York City; and also in Mt. Vernon, New York at a public library; and even a medical library.
“I was writing seriously by the time I was in high school, and I knew it was something I would always want to do. But how was I to earn a living? I didn’t especially want to teach. I did want to give other people that kind of joy that I found from books, and libraries were the places I knew and felt good in, so it was natural enough that I should become a librarian.”
(Winter, 1976, as cited in Lorde & Hall, 2004, p. 11).
ST: Oh, I didn’t know about the medical library.
EW: Just briefly. She talks about it a little bit, I think, in some autobiographical writings. I also thought it was interesting that, during this time period, she was also married and had two children. I felt like she was living a very, I don’t know if you would say, a heterosexual lifestyle, at that point, and trying to be a very traditional kind of person. From what I read, her parents, being immigrants, they wanted her to have a good steady job. As a librarian, she got a job through the civil service exam, and that was considered prestigious. She lived a different life as a librarian than she did when she decided to quit and become a poet full time and an activist. That’s when she also left her husband and had two long-term relationships with two different women.
ST: Can you talk a little bit more about the work that she did in libraries? She was a library clerk for the New York Public Library Children’s Services in the late fifties, then spent a good part of the sixties working as a librarian in New York [City] and Mt. Vernon. What kind of work did she do in the libraries where she was employed?
EW: I think most information is about her time at Mt. Vernon library. From the background information, I understand that it was a multicultural, maybe more of a working-class kind of neighborhood. There were lots of African American workers in the library – not professional staff, paraprofessionals – and also there were lots of African American children coming to the library. She said she wanted to give the young people the kind of experiences that she had. She found the library as a refuge when she was a child. She actually would try to find books about African American explorers, like Matthew Henson, or just books with African American characters for the students, to encourage them, to interest them in reading, and encourage them by seeing people who looked like them. So she was doing kind of an activist’s work in a different kind of way as a librarian at Mt. Vernon. Then, at some point, she worked at this private school called the Town School in New York City, which was for very wealthy, predominantly white students, which I found kind of unusual given the type of activism she did later. She was actually the head librarian there, and they do name part of the library collection after her now. That was a different kind of library work. She specialized in taking courses in children and young adult librarianship when she was a library school student.
Augusta Braxton Baker, an African American librarian employed by the New York Public Library system for 37 years, was an important early influence on Audre Lorde.
ST: I am interested in hearing anything you might have unearthed about the medical library experience, especially given the fact that she struggled so much with cancer.
EW: She said it was very hard. She had two kids by then and she would have to leave them at night, and they would cry. She worked briefly at St. Clare Hospital in New York City in Hell’s Kitchen. She worked the four p.m. to midnight shift.
She says here [quoting Lorde]: “I was in an absolute blaze of activity because things financially were so bad at home. I went out and got a job; I was with two kids in the daytime and worked at the library at night. Jonathan used to cry every night when I left” (Lorde, 1984, p. 89).
Dr. Whitmire also related the following quote from the resignation letter Audre Lorde wrote expressing her dissatisfaction with her job at St. Clare:
“I never expected to be faced with the moral and professional problem of being asked to accept a title and a wage for work I was not allowed to do! However, this is the situation I find at the nursing school library, and personal conscience as well as professional ethics, will not permit me to accept it.”
– Excerpt from Audre Lorde’s July 15, 1966 resignation letter from the St. Clare School of Nursing (as related by Dr. Ethelene Whitmire, personal communication, March 4, 2020)
ST: Can you talk about what her relationship was like with her librarian colleagues in general? Just hearing that letter really makes me wonder about that. What was it like in any of the libraries where she was?
EW: In her biography, her biographer [Alexis De Veaux] said that at the Mount Vernon Library, she struggled with her boss [Mrs. Larch]. She [De Veaux] also talked about the paraprofessionals who were working there in the library. They didn’t seem to like her [Lorde]. She talks, I think in two different places, about them leaving a hot comb in her locker, that fell out. So, she didn’t quite fit in with them, because of her background, social class, maybe her immigrant status. At the Town School, she was in a different position. She doesn’t talk about any interactions there.
I was trying to get a sense, too, from library school – what would it be like? I know even when I taught in Wisconsin, it was always usually only, like, two black people (laugh) out of a huge number.
EW: That’s why I looked at the census data, because I couldn’t find any data about the enrollment in library school when she was there. She never talked about library school, other than just mentioning that she went there (in Zami).
ST: In an interview that she did with Nina Winter in 1976, she said that she left librarianship after working in Mt. Vernon and Manhattan because “it wasn’t creative anymore and I had to find something else” (as cited in Lorde & Hall, 2004, p. 11). During your research, have you come across any additional writings by her in which she discusses her decision to leave the profession in general?
EW: Just that she said she was in New York City watching a performance when they announced that Martin Luther King was killed. She said that, plus Robert Kennedy’s death and a friend of hers being hurt in a bad accident, made her think about her life. She felt like librarianship wasn’t enough anymore, it wasn’t the kind of work she wanted to do. She’d just finished working at Tougaloo, where she was around African American students and was inspired by them. Those things helped her leave the job. I think just thinking about “Life is short.” She also said, when she came back from Tougaloo, [quoting Lorde:] “I came back knowing that my relationship with Ed, my husband, was not enough…I didn’t know how to end it because there had never been any endings for me” (Lorde, 1994, pp. 92-93). But she had met this woman, Frances Clayton, at Tougaloo and “knew that she was going to be a permanent person in my life” (Lorde, 1994, p. 93). So I think that Tougaloo was really a turning point both professionally and also personally in her life.
“I knew by the time I left Tougaloo that teaching was the work I needed to be doing, that library work…was not enough.”
– Audre Lorde
(from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 1984, p. 92)
ST: Do you think her experience in libraries had any impact on her activism?
EW: I think so, only because I know that libraries can be sites of activism. My own former chair wrote a book about a librarian –there’s actually a Bette Davis movie about her– who got fired while she was trying to integrate story time at an Oklahoma library. There’s even a statue of this woman. (Dr. Whitmire is referencing Oklahoma librarian Ruth Brown.)
I feel like Regina Andrews was kind of an activist in her own way, too.
Librarianship, I think, was more of a safe way to do quiet activism at a small level, like what she [Lorde] did at Mt. Vernon to help the black students, but she felt like she could maybe reach more people in a different way through her teaching and her poetry, her essays.
ST: So, in your research that you’ve done, have you come across anything that surprised you about her just in general?
EW: Just that she seemed like a very traditional woman in the sixties when she was married. Those were the choices people had to make in the sixties. They often would marry to have kids, to have a family, but it seemed like a very traditional stereotype of a librarian. Yes, when I found out she was a librarian, I think that’s what shocked me at first. Because, I just knew her, again, as an activist. I feel like this time period was a kind of strange transition time for her while she was trying to find her own voice, maybe. I think that’s the most surprising thing, that she had this career that few people talk about in any great depth.
ST: What is one thing that you would like people to remember about Audre Lorde as a librarian and in general?
EW: I think it’s important for other people to see that she did go and get a master’s in librarianship. She worked as a librarian. It’s not incompatible to be an artist and a librarian. Someone actually wrote an article about people like Nella Larsen, being a librarian and a novelist during the Harlem Renaissance. Or Marianne Moore, the poet, who is not black. The librarian I wrote about, Regina Andrews, was part of the Harlem Renaissance as an actress and also a playwright. She was executive director of a theater company during the Harlem Renaissance besides working as a librarian. I think it’s important for people to remember that. You can have this activist kind of thing through your library career and be an advocate for certain groups, to help them, as a librarian. A lot of people think it’s just sitting there checking out books or answering questions at the reference desk. But you can use your position to collect things for people in the community that will reach them, and touch them, and inspire them.
ST: Absolutely. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
EW: Thank you.
Audre Lorde, 1934–1992. (Last updated: 2020, February 29). Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved April 1, 2020 from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/audre-lorde
De Veaux, A. (2004). Warrior poet : A biography of Audre Lorde (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton.
Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider : Essays and speeches (The Crossing Press feminist series). Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.
Lorde, A. (1997). The collected poems of Audre Lorde (1st ed.). New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton Company.
Lorde, A., Byrd, R., Cole, J., & Guy-Sheftall, B. (2009). I am your sister : Collected and unpublished writings of Audre Lorde (Transgressing boundaries). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lorde, A., & Hall, J. (2004). Conversations with Audre Lorde (Literary conversations series). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Additional reading and viewing
Lorde, A. (1988). A burst of light : Essays (Black women writers series). Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books.
Lorde, A. (1990). The cancer journals (2nd ed., Black women writers series) [2nd ed.]. San Francisco, CA.: Aunt Lute Books.
Lorde, A., Parkerson, M., & Rosengarten Family Fund (Directors), & Griffin, A., & Third World Newsreel (Firm) (Producers). (1996). A litany for survival: the life and work of Audre Lorde [Video file]. Third World Newsreel.
Schultz, D. (Screenwriter), & Seidel, M., Hügel-Marshall, I., Cheatom, R., Vietinghoff, A., C., Motaung, A., . . . Newsreel (Firm) (Directors). (2012). Audre Lorde : The Berlin years, 1984 to 1992 [Video file]. TWN, Third World Newsreel.
Smith-Cruz, S. (2018). Referencing Audre Lorde. In K. Adler, I. Beilin, & E. Tewell (Eds.), Reference librarianship and justice (pp.279–292). Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.