Audre Lorde, James Baldwin & Astrid Roemer

Three Black authors from the Americas who have lived in Europe

by
Adrian Murphy (Europeana Foundation)

The relationships between Europe and the Americas have long and complex histories - fraught by power structures and colonialism while offering cultural exchange and educational and professional opportunities. Authors have negotiated these relationships in their writing for centuries.

This blog will feature Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Astrid Roemer: three Black authors from the Americas who have lived and worked in Europe and whose writing occupies an important place in LGBTQ+ heritage.

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde was born in New York City in 1934, the daughter of migrants from the Caribbean. She decribed herself as a 'Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet'. Her writing explores issues of feminism, lesbianism, civil rights and the Black female identity.

From the 1950s onwards through the 1960s, Lorde's education and career brought her to live in locations across the Americas - from New York city to Mississippi and Mexico. From 1972 to 1987, Lorde lived on Staten Island. During that time, in addition to writing and teaching, she co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

Her first book of poems, The First Cities, was published in 1968. She authored more than a dozen further books through the 1970s and into the 1980s, including The Black Unicorn: Poems in 1978, The Cancer Journals in 1980 and Sister Outsider in 1984.

Through her writing, Lorde explored identity and difference in communities and individual. She wrote, 'I am defined as other in every group I'm part of'.

In 1984, Lorde began a visiting professorship at the Free University of Berlin in then West Berlin, West Germany. There, she was influential in a growing social movement for Black people living in Germany. These communities faced widespread discrimination and stereotyping, with a long history of systemic racism in Germany.

She named this movement 'Afro-German', together with a group of Black women activists in Berlin, and became a mentor to a number of women who were Afro-German authors and activists.

She spent weeks and months each year in Berlin, often accompanied by her colleague and partner Dr. Gloria I. Joseph. She described her time there as one of the most significant in her life.

Audre Lorde's time in Berlin is documented in a film, The Berlin Years: 1984–1992, with a website Audre Lorde in Berlin offering an online tour to places where Audre Lorde spent time in Berlin with photos, videos and sound clips conn. An archive - the Audre Lorde Archive is also kept at the Freie Universität Berlin.

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James Baldwin

African-American author James Baldwin was born in New York City in 1924, growing up in Harlem. Over his long writing career, his prose and poetry explores interconnected themes of identity, masculinity, sexuality and race.

Baldwin was educated in several schools in New York and spent some time living in Greenwich Village. He began to develop his writing career, publishing articles and short stories.

Baldwin became disillusioned with life as a Black man in the United States, faced with prejudice and discrimination. Aged 24, he decided to emigrate from the USA and moved to Paris in 1948.

There, he became involved with literary circles and counter-culture movements, publishing articles in anthologies.

In 1953, Baldwin's first novel was published. Go Tell It on the Mountain tells the story of John Grimes, a Black teenager living in Harlem in the 1930s and his relationship with his family, community and church - exploring themes of religion, class, race and poverty. Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays, was published in 1955.

His 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room detailed an affair between a bisexual American expat in Paris and an Italian man facing execution. It brought Baldwin into the literary spotlight, as well as caused controversy due to its explicit homoerotic content.

Baldwin continued to live in France for most of his life, as well as spending some time in Switzerland and Turkey. From 1970 onwards, Baldwin moved to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France. There, he continued to write and published further novels, short stories and collections.

During his life, Baldwin was neither in the closet nor open to the public about his sexual orientation and relationships with men. His writing dealt with black and white characters, as well as heterosexual, gay, and bisexual characters. Through his writing, Baldwin articulating anger and frustration at parallel prejudices of homophobia and racism.

James Baldwin died in December 1987 and today is remembered as an inspirational figure in the Civil Rights and gay liberation movements.

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Astrid Roemer

Surinamese author Astrid Roemer has lived in Europe for decades - mostly in the Netherlands, where she has built an award-winning career writing novels, drama and poetry in Dutch. Her writing has explored themes of migration, feminism and identity.

Born in 1947 in Paramaribo, Roemer trained as a teacher. She first travelled to the Netherlands in 1966 while working as a teacher in Suriname.

In 1970, she published her first book of poetry, Sasa mijn actuele zijn. It was published under the pseudonym Zamani, a Swahili name which emphasized her African roots.

She published her first novel, Neem mij terug Suriname (Take me back Suriname) in 1974. The novel, which was very successful in Suriname, explores the theme of Surinamese emigration to the Netherlands, nostalgia and longing to return.

In 1975, Roemer lived this theme by moving to the Netherlands. Until 1975, Suriname had been a part of the Netherlands - firstly as a colony until 1954 and subsequently as a country within the Netherlands. She decided to move to the Netherlands having been fired from her teaching role for refusing to take part in Sinterklaas celebrations which include the blackface Zwarte Piet character.

Her later novels explore feminist topics. Her 1982 novel Over de gekte van een vrouw ('On the madness of a woman') investigated female identity and the oppression of women. Its success in the Netherlands established her as a feminist writer and made her a lesbian role model.

She wrote novels, plays and poetry which were published widely through the 1980s. By 1989, Roemer was living in The Hague, working for a time as a city councillor for the Groen Links left-wing political party.

Between 2000 and 2015, Roemer lived in a variety of locations - in the Netherlands, in Rome, back to Suriname and in Scotland and Belgium. In December 2015, she was awarded the 2016 PC Hooft Prize - an most important literary prize in the Netherlands and Belgium.

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