'But my words will be there ... '

Teaching Audre Lorde (part II)

Image Source: http://www.pbs.org/pov/alitanyforsurvival/film_description.php
Image Source: http://www.pbs.org/pov/alitanyforsurvival/film_description.php

In Chapter One of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire writes, “Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building; it is to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated” (47). For me, the key term in this passage is “reflective participation.” Students cannot simply be told that they must write; they must find their own composing process through “reflective participation.” Students need to ask themselves, “what are the words you do not yet have?” (Sister Outsider 41) and then write their way to an answer. 

My last post focused on one student’s experience using Lorde’s poetry to find her own composing process (within an assignment that simply asked students to find a poem they LOVE and write an academic paper on it). Ideally, when students locate their poem, they will also locate an opportunity for “reflective participation,” a moment when a single poem sparks a connection that leads the writer to explore their own histories and traditions—ultimately opening up a self-generated impassioned line of inquiry. Students are drawn to Lorde, who writes, “A writer by definition is a teacher,” and creates verse that she wants to “share with as many people who can or will hear me” (I Am Your Sister 182). For Lorde, a teacher advocates for the necessity of writing as a way to “define and seek a world in which we all flourish” (Sister Outsider 112). In other words, both writers and teachers should share a common concern with the value of learning to engage with language rather than feeling commanded or controlled by it.

I think of my students as “writers,” whether they know it or not. And, I also think that Lorde’s work has the unique capacity to enable students to move beyond a resistance to writing to a place where writing becomes an important and necessary part of their thinking processes.

Another Student Story

When first delving into my “pick a poem you LOVE” assignment, Marina admitted that she “was not sure what poem to write about” and had been exploring and reading around but “nothing struck” her until she discovered Lorde’s “Power” (first published in the 1976 volume Between Our Selves). Marina admits being unbelievably moved by the poem and “could not hold back tears.” She ultimately wrote an excellent paper that moved between Lorde’s poem (which is based on the 1973 murder of Clifford Glover) and the recent murder of Oksana Makar, an 18-year-old teenager in the Ukraine. In the paper, Marina remembers hearing the news of Makar from her mother (in Russia) and how “there was so much anger and frustration in her speech, but there was no fear.”  Marina also remembers her mother stating, “The power of many can change the world full of injustice.”

Fueled by Lorde’s lines, “But unless I learn to use/the difference between poetry and rhetoric/my power too will run corrupt…,” Marina performed an extensive close reading of the poem as well as a variety of newspaper articles on both cases (Collected Poems 216). In an email to me she indicates that Lorde’s writing has changed her own writing—specifically because she felt as though Lorde called on her “to discover the tremendous source of power within.” And, for Marina, this power came in the form of realizing that she could write—wanting to write, finding a topic that moved her enough to grapple with a variety of issues (including her own story). Marina has only been in New York for about two-years—in Russia she’d “had everything what a twenty-two-year-old girl could dream about: an apartment, a car, a very good job, friends and family.” Yet, Marina chose to challenge herself and decided to move and “start from the beginning because of the new language” she had to learn. In many ways this paper signified that Marina had embraced learning this “new language” (despite its difficulties) and recognized the “power” it could offer her.

Now I find myself left with the following questions: What happens when students interact (independently) with poems that demand action, or what Freire calls “reflective participation”? How might we enable students to realize they can write their way into conversation and recognize their own personal visions? And, finally, can self-defined “non-writers” (or reticent writers) genuinely realize that the act of writing is not a luxury?


**The student mentioned, Marina, collaborated with me on this post—she agreed to have her name included and was generous enough to share some of her own reflective and process writings with me to quote here.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Books, 1993.

Lorde, Audre. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

------. I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde. Ed. Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta B. Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

------. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing, 1984. Print.