IN 1968, AUDRE LORDE served as writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College, a historically Black liberal arts institution founded in 1869 outside of Jackson, Mississippi. Situated on a campus continually besieged by organized racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizen's Council, the students were politically active in the face of this violence. The experience proved transformative: “I came to realize that teaching and writing were inextricably combined, and it was there that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Upon returning to New York City, Lorde was invited to join a cadre of poet-teachers—including Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Christian, Addison Gayle, David Henderson, June Jordan and Adrienne Rich—who were working in the SEEK program at City College in Harlem. SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) promoted the matriculation of racially, economically and educationally marginalized high school graduates at CUNY colleges. In her second semester with SEEK, she saw the rise of student movements for equality and access, culminating in the 1969 Open Admissions strike, and demands that CUNY incorporate Ethnic Studies departments as well as open its doors to all New York City high school graduates. Lorde was one of a number of instructors who supported the strike. For the duration of the uprising, she held class offsite at a nearby middle school, re-named “Harlem University” by student activists.
In the fall of 1969, Lorde began working in the Lehman College Education Department as an instructor of new teachers in the New York City public high school system. She taught a course called “Race and Education” to mostly white female students learning to teach the predominantly Black population of the local public schools. Though Lorde designed the course to help each student excavate her own internal prejudices, her work at Lehman was severely limited and she yearned to be teaching in a different environment.
She pitched a course to the dean of another CUNY school, John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, leading to her employment as the first Black member of the English Department. Under pressure from student movements, John Jay had recently redefined itself as not only a college for police science, but also a broadly inclusive liberal arts school. Energized by the tension in her classrooms comprised of white, Black and Puerto Rican humanities majors alongside police officers and officers-in-training, Lorde dove into the struggle to establish a Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department at John Jay.
The teaching materials published here document Lorde's daily engagement with the “mechanics of oppression” in the context of an institution established to train police officers. Endemic police corruption made headlines in this period, while whistleblowers like Frank Serpico risked being killed by going public. At the same time, a number of Black radical activists armed themselves against both drug dealers and the NYPD. In this climate, she wrote the poem “Power” which responds to the 1973 murder of a ten-year-old Black child named Clifford Glover at the hands of a white police officer, who was acquitted of his crime. The officer, Thomas J. Shea, was a John Jay College student during Lorde's time there. In an interview with friend and colleague Adrienne Rich, Lorde described her fury at knowing she might have seen Shea—or perhaps someone just like him—in the hallways or even in her classroom. In “Apartheid USA,” Lorde asks, in relation to the countless deaths at the hands of the police, “How does a system bent upon our ultimate destruction make the unacceptable gradually tolerable?” Lorde continues to ask herself, and others, about how to effectively stand up to oppressive structures. In the classroom, she teaches students how structural inequality over-determines the life of the individual. She helps them first explore their emotional lives and then work toward understanding themselves within those larger structures.
By devoting significant attention to her students' emotional lives, Lorde makes learning a process of individuation, which can build deep self-knowledge and understanding. She writes in her class notes that “if each of us is to survive, [we each need] acute self-awareness—definition—who am I?” She continues to carve out these opportunities by dismantling “myths that divide,” prompting students to consider the ways in which pervasive constructions like “the American dream” are divisive. As Lorde moves through the internalization of structures and stereotypes in her course outline, she asks, “who d'ya think you are?” and “who am I so who are you?” These questions do not prompt the kind of individualism that serves “the interest of a capitalist profit system” but rather bring people closer to collective liberation.
Lorde's insistence upon the importance of the “I” was felt in her relationship to her students. In summer 2017, we interviewed some of Lorde's Hunter students. Anthropologist and Hunter College professor Jacqueline Brown participated in a poetry course that Lorde taught in 1986 specifically for women of color. She recalls Lorde being “open to us expressing the full, complicated gamut of our experience. She was receptive to whatever we brought to the table, including erotica and our joys as women of color forming community with each other.” That class was featured in the documentary, Litany for Survival, where Lorde is seen teaching to enraptured students. Brown emphasized that Lorde wore comfortably the aura of power with which she is often associated, but was also such a present listener and teacher that “she made you feel, when you were talking to her, that there was no place she'd rather be.” The queer novelist, essayist and activist Sarah Schulman recalls a similar generosity in Lorde's teaching, even as it unrelentingly pushed students to go deeper in their explorations. Schulman remembers Lorde organizing her packed class into one large circle and standing in the center to teach. By the second class, she had learned all the students' names and as she taught, she would make eye contact with specific students, referencing an idea from their papers or from a previous class discussion.
Though Lorde foregrounded individuality, her attention to structural racism undercuts a pervasive sociological tendency to diagnose all social, economic, and psychological issues as individual, personal, and familial failures. What we see in Lorde's assigned and recommended readings of, for example, Franz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, R.D. Laing's The Politics of Experience, and the quotations of Laing's poetry on the syllabus, is a deep resistance to pathology of the individual. Lorde instead assigns a surprising number of psychological studies of race and racism, focusing on psychology—personal and collective—as useful for understanding structural racism, colonialism, and capitalist destruction. She urges her students to identify their own struggles within larger political and economic structures and sets them up to find ways in their everyday lives to move toward action.
Lorde tells Rich that, “The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot. And then, just possibly, hopefully, it goes home, or on.” This incitement helps to dissolve the boundaries between the classroom and the streets—raising the stakes of learning to a question of survival. At the end of “Race and the Urban Situation,” she does not simply identify the problem of “your foot on my neck or my foot on your neck;” she puts a colon after that problem and asks for “other choices” that lead out, away from competition and disunity, to community and action. From “other choices,” Lorde inspects “the here and now,” asking “can we separate ideology & values from action?” Imploring her students to consider theory and action together, Lorde's notes leave open the possibility that she will examine not just racist ideology and its presence around us, but also alternative ideologies that can produce real resistance, and reverberate beyond the individual. Lorde's class notes pose the question to her students, “How can you alter these effects in yourself—in the world around you?” The effects of racism exist on an individual level, and can be changed there, but always in service to “the world around” us.
Lorde's personal journal entries, reproduced here, show her disrupting the boundaries between student and teacher, making each vulnerable to the other and employing intimacy, hostility, and vulnerability as pedagogical tools. Lorde's notes show her taking on the role of participant observer. She considers the physical well-being of her students and their relations to each other, keeping copious records that reflect such observations as “G. is tired—can't relate to B.” She remarks in “Poet as Teacher-Human as Poet-Teacher as Human” that “feeling myself and the perception of and reaction to the feelings of other human beings” is the “exchange which is the most strongly prohibited, or discouraged, human exercise of our time.” Part of this intimacy for Lorde is confrontation; she watches her students disagree or feel uncomfortable and documents it. In one of her handwritten class notes she writes, “A. has made a statement that has colored J.'s attitude toward him. She has confronted him with it.” These observations trace Lorde's immersion in a charged exchange of feeling between students, part of her willful embrace of an intimacy that the space of teaching generally prohibits.
Lorde's journals also provide a record of how her pedagogy intentionally violated her own authority, rejecting the license that is bestowed when one steps into the role of teacher, to administer a single-authored, goal-oriented course of knowledge. In one of those journals she asks: “9 classes so far/time for feedback/why do you think I am here/how do you feel about class—are you satisfied—where do you think we are going?” This question pulls into the content of the class a possible reassessment of how the university distributes power, stirring students to consider what it means to have a Black woman as their professor, and what the stakes are for her to be teaching a class on race at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
This willingness to be vulnerable to her students resonates in her interview with Rich. There she recounts her first day in the SEEK program, when she right away said to her students, “I'm scared too.” Lorde's desire to push herself and her students into difficult realms did not bear exclusively positive results. The poet Simone Bikel Allmond took two of Lorde's poetry workshops at Hunter and told us in our interview with her that “Lorde was human with all the wonders of human nature, including flaws.” Allmond remembers posing a challenge to Lorde in the classroom, disagreeing openly with her at times. Lorde's response was sometimes harsh, though perhaps out of respect for Allmond's tenacity; Lorde wrote on one of her poems: “you would be a fine poet, if you weren't so lazy.” Allmond remembers being extremely hurt by this—thinking later that Lorde was asking her to confront issues that Lorde herself was unable to face. As a Black student, Allmond felt she was being pushed harder than her white peers . Once, Lorde wanted to submit Allmond's poem to a competition and when Allmond said “no,” Lorde submitted it secretly. Allmond was delighted to win the contest, but it was clearly a betrayal of trust.
Lorde's classroom was a place of open wounds, where vulnerability was visible and the learning process entailed acts of mutual care as well as expressions of tension. She writes at the end of one journal entry, “interested in hostility.” While it remains unsaid toward what or whom this hostility is directed, it is of note that she is not saddened by it, afraid of it, concerned about it, or wanting to transform it into a positive feeling. How many of us, with command over a classroom, would be interested in hostility? For Lorde, good conversation was an uncomfortable process, one toward which those involved might feel hostile, and even project such hostility onto her. She does not shy away from it. Instead, her notes show a movement toward this tension. She speaks of this course in the interview with Rich as “confrontation teaching.” Moreover, the desire to prioritize difficult conversation was not only extended to her students, but also to her colleagues. In a memo to the Hunter College English Department, she asked her colleagues to examine their own racism and recounts racist incidents that her students had shared with her. She does not say that her colleagues are perpetuating these kinds of violations, but instead makes it clear that as long as such a list can exist, no one is doing their job properly. She proposes a series of seminars to increase racial consciousness amongst the faculty. In calling her peers to task, Lorde demands a space to discuss the anger over her students' experiences and her own, asking her colleagues to work toward transformation, just as she asks of her students.
In 1981, Lorde was recruited to serve as resident poet in the Hunter College English Department. This position would mark a significant shift in Lorde's teaching work, as she would now lead poetry workshops rather than the literature and sociology seminars she had been teaching at John Jay. At Hunter, her role would be that of the poet above all else, similar to the position that she had last undertaken at Tougaloo more than a decade earlier.
Sarah Schulman recalls the first day of a class she took with Lorde at Hunter. The course was listed as “U.S. Literature After WWII,” though the moment Lorde walked in, she announced that the course title would be changed to “The Poet as Outsider.” Most of the students were taking the class to fulfill a requirement and had no knowledge of Lorde, despite the fact that, by the early 1980s, she was quite well known. Lorde had undergone one mastectomy and Schulman recalls being struck by the image of her professor's numerous necklaces hanging in the space where her breast had once been. There would be three required texts: Understanding the New Black Poetry, Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Poetry by Native Americans, and Lesbian Poetry. Schulman stressed to us the importance of what it meant for her to be in a course like this during the 1980s. This was the first time she had been in a college classroom with a Black professor, and she suspects that was the case for many of the other students. Lesbianism was not widely discussed in academic settings, so to be assigned a book called Lesbian Poetry, the cover of which displayed the title in huge lettering, was an enormous anomaly. Schulman jokes about Lorde's full awareness that in assigning a book like that, her students would be displaying the cover to other passengers on the subway as they read it, sending that fertile discomfort of the classroom out into the world.
The course materials from Hunter that we have included testify to the kind of transgressive teaching that Schulman describes. On a syllabus for a 1985 course called “The Other Woman: Lesbian Voices in 20th Century American Literature,” Lorde lists texts that document the Black feminist project of circulating contemporary activist periodicals within the everyday and private spaces inhabited by women. In assigning readings such as Elly Bulkin's “Racism and Writing: Some Implications for White Lesbian Critics” from Sinister Wisdom #13, and essays from the “Working Class Experience” issue of Thirteenth Moon magazine and the newsletter of Asian Lesbians of the East Coast (ALOEC), Lorde invited her students into the internal politics of the lesbian movement. This course was not structured to introduce students to lesbian art and politics, and it made no effort to situate itself in relation to the white, male canon. She acknowledges the work of lesbian thinkers as already vitally established, regardless of its relation to the mainstream. In signing up for her course, students agreed to inhabit the space that these writers had already cultivated and to sit at the table as active voices in the movement.
By insisting on the issues activists engaged with, Lorde remained ever vigilant to the tendnecy of some academic work to misdirect its energies. In a 1978 letter to a group of Black women who were enlisted by white academics at Brooklyn College to organize a conference on Black feminism, Lorde urges them not to participate: “Our time is not forever, my sisters. While we are planning the Brooklyn conference, who's organizing a race/class/sex rap with the black women at Bedford Hills, or in other prisons?”
We have reproduced a single chapter draft from Lorde's unfinished novel, Deotha. Written mostly in St. Croix, where Lorde lived with her partner, Gloria Joseph, in the mid-1980s until the end of her life, the fragments that exist of Lorde's second novel help us see the ways in which she reflected upon her early teaching life. In Deotha, Lorde provides us with a narrative that her teaching materials can only imply. They show a character who must negotiate the various demands put upon her in all of the roles she must play—mother, teacher, artist, and lover—revealing the connections between these dimensions of her life. Lorde's manuscript tells the story of a teacher in a Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department in New York City as she transitions from a marriage to a white man and into a relationship with a woman in Rhode Island, taking care of her two children and responding to the issues arising in her department. This narrative corresponds very directly to Lorde's own biography. Here, as in Zami—her only published novel, a “biomythography” of her coming-of-age as a lesbian—we see Lorde remembering formative parts of her earlier life.
The chapter we have included, “Bath/School/Pia,” begins with an account of Deotha's bathing ritual, her respite from the varied pressures of motherhood, activism, and teaching. The scene is long, offering the minute details of her bathing regime, including her favorite body oils and the various fragrances she adds to the water, all of which invokes Lorde's characteristic concern for the nurturance of one's body. For her, caring is not self-indulgence but an “act of political warfare.” However, this warfare is not waged without hindrance. As she melts into the comfort of her brief escape, she succumbs to a host of parental worries and concerns surrounding her work founding a Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department at Connors College. She writes about controversy among the faculty regarding who should assume chairmanship of the new department, a position that would likely go to either Deotha or Cumberbatch Smith, the two faculty members who have been at Connors the longest. Deotha feels that Smith is driven by an unhealthy “avarice for power” rather than a genuine commitment to reforming the academic horizons for Black and Puerto Rican students. The narrator believes that the various internecine tensions among Connors' Black and Puerto Rican faculty and students are carefully watched, if not encouraged, by the white administration, which would like nothing more than to see the failure of the department. A phone call after Deotha's bath—a young man's voice growling the words “you better leave our department, lezzie!”— reveals the extent of the cruel drama in which Deotha is embroiled. The dispute at Connors is close to Lorde's own experience at John Jay, where her lesbian feminist identity made her an outsider in Black and Puerto Rican Studies. Her archival materials show her accounts of departmental conflict, including finding her desk searched and receiving threatening phone calls against her and her children. Under these conditions, the department was an extremely fraught place for Lorde, and she ultimately left the department to teach in English.
Lorde also alluded to her trying experiences in her 1974 poem “Blackstudies,” written while she was still at John Jay. There she recounts students waiting outside her door, “searching condemning listening,” and being strangled by “a nightmare of leaders/ at crowded meetings to study our problems,” where she moves “awkward and ladylike/ through four centuries of unused bathtubs.” Deotha's framing of the long aside about Connors College within the account of the bath, insinuates the near-maddening disruption of Lorde's internal, emotional well-being caused by the unrest at John Jay. The chapter shows Lorde's demand for action is not a simple one when contextualized within a stretched life. Deotha is spread thin, perhaps finding it difficult to change the effects of racism in the ways Lorde asks of her students. She writes that Deotha “could see the dangers of a limited vision at the same time as she felt her own reluctance to implement any broader one,” highlighting the ways in which organizing the department involves the reluctance that emerges from interpersonal conflict and exhaustion. The chapter's attention to her working life as it spills into her home life, ending with her children playing “going to a meeting,” reveals the importance of reading Deotha's converging identities together. If scholars tend to separate the poet from the teacher from the human, then Lorde writes them back in as one.
The intimacy Lorde shared with her students is also addressed in her private reflections on pedagogy. We have chosen to bookend the teaching materials included here with an unpublished poem and a dream from Lorde's journal, both of which depict her being confronted with the same question she asked her students: “what am I doing here?” The anxieties about teaching and learning expressed in these short works recall incidents from Zami, where Lorde narrates childhood experiences of marginalization at Catholic school and Hunter High, which instilled in her the uneasiness of being an outsider. Her alienation would be re-affirmed at John Jay, where she was the only lesbian in Black and Puerto Rican Studies, and the only Black teacher in the English Department. The poem, “The CLASSROOMS,” echoes what she calls the “loneliness” of this position, where the “we,” like Deotha in her attempt to self-protect, is always “enclosed by the walls between us.”
Looking to these documents aids us in viewing Lorde as a multidimensional figure— a “warrior poet” subject to fear and self-doubt—even as she refused to back down from pushing both her students and her colleagues into challenging conversations.
“The CLASSROOMS” and Lorde's dream journal, alongside the syllabi, notes, institutional memoranda, and Deotha draft, represent the artifacts of one person's multiform, ever-evolving vocation as, at once, Poet-Teacher, Human-Poet and Teacher-Human. This collection is an attempt to represent, in the form of a published finality, a career that unfolded in time and moved over a varied geography. For Lorde, the activity of living as a teacher was something that would not be finished and cannot be arranged into the neat body of a univocal prose narrative. The documents reproduced here constitute the bones and muscle of emotionally-charged classroom interactions. Thus, they are too site-specific and time-bound to justify re-incarnation in published form without somehow invoking the un- recorded, collective and improvised events which they were written to help facilitate. They are works whose lives were in the conversations they supported. What they do not do, now that they are published, is substantiate the experience of a single author. They function as a kind of multitudinous score for the improvised exchange of ideas about, and in urgent response to, the political struggles of their time.
Though these texts have the appearance of plans and instructions, they ultimately amount to points from which to diverge, more than directions to follow. Taken altogether, they memorialize an activity that defied planning, re-constructing a teaching practice that saw the classroom as a collectively composed, gradually crafted commentary on the now.
—Miriam Atkin & Iemanjá Brown
 Audre Lorde, “My Words Will Be There” in I am Your Sister, ed. Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 161.
 For a more in-depth account of the events leading up to the Open Admissions strike at CUNY, see Conor Tomás Reed’s essay, “‘Treasures that Prevail’: Adrienne Rich, The SEEK Program, and Social Movements at the City College of New York, 1968-1972” in “What We are Part Of”: Teaching at CUNY: 1968-1974 from Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative Series IV (Fall 2013).
 Audre Lorde, “Apartheid USA,” in I am Your Sister, ed. Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 32.
 Audre Lorde, “Sadomasochism: Not about Condemnation,” in A Burst of Light, (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1988), 114
 Audre Lorde, “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich,” in Sister Outsider, (Berkley: Crossing Press, 1984), 98.
 Audre Lorde, “Poet as Teacher-Human as Poet-Teacher as Human” in I am Your Sister, ed. Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 183.
 Audre Lorde, “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich,” in Sister Outsider, (Berkley: Crossing Press, 1984), 94.
 Ibid. 97.
 Cheryl Clarke, “But Some of Us Are Brave and the Transformation of the Academy: Transformation?” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 35, no. 4 (2001), 782.
 Audre Lorde, “A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer,” in I am Your Sister, ed. Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 131.
 Audre Lorde, “Black Studies” in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), 157, 156.