By JACQUELINE NASSY BROWN
Amanda Gorman’s name is on everyone’s lips. In lush yet careful language, her young voice delivered age-old yet timely wisdom at President Biden’s inauguration. As the poet Elizabeth Alexander said the next day on WNYC radio, Gorman reminded us that people need poetry. The late great poet Audre Lorde made the same point years ago in a famous essay titled “Poetry is Not a Luxury.”
There is another name on everyone’s lips, Kamala Harris. As a Black and South-Asian-American woman, the vice president will go down in history for representing a series of firsts in terms of who gets elected (or even nominated) to serve in our government’s executive branch. It took someone of vision and courage, someone who recognized our society’s debt to Blacks, immigrants and women, to take a step — however belatedly and with the future of our country at stake — to right the wrongs of history. This was a theme Gorman invoked in her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
In this post-George Floyd era, when our nation’s racial history is being critically examined, redressed and remade, our local leaders must boldly meet the moment. The chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY), Félix Matos Rodriguez, and the president of Hunter College, Jennifer Raab, must recognize that their particular hill to climb must include having Hunter’s West Building renamed after Audre Lorde.
One of the most influential poets, essayists and activists of the twentieth century, Lorde was a distinguished professor of English at Hunter from 1981 to 1986. By the time of her death from cancer in 1992, Lorde had authored 14 books of poetry and three of prose. Gov. Mario Cuomo had named her poet laureate of the state of New York, a position she held for two years.
Although she ended her teaching career at Hunter, Lorde had also taught at three other CUNY colleges over her lifetime. At City College, she taught for the SEEK program, whose mission was to develop the reading and writing skills of young people who aspired to gain admission to CUNY. Many of these strivers would have looked like Gorman. After a stint at Lehman, where she taught a course called “Race and Education” for mostly white students training to become teachers in schools populated mostly by people of color, she taught at John Jay College, from which Hunter ultimately lured her. By then she was an internationally acclaimed poet. CUNY students deserve to know that Lorde’s legacy as a Black lesbian feminist warrior mother poet, as she called herself, is their inheritance.
It is worth stressing that Hunter boasts of its history as “the poor girl’s Radcliffe,” a college where young women of all ethnicities and classes could receive a high-quality education. A Harlem native and child of working-class Caribbean immigrants, Lorde was one of them. After returning to her alma mater as a professor, Lorde published Sister Outsider, a book of essays and speeches that fast became canonical, securing her status as a global icon of feminism and antiracism.
Lorde’s work stresses that there is no separate survival and that there is no liberation without community. In both of these ideas, she meant that people should recognize and embrace their differences in race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality, accepting the challenge to learn about and harness those differences for social change rather than denying or merely tolerating them. In the 1980s and 90s, Lorde was preaching what has inarguably become one of the key lessons of our times.
Lorde’s own life as a Hunter student who became a world-famous poet should equally inspire CUNY students. If, as Biden did, CUNY officials would accept the challenge that history has bestowed upon us all, they would put the name of a poet and native daughter on Hunter’s most important building. In so doing, they would be planting a garden where thousands of Amanda Gormans will grow. Even if they never write a single poem, they will know that Hunter values poetry, the arts in general, and the Black women who draw on the material of their own lives to inform and inspire each other and, just as importantly, the world.
Last fall, I taught a course about cultural diversity in the United States for some 200 Hunter students. Due to the pandemic, I taught the class on the Zoom platform. As always, I assigned one of Lorde’s famous essays for one of the last sessions, and then in class I played audio of her reading a few of her powerful poems. One student used the “chat,” a crucial Zoom feature that allows participants to address comments or questions to the group, to report that there was a campaign afoot to have the West Building renamed The Audre Lorde Building. I responded by saying that I was the driving force behind that campaign, at which point another student, ever so innocently, asked aloud, “Who could be against this?”
The names that go on buildings generally belong to wealthy (and hence white) donors. With this effectively as CUNY policy, no important building at a university that caters to Black and Brown students will ever be named for someone who looks like the student population, never mind for one who is a poet, her global stature notwithstanding. Nor could such a building be named for a woman, despite Hunter’s proud and much-rehearsed, fundraiser-friendly history of educating women of all backgrounds.
CUNY leaders must follow in President Biden’s footsteps. Grant to a Black woman an honor that she has earned over and over again. In so doing, they too will make history, if only by redressing its wrongs.
Brown is associate professor of anthropology at Hunter College.
Source: The Daily News