Up until last week, the class I am taking on the work of Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison as part of the requirements for my MFA in Poetry was high on my ranking of literary experiences. Last week, though, something happened that I have since thought very hard about, that I have tried very hard to explain, to myself and to a few others. But, I am still not sure what occurred, how I fell into the trap of things and their easy collapse.
During class we were discussing Lorde’s “The Cancer Journals,” a collection of essays and memoirs written during the poet’s arduous battle with breast cancer, one she eventually lost. One of her essays, “Breast Cancer: Power vs. Prosthetics” discusses the health ramifications of environmental and nutritional pollutants, such as McDonalds and food coloring. As she does with all her battles, she attacks head on:
The passage above was the first time I encountered environmental activism in Lorde’s work. I remarked on it in class, asking if her experience with breast cancer refocused her protest, which had theretofore been centered on her experience as a black, lesbian woman in America. In my question to the professor, I wondered if there was more work by Lorde on issues surrounding the environment and pollution, as everything we had read so far had been centered, insistently, on Lorde’s connection to her reality as a black, lesbian female poet.
The response I obtained was that my question was not “reasonable.” Something I had said offended the professor. So I tried asking again, as perhaps I hadn’t been clear. “Did breast cancer change the focus of Lorde’s protest to include environmental issues, as before she had solely written repetitively on being a black, lesbian poet in America? And if so, is there more writing out there that reflects this change?”
The professor held up “The Cancer Journals,” and jabbed it. She insisted that this was the writing that was out there, and that this writing was enough. She also asked if by my question I meant to say that it somehow wasn’t sufficient for Lorde to have focused her writing on being a black, female, lesbian poet, that the struggles implicit therein were somehow not important or relevant enough to merit Lorde’s undivided attention. She inquired if I had meant to say that Lorde’s work gained in importance by including the environment and pollution because these were problems that affected all people, of all genders, of all races?
My question came from a place of legitimate wonder and admiration for Lorde, who while battling cancer takes on the root of illness in America, what we eat, what we breath. And, if she had produced more of this type of work, I was interested in reading it. That is all.
But, I gave up on trying to explain what I had meant because the professor did not want to hear what I had to say. She could only hear what she was reading into my white face, one of the few in class. So I decided to be silent.
A guy sitting next to me, the only guy in the class, tried to explain my question to the professor, rephrasing it by replacing “black” with “race”, “woman” with “gender”, “lesbian” with “sexuality”. This semantic adjustment seemed to soften the apparent difficulty of the discussion, sadly enough. The professor invited us to move on, and we left it at that.
But the experience has haunted my week. Principally because I realized it was the first time in my life that I was discriminated against based on my race. Cat calls and the unfair division of labor are the soundtrack of my gender; a soundtrack whose volume I’ve learned to control. But racial discrimination is new to me, no doubt, unfairly so.
What’s unreasonable about this whole happening is not that I was discriminated against because a college professor read racism into one of my questions (because what is racism if not an incorrect reading of our differences, of our meanings, based on appearance). What’s unreasonable is that millions of people deal with racism on a daily basis and some, like me, only experience it once in thirty seven years.
Once the pained feeling of defeat faded, defeat at my inability to discuss race so as to preclude the rage that ensued from my question, defeat at realizing I would no longer enjoy my class as before, defeat at the knowledge that I was paying for the sins of others, I felt dumb. How had I not fully grasped the depth of racism’s demoralizing damage until then? If I felt so dejected by a brush with prejudice in a graduate literature classroom, how do those cope, those who swim against bigotry to meet the practical needs of their day-to-day? Perhaps the professor’s reading of my question was just habitual self-defense.
As I prepared to go back to class last Wednesday, I felt grateful for what happened. I do not hold anything against my professor. Her reading of my intentions was wrong, but it was based on true life experiences, based on real history. Her story, her training, led her to that place of explosion as my life had sheltered me away. Does my silent acceptance of what happened atone in some minuscule way for the lethal sins of others? No, wrong doesn’t work that way. But, in this case, I just don’t need to be right.
We collided, not as individuals, but as bewildered symbols, as counterfeit signifiers, that, I am certain, summarize us not.