by Alexis Fisher, Diana Kennedy and Jada Shannon
Audre Lorde famously introduced herself as “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Admired around the world for her clarity, vision, authenticity and ability to speak truth to power, Lorde was unapologetic in her pursuit of Black liberation. In addition to graduating from Hunter College High School and Hunter College, Lorde also taught English at Hunter, inspiring students with her revolutionary approach to poetry, identity and activism. To truly honor one of Hunter’s most revolutionary alumni, we must acknowledge her struggles with white supremacy at Hunter and further her efforts to make the college an anti-racist institution. We can start by naming the West building after her.
Thomas Hunter, the founder of Hunter College, is often hailed as a visionary, for he saw the potential in all women, no matter skin color or religion. Hunter President Jennifer Raab has claimed that because of Mr. Hunter, “black pupils would sit next to whites, Jews alongside gentiles, and with women enjoying full opportunity.” While Raab may tell this story of an equal environment, Lorde’s notes about her experience at Hunter tell another: “I was taught by white women who studied under Thomas Hunter,” she wrote. “I learned a lot from (some) those women but the presumption of my inferiority scarred my young womanhood.” Her words illuminate that in spite of a diverse environment, Black students were not treated equally to their white peers. Thus, as we embrace Lorde’s “Sister Outsider,” Hunter’s community read for the fall, we must acknowledge how racism in higher education traumatized her and continues to traumatize Black students.
When Lorde taught at Hunter from 1981 to 1986, she documented incidents of racial discrimination in her notes, which are now kept in the archives of Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia. She quotes professors questioning Black students’ ability to study science and challenging material. She details the complicity of professors in oppressing Black communities outside of Hunter while teaching Black students, specifically those in Ciskei, South Africa, a region created by the South African government to facilitate racial segregation: “Racism at Hunter is a professor writing a proposal for a program at the University of Ciskei, without even knowing that the Ciskei is one giant death camp where women line the road, children dying of thirst in their arms, waiting for a weekly water truck from Pretoria.”
This dissonance bares meaningful similarities to Hunter College claiming to support “diversity” and anti-racist efforts as it simultaneously refuses to cut ties to Corcraft, a corporation whose products are made by enslaved incarcerated people. Hunter’s willingness to purchase products made by incarcerated people in deplorable conditions maintains the profit incentive behind mass incarceration that disenfranchises Black communities. It is the difference between school administrators’ words and impact that leads Lorde to a call for anti-racist action. It is not enough to recruit Black students — administrators need to create a supportive environment for Black students that affirms their lives matter.
In “Sister Outsider,” Lorde provides academia with the tools to dismantle the systemic and cultural racism wielded by the professors who undermined her. The collection includes Lorde’s revolutionary speech at New York University’s women’s conference in 1979, titled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” As she addressed an audience of mostly white women at the conference, Lorde argued that by excluding the voices of queer women and women of color, white academics strengthen the oppressive systems they claim to reject. Intersectionality is essential to obtaining freedom: “Within the interdependence of mutual [nondominant] differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being,” she said. “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.”
In other words, those who are closest to oppression have knowledge and resources at their disposal that oppressors do not. For example, during the women’s suffrage movement, while white suffragettes compared their position in political spheres to that of slaves, Black women knew slavery. Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech played a significant role in refuting the notion that women could not be independent. Abolitionists and feminists were stronger together; yet, more often than not, white feminists discouraged Truth from speaking in fear that she would discourage white supremacists from supporting the women’s suffrage movement. As Lorde spoke at NYU’s conference, she recognized this same fault in academia. If we want to create a better world together and truly embrace Hunter’s motto “The care of the future is mine,” we need to include everyone in our curriculum, our communities and our activism while centering the voices and leadership of Black students.
Hunter administration’s move towards racial equity is a welcome step in the right direction. This desire to create a more racially inclusive campus is echoed by faculty who are pushing to rename the West building after Lorde. This initiative, appropriately named the Audre Lorde Initiative, was produced by a collective of faculty members from a number of different departments, including Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies. It perfectly aligns with BIPOC student and faculty visions for a campus that honors Black history and excellence. It would also demonstrate Hunter’s commitment to furthering Lorde’s struggle for freedom for all.
The renaming of Hunter West would also usher in a revival of the celebration of Lorde on our campus. When Lorde was still alive, Hunter honored her by creating a Women’s Poetry Center in the Roosevelt House. This center served as a safe haven for feminist thinkers and their comrades to discuss their poetry and work on other projects. Unfortunately, this writing center no longer exists. Hunter West could serve a similar function to the writing center after its re-naming, becoming a vibrant and invigorating space. Just imagine students walking through Lorde’s building with their copies of “Sister Outsider” in tow.
While buildings are usually named after major donors, Lorde’s contribution is worth more than any donation. Walking through a building named after one of Hunter’s most well-known revolutionaries is not only a no-brainer but it would also spur us to reflect on Hunter’s progress and the long way that it still has to go to combat white supremacy. As Lorde wrote in her unpublished remarks about Hunter College, “Racism will change at Hunter when we begin to recognize race, and distortions around race, as a reality in consciousness and when we dare to examine the ways in which those distortions affect teaching, and imprint themselves upon our students.”
Alexis Fisher is a senior majoring in political science, double-minoring in Chinese language and literature and Asian-American studies, and earning a certificate in human rights from the Roosevelt House. She is the Senate Chair in the Undergraduate Student Senate at Hunter College and a delegate to the CUNY University Student Senate.
Diana Kennedy is a junior majoring in Women and Gender Studies with a concentration in sexualities and a minor in Political Science. She aspires to be an immigration lawyer who defends and supports undocumented people. She is also very active in groups that prioritize ethnic students such as the Macaulay Diversity Initiative and CUNY for Abolition and Safety.
Jada Shannon is a sophomore majoring in Media Studies with a concentration in journalism and pursuing a certificate in Public Policy. In her free time, she works with CUNY for Abolition and Safety to affirm Black lives matter on CUNY campuses. She enjoys attending events led by cultural clubs at Hunter and participates in Mock Trial.