I’m still here. I had a Rough Semester* and it’s been difficult to get myself focused on scholarship in a bloggable way (or on anything bloggable, really). A girls’ intellectual history panel I helped organize has been accepted for OAH’s 2017 conference in New Orleans, which is great news. I will be presenting my revised version of the Seventeen paper there. I got an extremely generous critique of my earlier draft from Kelly Schrum, whose work on Seventeen was the starting point for mine, and that’s given me a lot of good stuff to think about. But the writing itself is progressing slowly (not that that’s anything new) and in a piecemeal kind of way. Very pleased to have a deadline of sorts.
The call for papers for UVA’s Global History of Black Girlhood conference has gotten me thinking about Audre Lorde and slowly (everything is slow—blame the 9-to-5ery) reading about her.
Lorde published her first poem in Seventeen and was also the first teen to publish a full book-review column in Seventeen (January 1953). Her byline for “On the Book Beat” (subtitled, “A Science-Fiction fan discusses the growing appeal of stories from the Outer Reaches”) reads “Audrey Lorde, Age 18, Stamford, Connecticut.” Here’s the short biographical statement Seventeen published:
Having just finished Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), I’m guessing the guitar had belonged to Genevieve Johnson, Lorde’s first (apparently unconsummated) love; Stamford was also where Lorde had her first lesbian sexual experience. Seventeen‘s editor at the time, Alice Thompson, was probably pushing a line somewhat by publishing a photograph of an African-American girl (according to Kelley Massoni, Seventeen‘s founding editor had clashed with published Walter Annenberg over a photograph of an African-American girl). Audrey Lorde here is portrayed as a girl working hard to keep herself in college and who enjoys science fiction (the theme of her review), books in general, and guitar playing. Notice the allusions to class: she is a scholarship student, “trying to make expenses” (i.e., working). At the same time, Seventeen also published articles on how to afford college, so, Lorde also falls within that discourse: she has earned a scholarship, she is working now, but it’s to pay for college. No mention of what Lorde was actually doing in Stamford (she was working at an electronics company, being exposed to harmful chemicals and X-rays); what’s important to Seventeen, apparently, is her status as a college student.
I’m especially interested in Lorde’s experience at Hunter College High School, a high school for gifted girls and the location of her first experience of a writing group (a group of classmates who came to call themselves The Branded, including Diane di Prima). From Zami:
In high school, my best friends were ‘The Branded,’ as our sisterhood of rebels sometimes called ourselves. We never talked about those differences that separated us, only the ones that united us against the others. My friends and I talked about who studied german or french, who liked poetry or doing ‘the twist,’ who went out with boys, and who was ‘progressive.’ We even talked about our position as women in a world supposed to be run by men.
But we never ever talked about what it meant and felt like to be Black and white, and the effects that it had on our being friends. Of course, everybody with any sense deplored racial discrimination, theoretically and without discussion. We could conquer it by ignoring it.
We were The Branded, the Lunatic Fringe, proud of our outrageousness and our madness, our bizarre-colored inks and quill pns. We learned how to mock the straight set, and how to cultivate our group paranoia into an instinct for self-protection that always stopped our shenanigans just short of expulsion. We wrote obscure poetry and cherished our strangeness as the spoils of default, and in the process we learned that pain and rejection hurt, but that they weren’t fatal, and that they could be useful since they couldn’t be avoided. We learned that not feeling at all was worse than hurting. At that time, suffering was clearly what we did best. We became The Branded because we learned how to make a virtue out of it. (Zami, 81-82)
Lorde followed those paragraphs with two paragraphs entirely in italics:
How meager the sustenance was I gained from the four years I spent in high school; yet, how important that sustenance was to my survival. Remembering that time is like watching old pictures of myself in a prison camp picking edible scraps out of the garbage heap, and knowing that without that garbage I might have starved to death. The overwhelming racism of so many of the faculty, including the ones upon whom I had my worst schoolgirl crushes. How little I settled for in the way of human contact, compared to what I was conscious of wanting.
It was in high school that I came to believe that I was different from my white classmates, not because I was Black, but because I was me. (Zami, 82)
I’m also curious about Hunter College High School as a girls’ intellectual space. Girls had to pass an examination to be accepted. More to read up on about that. Another Seventeen reviewer, Corinne Demas, also attended Hunter College High School and mentioned it in her 2000 autobiography, Eleven Stories High: Growing up in Stuyvesant Town, 1948-1968. But I’m quite sure her experience was different from Lorde’s.
I’ll be reteaching the dating-history course in the fall, and am hoping to write up the syllabus for Syllabus. I’m not sure yet what form that will take. I have ideas about writing it as an article rather than as a “syllabus” piece, but I’m having trouble getting my thoughts together on that. This is the time of year when I wish I had academic summers: 40 hours a week in a cubicle just isn’t all that conducive to writing. I miss being able to move around, work in coffee shops, work at home with laundry and cooking underway (laundry and cooking to me = natural pomodoros). I don’t miss teaching 4-4 during the semesters though. Just saying, there are tradeoffs, and I feel those the most when the spring semester ends and there’s not as clear of a “woo hoo, freedom!” moment.
*Which I wish I could write about, because I think some of the roughness of the semester bears talking about—indeed, should be talked about—but only if I’d made this blog more securely pseudonymous.