On Pedagogy and the Uses of Anger
ROBIN JONES

 

   

 

 

Anger is loaded with
information and energy.


--Audre Lorde

 

     
 

 

Audre Lorde is dead, and I am angry. I am sad, too, but the anger is what I want to write about. I am angry at a number of institutions -- medical, governmental, educational, commercial -- because Lorde died of cancer, and I wonder if this could have been prevented. I wonder if there might have been more of a chance for her, and others, if more medical and legislative attention were paid to women's health issues, particularly to the health of women of color. How much did the frustration and rage against the racism, sexism, and homophobia in her life build upon the stress that bit by bit wore down her defenses, took her energy for preserving her life? How many times was her joy in life, her creativity and passion, diverted to fight attitudes of hate? How debilitating this constant fight, how wounding.

My anger is selfish, in a way, because I never met Audre Lorde. So many others in this volume were happy to know her, and challenged to know her. I never worked up my nerve to write her, to try to speak with her, to tell her simply that her work mattered and meant much to me. I cannot talk with her, only read and reread the writings she has left. And if my reaction to her death is anger, I also have a guide and an explanation from her as to what use anger might be put in this troubling world.

The first work I read by Lorde was her essay, "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism." Because my profession and labor of love is teaching, I relish sharing the written word with students and colleagues. Like a gift or discovery, I want to show others works that have helped and mattered to me. I have found Lorde's essay valuable, over and over again, in validating my own emotional responses, and in hearing the responses of other people within a variety of experiences. Lorde has shown me how instructive anger can be, and how destructive fear and guilt. She wrote, "Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes" (129). I extend this thought: anger is an appropriate reaction to sexist, classist, and homophobic attitudes. And anger is an appropriate medium for exploring these attitudes, and for acting toward change.

Lorde's work is both liberating and challenging, in that she accomplishes what Chicana poet and scholar Gloria Anzaldúa describes as "making the invisible visible." What Lorde reveals are the systems and constructs that attempt to deny anger, that blame conditions of oppression on the oppressed, diverting attention from people's pain and confusion, and avoiding responsibility or action.

Lorde specifically addressed the experiences of women of color within a racist society, and the experiences of lesbians in a homophobic society, in order to teach about and empower relationships between all women. She described personal experiences that made her angry -- belittling, painful, hurtful episodes -- among both mean-spirited and well-meaning people.

When women, people of color, gays and lesbians attempt to address the oppression of sexism, racism, and homphobia in academic settings, either through overt demonstration or within our work, we are identified as trouble-makers; told we are not "intellectually rigorous" (whatever that means); or described as aggressive, hostile, violent. Being viewed in this way by the academy is not safe: only certain individuals are permitted aggression in this environment.

We have all been trained to think of anger as destructive, useless; we fear anger. But so many of us in the academy are angry, hurt, tired, exhausted. Lorde wrote, "anger is the grief of distortions between peers" (129), and the distortions many of us live with are wounding. Especially when trying to expose and correct a problem, our lives, our thoughts, our emotions, are distorted by others into monsters and pariahs. Rather than put into service toward change, our energies and efforts are exhausted, in our attempts at self-explanation and validation.

It is not my anger that keeps students out of educational institutions in a supposed democracy; not my anger that hires people of color, then will not retain them; it is not my anger that causes students of color to leave college--crushed, bitter, and angry, with no financial aid nor mentors; not my anger that creates a student body that sits, numbed and silent, in over-crowded lecture halls, numbers in a system of mass education.

Reading Lorde's essay, I am learning not to be afraid to hear anger or express my own, because anger is that emotion which creates movement.

 

In training myself to be a responsible listener and reader, I also try to help my students learn how to listen and read. In a class called "Women of Color Writers," my co-instructor and I ask students to read three poems: Rosario Morales' "I Am What I Am," Diane Burns' "Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question," and Lorna Dee Cervantes' "Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between the Races." Each of these poems deals with the process and difficulty of negotiating identity in the face of racism and sexism. Reactions from the white women and men in this course are often hostile: the authors are so angry; all they do is complain; I can't read this or understand it when it's not my experience; I can't read this when I feel the anger is directed at me.

Students who reject these do so by making themselves the center of discussion. They privilege their experiences over the works read, thus diverting attention to themselves. Their reactions attempt to define a world where racism is not their responsibility, and to decenter the authority of the writer. In reading Audre Lorde, however, such behavior is interrogated. Lorde challenges readers to use our "power to examine and to redefine the terms upon which we will live and work" (133). And Lorde discusses guilt:

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one's own action or lack of action. If it leads to change, then it can be useful, since it is no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge...guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication, it becomes a device to protect ignorance ...the ultimate protection for changelessness. (130)


The university seems a frozen place sometimes, held together and controlled by those who reject honest reponses to dishonest situations. Certainly the passion that Audre Lorde pours into her work is not reflected within typical academic structures. Instead, I see a system that avoids emotion, or abuses those people who show feeling. I am not surprised, considering that the first universities in the United States were developed to train Anglo-European gentlemen's sons to rule the masses. Learning to control others would require a limited emotional capacity. What surprises me is the continued acceptance of such behavior that belittles and degrades normal human emotion. It should be normal to be sad or angry when death or oppression occur. And it should be normal to call for change.

The world seems smaller, now that Audre Lorde is no longer writing. I would hope my anger, our anger, could create a presence that fills that now-empty space, to motivate change, and share words that matter.

 
     
 

 ©1993, 1995 by Robin Jones
 

 

     
 

Works Cited

 

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. SF: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Burns, Diane. "Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question," in New Worlds of Literature, eds. Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. NY: Norton, 1989.

Cervantes, Lorna Dee. "Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between the Races," from Emplumada, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.

Lorde, Audre. "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism," from Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. NY: The Crossing Press, 1984.

Morales, Rosario. "I Am What I Am," in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. NY: Kitchen Table Press, 1983.

 
     

Original Graphic Image © 1995 by Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo

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