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The Struggle is The Ritual: A Literary Essay on Audre Lorde's "Dream of Europe"

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

The struggle is the ritual” (Lorde, 114). 2023 has been a rough year. Just as I’m beginning to write this paper, there’s been another mass shooting in America, making it the 199th shooting in 2023 (Time). There have been more mass shootings than days have passed in this year. Aside from that, while the world would like to pretend COVID-19 is a thing of the past, it’s still killing and disabling people. Nazism is on the rise, leaving many communities of people vulnerable to bigotry and violence. My generation is having a coming of age story threatened with homelessness, joblessness, a never ending cycle of their bodies deteriorating faster than generations prior, and an overall sense of life being meaningless. The 2020s will be a decade in history where the world either gets it’s shit together or fucks around and finds out. The way life is structured today does nothing to ease these struggles we are facing. Those willing to risk it all to get an education, to try and live on their own and utilize their own self agency, are met with teachers, professors and bosses who ignore everything falling apart around them and refuse to give a shred of empathy and compassion to students and young adults who are struggling everyday to survive.


As a black, queer, femme presenting student at a predominately white institution (PWI), I have seen firsthand the way institutions feed this cycle of draining people until they can no longer take the pressure and end up dropping out or worse. Because of all the aforementioned threats keeping my generation from being able to live happy and healthy lives, while I’m putting myself through school, I also work three jobs, on top of picking up opportunities here and there. I was hospitalized at the beginning of March because I was being pushed to the limit and my body couldn’t take it anymore. I had some teachers who were compassionate and understanding; I also had teachers who treated me like I was lazy for being unwilling to keep going at such a breakneck pace.


The older generations believe that because they’ve struggled, it’s normal. They believe it’s normal to kill your body and kill your joy for a grade or a job. “The struggle is the ritual” (Lorde, 114) speaks that desire to suffer and see others suffer into plain words. When struggle is all you’ve ever known, there’s not much else to do than accept it. However, I think part of the appeal for me to Audre Lorde and her seminars in “Dream of Europe” is that she’s shown a desire and a sustainable alternative to change the way we learn and teach and live our everyday lives. She says, “I suspect poetry is taught in Germany a lot like in America, by turning you off from it as early as possible via analysis” (Lorde, 21). While she is correct, this culture of putting people off learning goes deeper than just poetry. It is in the very fabric of schooling today. Institutions and teachers create environments that are not viable for retaining information or stimulating conversations. The work it would take to fix this goes beyond giving space for students to speak. It goes into creating safe spaces and allowing students an environment that affirms students wherever they are in their journey. It means allowing students to come as they are, wherever they’re starting from and not participating in this classist rhetoric that makes students feel inferior. It means fostering a community in classrooms. It means treating students as people and not robots who are just there to push out assignment after assignment.


It took me months to finish Lorde’s seminars, only because finding time to read was a difficult endeavor. However, I felt more understood by the conversations happening in these spaces in the 1980s and 90s than most classes I’ve had in higher education in the 2020s. The amount of self awareness and compassion shown by Lorde to these students is commendable. “You are never going to be able to trust me completely. There are too many gaps between us” Lorde, 26). She’s mainly referring to the fact that she is a black woman from America, trying to teach German white women, but this also plays into the disconnect between teacher and student. It’s hard to trust someone who holds such financial power over you. A failed class in higher education means risking thousands of dollars that most students can’t afford to end up spending for nothing. Honestly, it’s worse than nothing, because a failed grade ruins a students GPA, it can bar them from financial aid that can then cause them to be unable to afford the continuation of their degree. People who don’t understand the nuance of this situation would side with the teacher and institution. If a student is unable to afford to fail a class, they should just not fail, right? But there's a deeper level to this. If a student is failing a class because they can’t find time to do their assignments between four other classes, and a part time job, it’s the fault of the institution and the way society conducts higher education to be greedy with the time it takes from students. Lorde understood that she was not othered only by her skin tone but also by holding the power in this setting where she controlled the content, the way the content was shared and the way it was interacted with. More than that, she was aware of the different reasons she had for being there as opposed to the students. She was in Germany because she was passionate about the topics she was covering. Her students were in that room because they were curious about what she had to say. It was her job to keep them intrigued, to fuel their conversations and to keep their minds open to what she was saying. As an RA, these are things I keep in mind as I work. I’m aware of the fact that anytime I’m asking my residents to meet with me, I’m getting paid for it while it takes time and energy out of my residents’ day that they could be resting or being with friends. Because of that awareness, I’m always trying to put myself in their shoes and try to make it as advantageous as possible for them to be engaged with me.


Audre Lorde may have been teaching decades ago but there’s a lot her methods can show the teachers and professors of today. As someone interested in teaching in higher education who is also looking for ways to change how we look at education on an institutional level, I took in a lot of the tools she used and the words she said. I believe that Audre Lorde can teach those who are passionate about educating others how to do so in a way that respects students' time and energy.


One of the things Lorde does in her teaching is slow down. She encourages students to slow down and process the content they are engaging with to allow the gravitas and emotions to be fully felt. “I want us to not conceive of these poems as something we chew to death, drop, and then go on to something else” (Lorde, 83). Part of why the students of today are less inclined to engage with the content teachers throw at them is because they know that as soon as they begin to actually understand and grasp a piece of literature or a poem or film, the class will have moved on to the next thing and this vicious cycle continues all over again. Teachers feel rushed to put in a lot of content over a short period of time, instead of giving breathing room for each piece, and for students to, as Lorde commands, “Live with it for a while” (32). I think part of how she encourages students to do this is by reading the pieces in the seminar. Each poem is read aloud in the class at least a couple of times, by Lorde and by others. This adds to the slowing down, the being in the moment with a piece. She also allows spaces for silence while people take in what is being read. “I understand why there is silence after a reading, I think many people find it difficult to speak when they are deeply moved (Lorde, 198). She doesn’t force students to come out of the emotions brought up by a work prematurely - she waits for them to be ready to speak and discuss. It causes less surface level responses; deeper conversations come out of this time given.


Which goes into another thing Lorde does that I feel is important for students: she encourages people to feel what they are engaging with. So oftentimes we’re asked to devoid ourselves of emotion when giving analysis and feedback on content. Audre Lorde asks for the humanity of her students, recognizing it and affirming it. “I want you to get into this poem and feel the pain of it” (Lorde, 40). Because of this default, students require their teachers, more now than ever, to tell them directly that they want to hear what the student is feeling. She says, “Frequently we feel much more comfortable becoming theoretical, it feels easier to us because it is safer” (28). The teacher doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable because they cannot control what a student is feeling and because of that, students are taught that being emotional is not academic, and then those students grow to be teachers and the cycle continues. It takes a teacher giving space for students to be emotional to break this cycle. Lorde continually reminds her students of this, “I would like to know how you are emotionally moved while traveling through this poem” (44), “I would like us to taste and feel some of the poet’s particular consciousness. You can’t come to identification until you grasp the emotional textures of a poem” (54). It is not a one and done thing. To build a habit, you must consistently and consciously make the effort. Because she is asking her students to be in touch with their emotions, she must also recognize their humanity. “I believe I am an endangered species the same way each one of you is endangered” (20) She affirms their journeys and experiences even though it is wildly different from her own.


I also appreciate the way Lorde focuses less on white male content and more on voices that are rich with context and power. I recognize that the seminars she is teaching are specifically about black women’s poetry, but a class shouldn’t have to be about minorities for it to have more of a focus on their lives and their art. She calls these artists disenfranchised instead of minorities because, “disenfranchised therefore refers to those who for one reason or another are not allowed to participate fully within a society” (107). It is not that these creators are in the minority of art and content, it’s that they are in the minority of content being shared in education and higher learning. That is, unless they are studying that topic specifically. “Black people and their lives are often looked at as sociological experiments rather than full experiences” (35). Many different classes and subjects, such as history and literature, do not include anything that is not white and male for their regular programming. “What has been called Universal for years is usually what is male and white” (43). Because of this, a lot of times students aren’t even fully aware of the different experiences and cultures out there in the world. Lorde herself, talks about how black poets (111) and Black Germans and Europeans (121) didn’t exist to her because their lives had been hidden from her. And while nowadays we all are aware of these two things, there is still so much we could learn about them. When I was choosing where I wanted to go to college, I had no knowledge of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) because my high school didn’t talk about them and my parents were so intent on not letting race become a factor in my life that I was aware of. This backfired on them, of course, but it left me blind to things like HBCUs, and a lot of black poets, black writers, black artists and more. My own parents did not see our blackness as something to be proud of or something that deserved to be seen in education. “The horror of racism is in how much it is internalized amongst a people themselves” (106). I’ve spent a majority of my educational career with little representation in content being taught unless I was taking a class specifically on the subject and in those instances, it was white people looking in on the outside of a culture. I appreciate that Audrey Lorde included poetry from a white man as an opportunity to talk about how different disenfranchised communities can still benefit from white supremacy. She spoke of Allen Ginsberg, a gay white poet who wrote a three part poem, Howl, talking specifically to the third installation of the poem. “Ginsberg was someone who wished to speak for the disenfranchised, who in speaking for them was still nonetheless a white man with all of his blindness” (Lorde, 78). I’ve encountered a lot of teachers and professors who believed that because they were representing white women, black men, and queer people, they were doing an adequate job of offsetting the influence of white men being presented. But these lists often exclude black women. “As Barbra Smith frequently says, ‘all the Blacks were men, all the women were white’”(Lorde, 98). I believe this takes place in part because in terms of power, black women are on the bottom of the food chain. Out of all teachers only 7% identify as black (The Hechinger Report). While the majority of that percentage are women, most deal with internalized misogyny that keeps them from being radicalized enough to showcase black women authors, writers and poets. While Lorde saying, “Power defines culture because power writes the books” (92) is correct, looking closer at education, power also defines what books get taught to our future. Lorde being willing to give space to black women helps grow the audience of those who are otherwise unseen and unheard.


Audre Lorde spells out exactly how she intends to teach and why she does and I believe this transparency and openness is lacking in today’s school system. She speaks on exactly why she is in Germany giving these seminars, “I am here because I am greedy, and curious” (20). This gives the people expected to respect and learn from her a glimpse into her motivations. It humanizes herself and helps create a bridge of trust between her and her students. If teachers were more open to why they felt called to teach, outside of the bullshit “feeding future generations”, with more emphasis on their own selfish gains, I feel it would make it easier to foster a community of learners. In this community of learners, she is one the students. Audre Lorde is both student and teacher, willing to learn from those who, in academia, are beneath her. She reads the Langston Hughes poem, Theme for English B and in that poem Hughes says:


As I learn from you I guess you learn from me — Although you’re older — and white — And somewhat more free (Hughes, lines 37- 40, 87)



This acknowledgement of teachers learning from students is one that must be internalized. Teachers who say they have a love for learning who are unwilling to give space to learn from their students do themselves a disservice. This space can also be utilized through the destruction of structure. Teachers need to be allowed to devolve from state and institutionalized curriculums in order to allow creativity and spontaneity to flourish. “We cut down possibilities of instructive envisioning the minute we develop a structure to which we must adhere” (104). Having a bouncing off point is good for teachers to understand where they need to be going, but having it so heavily regulated and monitored to the point where areas students are interested in exploring must be nipped in the bud because of time constraints is limiting how much growth education can foster in students.


Dream of Europe showcases a way to bypass all these issues teachers are facing. Lorde has this collection of seminars that is now easily distributed to the public that cuts out the institution wholly and focuses solely on getting what she needs to tell out into the world. It’s accessible to students, letting them take their time with the materials and the content, and also freeing the teacher of the looming rules and regulations the institution puts on them. It follows the same wavelength as youtube and tiktok teachers and independent courses and seminars and classes. This could be part of the better way we are seeking for in education and learning. As Lorde says, “The old order is in fact over and there can be a new awakening” (104). The pandemic was an apt opportunity to change the way we as a society function and what we value. This was and still is a moment to “create something new since what has been is not serving us” (Lorde, 30). I still am unsure if it’s entirely possible to cut out the middle man of institutions and rely mainly on individual based learning. But the system now does not take into consideration the way we all carry so many different burdens in our lives. In higher education specifically, we’re all adults who pay taxes and bills, have jobs, vote in elections, and live on our own or some variation of these things. Being treated like children who don’t have these looming responsibilities is unsustainable. But that is not to say that children in schools don’t deserve to be treated like human beings affected by the tragedies of the world. Especially in the wake of school shootings, being allowed more grace and empathy is something that needs to be incorporated into institutions of lower learning. “We speak of vision and dreaming, not in the sense of idle and fantasy, but of making an emotional blueprint for what we see” (Lorde, 30). I believe we are all, students and teachers, manifesting this age where learning is full of wonder and excitement, and the first step to making this our reality is to acknowledge that the way education is structured today isn’t working and to step into our power, as the majority of the culture. “It is what we do with these ideas, how we make them real, how we flesh them and blood them that gives them power and life to move. An idea has no power beyond the person who holds it and brings it into living” (33). I’m stepping into my power and taking these ideas and teachings Audre Lorde has so graciously given us and using them to create a learning environment that I would want to be a student in.


Audre Lorde understood that when you’re in survival mode, you can’t focus on the things that give your life pleasure. “I wasn’t writing poetry at the time of my sickness. It was a terrible time for me because of this, in addition to cancer” (Lorde, 126). She says, “in addition to cancer” meaning that the thing that made her the most distraught was her inability to create art. It is probable that the reason she wasn’t able to be inspired to write was because this looming sickness and the stress this pressure put on her body, mind and spirit blocked any creative energy she could have had. I believe part of why Lorde was able to be so compassionate to her students was because she understood firsthand what it was like to not be able to think creatively when brought up against immeasurable odds. She says to her students, “We are in the most dangerous times in human history so there must be another way” (21). She recognized how these outside forces her students were pushing up against could influence them and instead of trying to brush it under the rug, she dealt with it head on. I’ve spent semesters being so distraught with the weight of everything that I’ve not been able to make work. I know that feeling well. Hearing her speak on it for herself and also acknowledge how only once she was able to relieve that pressure through taking time to heal was she able to create work again reminds that only when we take the time to slow down will we allow ourselves space to enjoy invigorating conversations about content and literature. The world as it is now is moving at breakneck speeds. If we don’t find a way to pace ourselves, to slow down and sit in whatever reading or idea we’re being presented, we’ll end up killing ourselves and the light inside of ourselves in the process. I have hope that we can change. I have faith not only in our teachers but in our students who want to be educators and want to end this cycle of breaking ourselves.


 

Burga, Solcyre. “The Texas Mall Shooting Is the 199th Mass Shooting of 2023.” Time, 7 May 2023, time.com/6277864/texas-mall-mass-shooting-2023/.


Carr, Sarah. “Why We Could Soon Lose Even More Black Teachers.” The Hechinger Report, 5 Jan. 2022, hechingerreport.org/why-we-could-soon-lose-even-more-black-teachers/.


Lorde, Audre, and Dagmar Schultz. Audre Lorde: Dream of Europe: Selected Seminars and Interviews: 1984-1992. Edited by Mayra A Rodriguez Castro, Kenning Editions, 2020.


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