Tag Archives: comprehensive exams

Comps Reading: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Sister Outsider has been on my reading list for years. Ever since I read “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” for the first time years ago, Audre Lorde has been high on my list of favorite theorists– though it is mentioned in the book that she did not view herself as a theorist, but rather a poet. (Introduction, p. 8) I even have a pair of Audre Lorde tattoos on my wrist which read, “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” (“New Year’s Day”)

Poetry reveals itself through out this text as Audre Lorde uses prose to do what she claimed poetry did for her: help put words to an unnamed feeling, unmask that which has been hidden away, and build community between those who have difficulty hearing each other. She sprinkles actual lines of poetry amid her prose, because as she tells Adrienne Rich in an interview, “somewhere in that poem would be the feeling, the vital piece of information….The poem was my response.” (p. 82) The lines slip in when she gets close to a feeling that it seems she might not otherwise be able to identify. It’s moving.

Reading Sister Outsider had me feeling like Lorde, in that her sentences provided vital pieces of information, providing a response for feelings that were previously unnamed. I think this is interesting, this need to name feeling that she has. This is one part of the difference between pain and suffering that she notes in “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”: pain becomes suffering when the feeling is “incomplete” and unnamed. (p. 172) I find her discussion of the difference between pain and suffering intriguing, but I do not know if I am convinced. She writes that pain is an event and it must be named, but suffering is something that one can “condemn” oneself to, a relieving of unnamed pain over and over again. I suppose the part which I take issue is the condemnation because it implies that suffering is a choice. What I think Lorde may mean there however, is where pain can be named and acknowledged, it should be, because it is one way to avoid suffering.

In a similar vein, Lorde describes the difference between hatred and anger in “Eye to Eye,” stating that anger is a “passion of displeasure” and hatred is an “emotional habit or attitude…which is coupled with ill will.” (p. 152) Lorde writes that anger does not destroy; hatred does. She writes that anger can be a powerful fuel and in “The Uses of Anger,” a piece which compliments “Eye to Eye” nicely, in my humble opinion, she writes that “anger is loaded with information and energy.” (p. 127) Again, I believe her discussion of both anger and hatred are novel and convincing, but not perfect. I am not sure that I believe that anger cannot destroy, but I suppose when it has morphed into hatred, the point is mute. But that raises a question: she argues that hatred becomes the source of anger, but is it not the other way around? Wouldn’t anger about a situation lead to hatred?

But her main point of these particular essays, or at least what I am taking away from them, is that Black women have internalized self-hatred and thus are angry at each other in a self-destructive way. While Lorde struggles to unpack the inexplicable animosity between Black women, I struggle to unpack that she believes that animosity is there at all. She struggles with this animosity because she cites women as the main source of her restorative energy and thus finds it concerning; as someone whose main support system is a pack of Black women, I really want to know what kind of relationships has she had which have exposed such powerful hatred that she felt compelled to write two separate essays about it. It makes me want to write about Black female friendship and relationships because there is no power greater than the feeling of being supported by Black women.

On an unrelated note, I found it interesting that Lorde bookended her text with essays about other countries. The first are notes from her trip to Russia, in which she basked in the glory of the country like an other tourist, while also being sensitive to racial difference in order to provide a comparison between Russia and the United States. It seems every Black intellectual that I admire has some notes on “Another Country” (for a little Baldwin joke), in which being abroad makes even more stark the state of American racism. The last is “Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report,” which was mostly interesting to see Grenada through the eyes of an outsider-insider: Lorde herself is Grenadian but she views the country with the sensibilities of an American, having lived there all of her life. (Brief and related side note: no where in her text is “American/America” capitalized. Because it is consistent, I am sure there is a reason for such a choice, but I do not know what it is. If someone knows, please leave me a note in the comments.)

Lorde has so many different identities, which she weaves seamlessly into the text to create a complex interwoven web, and I’ve chosen to simply follow a few of the strands. Among those that I have missed in my brief discussion of her work are her identities as a feminist, as a lesbian, as a Cancer survivor, as a Grenadian-American, and particularly as a poet. What she says about these things which make her different is that we must not merely tolerate difference. It must go deeper than that. We must not merely say “Black is beautiful.” It must go deeper. The question which springs immediately to my mind is: How? Lorde is invested in the means of offering solutions: a solution is what she is offering when she says “the Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” A solution is what she is offering when she says that we need to practice being as kind to ourselves as we are to our neighbors, for only that will off-set the hatred which we have internalized. We must raise our children to feel for themselves and not do the feeling for them. I think her essay “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response” which discusses raising a boy as a lesbian feminist, tackles that issue justly.

The last thing I want to think about is the relationships between Black women, white women, and Women of Color, which can sometimes include Black women, but the way that Lorde uses it, (when quoting white women) is a way of including the issues of Black women, but softened by the perspectives of other non-white women. I do not believe this is a view that Lorde holds herself, but rather the way that white women use the term “Women of Color.” (See her discussion of This Bridge Called My Back in “Eye to Eye.”) Some of these tensions become most prevalent in Lorde’s interview with Adrienne Rich, who sometimes seems impatient with Lorde’s view of intuiting and feeling as a way of understanding and knowledge making. When she says the white man says, “I think therefore I am” and the Black woman says, “I feel, therefore I can be free,” Rich points out that people have found this sentiment anti-feminist, drawing on preconceived notions of femininity. I don’t agree: I think there is something very feminist in reclaiming emotion for women, which is so much of what Lorde’s work is. She is reclaiming anger, helping to reshape hatred, teaching us that guilt is ineffective. But I guess my question is, if rationality is to the white man as emotion is to the black woman (which is a problematic dichotomy in of itself) where does that leave Black men and white women? It seems as though white women get clumped into the rationality of white men. But what of Black men? Just something else to think about while I’m driving through town tomorrow.

There are so many things to think about when discussing Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and I do not believe I can do it justice in a short blog post, but I did want to take the time to write down a few of my many thoughts because for one, I had a lot of them while I was reading, and two, it is probably a good practice to review my books as such as I read them. I probably won’t have time to do such an in depth review of every one of my books, but I probably will do this for the important ones, my favorite ones, and the ones which have given me the most to think about.

So to leave you today, I want to offer you some of my favorite quotes from Sister Outsider, on the off chance you don’t plan on reading it yourself. (Which you most definitely should.)

Favorite Quotes and Ideas:

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” (p. 37)

“The Black mother within each of us– the poet– whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” (p. 38)

“I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.” (p. 41)

“Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface.” (p. 60)

“One oppression does not justify another.” (p. 63)

“Every line I write shrieks there are no easy solutions.” (p. 78)

“Documentation does not help one perceive.” (p. 104)

“The mythical norm.” (p. 116)

“Change means growth, and growth can be painful.” (p. 123)

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” (p. 138)

Week 13 or How to Write a Comps List

Week 13, or How to Write a Comps List

So, first things first: what are Comps?

Comps, short for Comprehensive Exams, is the next step after you finish coursework, at least in my program. Comprehensive Exams assess your knowledge of your chosen fields of study, whether you know the main arguments, can assess them, weave them together, and explain them effectively. Most people have told me to think about my Comps in terms of fields I would one day like to teach. The number of fields vary, but most people do one major field, and one to two minor fields of study.

Second: How are you tested?

In my program, I create a list of books (the number varies) which you think exemplify the major arguments and discussions of your field and work with a professor or two on each list. Specifically, my major field is African American Literature: as this is a big field, I plan on breaking it up into two lists and working with two different faculty members on each list. My minor fields are Comics and Media Studies and African American Intellectual History Since Reconstruction. When it is time for your exams, each of the professors you worked with on lists will ask you to answer essay questions, to which you will have six hours to respond.

Summary: 3 fields of study, 4 lists, 50-70 books per list, 4 exams, 6 hours each, plus an oral exam.

Third: Wait, so you have to read, like, 200-300 books? How long do you have to do that?

Yeah, pretty much. Technically, I can start reading after I pass my Comps Colloquium which will take place at the end of September of this year, leaving me around eight months to read all 200-300 texts. But I will still be in course work, so reading extra material will be difficult. I’ve been working on my Comps lists all semester in the attempt of getting at least two lists finalized so I can start reading over the summer.

Finally: So, how do you write your lists?

I can’t tell you exactly how do this but what I can give you is a set of advice on how I’ve been going about it thus far:

  • First, think of your lists as a bibliography. Pick a formatting style you like, and list your books in accordance with that style. (I chose to do mine in Chicago. It will also save you time to cite properly the first time when you start putting books on your list. I had to redo mine.)
  • Second, when you first start thinking about comps, the best thing I can suggest to you to do is to open a word document and jot down books that inspire you from class, books that you want to read, books that you think are fascinating and important but didn’t quite grasp the first time through.
  • Third, when it’s time to get serious about writing your lists:
    • Add books from your to-read list
    • Go through your syllabi for books that were particularly relevant to your fields of study
    • Use Amazon! Look through the “People who have selected this book have also liked…” section. I found a lot of great books that way that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
    • Ask to see your peers and All But Dissertation (ABD) students to see their lists if they have similar fields as you.
    • Check online to see if your school (or other schools) posts sample comps lists and check those out for inspiration.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask professors for book suggestions, even if they aren’t working with you on your fields, specifically.
    • Most important of all, when you start working seriously, don’t forget to put on some music! Putting together what is essentially a bibliography can be long, tedious and thankless work. It takes time and bumpin’ music always helps me get pumped up to work on my lists. (I’ve been listening to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy while working on my lists.)
  • Fourth, be prepared to go several drafts of your lists. You will work with your advisor to represent your field, which may take more than one try.

So, there you have it. My not at all comprehensive guide to writing comps lists. My main piece of advice is to just keep plugging away at it. It won’t come together all at once. 50 books is a lot, and the texts you chose are important. Set aside a little time every week to update your lists. If you add to your lists little by little each week, your lists will come together in no time.