Spelman first historically black college to create chair in queer studies

The endowed chair will be named after civil rights activist and poet Audre Lorde.
Image: Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., in 2015.
Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., in 2015.Raymond Boyd / Getty Images file
By Quinn Gawronski

Spelman College will be the first historically black college or university to fund a chair in queer studies, the Atlanta school announced Tuesday.

The endowed chair will be named after civil rights activist and famed poet Audre Lorde and backed by a matching gift of $2 million from billionaire philanthropist Jon Stryker.

“Spelman College has long been at the forefront of LGBTQ inclusion and education among HBCUs,” Stryker, founder of Arcus Foundation, a social justice and environmental charitable organization, said in a statement. “By supporting this chair, the goal is to engage and empower the next generation of LGBTQ advocates to create a better world.”

Caribbean-American writer, poet and activist Audre Lorde lectures students at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Lorde was a Master Artist in Residence at the Central Florida arts center in 1983.Robert Alexander / Getty Images

The private women’s college kickstarted a $2 million fundraising campaign, which will be matched by Stryker upon completion. The chair will be connected to Spelman’s comparative women’s studies program at the college’s Women’s Research and Resource Center. The funding will expand the amount of LGBTQ-related courses offered at the school and allow students to pursue a concentration in queer studies within the comparative women’s studies major.

“Spelman’s Women’s Center has been and continues to be a pioneering leader in advancing scholarship in the area of Queer Studies,” Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell said in a statement. “Jon Stryker's generous contribution to further his commitment to LGBTQ inclusion and education will allow Spelman students to deepen their understanding around the study of sexuality and gender.”

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Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the founding director of Spelman’s Women’s Research and Resource Center, said she hopes Spelman’s unique offerings of courses in black feminism and LGBTQ studies can be a model for a more inclusive curriculum at other HBCUs.

“[The Queer Studies Chair] captures in very visible ways our ongoing commitment to intellectual and political projects around social justice issues in the curriculum related to race, gender and sexuality, especially as they impact women of African descent,” Guy-Sheftall wrote in a message to NBC News.

Audre Lorde: ‘Literary luminary,' 'fierce activist’

Audre Lorde’s previous contributions to Spelman College and her commitment to issues of race and sexuality led Stryker to name the chair for Queer Studies in her honor. Before her death in 1992, Lorde delivered multiple speeches on the campus, and her personal artifacts and papers were donated to the Spelman Archives in 1995.

“We are honored to name the chair after the literary luminary and fierce activist, Audre Lorde,” Campbell said.

Lorde, a self-described “black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, warrior,” started her advocacy work at a young age and never shied away from difficult subjects. She was a critic of second-wave feminism, helmed by white, middle-class women, and wrote that gender oppression was not inseparable from other oppressive systems such as racism, classism and homophobia.

“I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t,” Lorde once said.

Born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants, Lorde earned degrees at Hunter College and Columbia University and worked as a librarian in New York public schools throughout the 1960s. Lorde was also a professor of English at John Jay College and Hunter College, where she held the prestigious post of Thomas Hunter Chair of Literature. In 1980, Lorde, along with fellow writer Barbara Smith, founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which published works by and about women of color, including Lorde’s book “I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities” (1986).

Lorde published nine volumes of poetry and five books of prose before being named New York State's Poet Laureate in 1991. She held the post until she died of liver cancer at the age of 58 in 1992.

"Our mother was deeply committed to LGBTQ youth and believed passionately in the power of scholarship, which to her meant learning plus excellence,” Jonathan Rollins and Beth Lorde Rollins, Audre Lorde’s children, said following the queer studies chair announcement. “She knew Spelman is a place where that magic happens, which is why she wanted her papers there, and she would be thrilled at this gift."

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Gwen Aviles contributed.