An excerpt from the early part of Audre Lorde’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982):

In 1936-1938, 125th Street between Lenox and Eighth Avenues, later to become the shopping mecca of Black Harlem, was still a racially mixed area, with control and patronage largely in the hands of white shopkeepers. There were  stores into which Black people were not welcomed, and no Black salespersons worked in the shops at all. Where our money was taken, it was taken with reluctance; and often too much was asked. (It was these conditions which young Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., addressed in his boycott and picketing of Blumstein’s and Weissbecker’s market in 1939 in an attempt, successful, to bring Black employment to 125th Street.) Tensions on the street were high, as they always are in racially mixed zones of transition. As a very little girl, I remember shrinking from a particular sound, a hoarsely sharp, guttural rasp, because it often meant a nasty glob of grey spittle upon my coat or shoe an instant later. My mother wiped it off with little pieces of newspaper she always carried in her purse. Sometimes she fussed about low-class people who had no better sense nor manners than to spit into the wind no matter where they went, impressing upon me that this humiliation was totally random. It never occurred to me to doubt her.

It was not until years later once in conversation I said to her: “Have you noticed people don’t spit into the wind so much they way they used to?” And the look on my mother’s face told me that I had blundered into one of those secret places of pain that must never be spoken of again. But it was so typical of my mother when I was young that if she couldn’t stop white people from spitting on her children because they were Black, she would insist it was something else. It was so often her approach to the world: to change reality. If you can’t change reality, change your perceptions of it.

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One thought on “#WhiteHistoryMonth: Audre Lorde’s Harlem childhood

  1. A very insightful excerpt, it makes me eager to read the book. Her mother’s way of preserving her children was interesting and it made me wonder why she chose to tell her children about people spitting in the wind rather than explain to them what was really happening.

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