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Zami: A New Spelling of My Name - A Biomythography

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“ZAMI is a fast-moving chronicle. From the author’s vivid childhood memories in Harlem to her coming of age in the late 1950s, the nature of Audre Lorde’s work is cyclical. It especially relates the linkage of women who have shaped her . . . Lorde brings into play her craft of lush description and characterization. It keeps unfolding page after page.”—Off Our Backs
The Crossing Press
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Crossing Press Feminist Series
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Zami: A New Spelling of My Name - A Biomythography

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May I live conscious of my debt to all the people who make life possible.

From the bottom of my heart I thank each woman who shared any piece of the dreams/myths/histories that give this book shape.

In particular I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to: Barbara Smith for her courage in asking the right question and her faith that it could be answered; Cherríe Moraga for listening with her third ear and hearing; and to them both for their editorial fortitude; Jean Millar for being there, when I came up for the second time, with the right book; Michelle Cliff for her Island ears, green bananas, and fine, deft pencil; Donald Hill who visited Carriacou and passed the words on; Blanche Cook for moving history beyond nightmare into structures for the future; Clare Coss who connected me with my matrilineage; Adrienne Rich who insisted the language could match and believed that it would; the writers of songs whose melodies stitch up my years; Bernice Goodman who first made a difference of difference; Frances Clayton who holds it all together, for never giving up; Marion Masone who gave a name to forever; Beverly Smith for reminding me to stay simple; Linda Belmar Lorde for my first principles of combat and survival; Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins and Jonathan Lorde-Rollins who help keep me honest and current; Ma-Mariah, Ma-Liz, Aunt Anni, Sister Lou and the other Belmar women who proofread my dreams; and others who I can not yet afford to name.


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Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches

By Audre Lorde

“Among the elements that make the book so good are its personal honesty and lack of pretentiousness.”—New York Times

Paper • ISBN-13: 978-0-89594-141-1 ISBN-10: 0-89594-141-4

From Wedded Wife to Lesbian Life: Stories of Transformation

Edited by Deborah Abbott and Ellen Farmer

“…deals on a compelling, personal level with most of the problems facing lesbians, especially those who have been married-conflicts with family, custody battles, financial strains, struggles to a; chieve independence and a sense of wholeness.”

—Ellen Lewin, Ph.D., author of Lesbian Mothers

Paper • ISBN-13: 978-0-89594-766-6 ISBN-10: 0-89594-766-8

The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory

By Marilyn Frye

“This is radical feminist theory at its best: clear, careful and critical.”—Signs

Paper ISBN-13: 978-0-89594-099-5 ISBN-10: 0-89594-099-X


Grenadians and Barbadians walk like African peoples. Trinidadians do not.

When I visited Grenada I saw the root of my mother’s powers walking through the streets. I thought, this is the country of my foremothers, my forebearing mothers, those Black island women who defined themselves by what they did. “Island women make good wives; whatever happens, they’ve seen worse.” There is a softer edge of African sharpness upon these women, and they swing through the rain-warm streets with an arrogant gentleness that I remember in strength and vulnerability.

My mother and father came to this country in 1924, when she was twenty-seven years old and he was twenty-six. They had been married a year. She lied about her age in immigration because her sisters who were here already had written her that americans wanted strong young women to work for them, and Linda was afraid she was too old to get work. Wasn’t she already an old maid at home when she had finally gotten married?

My father got a job as a laborer in the old Waldorf Astoria, on the site where the Empire State Building now stands, and my mother worked there as a chambermaid. The hotel closed for demolition, and she went to work as a scullery maid in a teashop on Columbus Avenue and 99th Street. She went to work before dawn, and worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with no time off. The owner told my mother that she ought to be glad to have the job, since ordinarily the establishment didn’t hire “spanish” girls. Had the owner known Linda was Black, she would never have been hired at all. In the winter of 1928, my mother developed pleurisy and almost died. While my mother was still sick, my father went to collect her uniforms from the teahouse to wash them. When the owner saw him, he realized my mother was Black and fired her on the spot.

In October 1929, the first baby came and the stockmarket fell, and my parents’ dream of going home receded into the background. Little secret sparks of it were kept alive for years by my mother’s search for tropical fruits “under the bridge,” and her burning of kerosene lamps, by her treadle-machine and her fried bananas and her love of fish and the sea. Trapped. There was so little that she really knew about the stranger’s country. How the electricity worked. The nearest church. Where the Free Milk Fund for Babies handouts occurred, and at what time—even though we were not allowed to drink charity.

She knew about bundling up against the wicked cold. She knew about Paradise Plums—hard, oval candies, cherry-red on one side, pineapple-yellow on the other. She knew which West Indian markets along Lenox Avenue carried them in tilt-back glass jars on the countertops. She knew how desirable Paradise Plums were to sweet-starved little children, and how important in maintaining discipline on long shopping journeys. She knew exactly how many of the imported goodies could be sucked and rolled around in the mouth before the wicked gum arabic with its acidic british teeth cut through the tongue’s pink coat and raised little red pimples.

She knew about mixing oils for bruises and rashes, and about disposing of all toenail clippings and hair from the comb. About burning candles before All Souls Day to keep the soucoyants away, lest they suck the blood of her babies. She knew about blessing the food and yourself before eating, and about saying prayers before going to sleep.

She taught us one to the mother that I never learned in school.

Remember, oh most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was ever left unaided. Inspired with this confidence I fly unto thee now, oh my sweet mother, to thee I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. Oh mother of the word incarnate, despise not my petitions but in thy clemency and mercy oh hear and answer me now.

As a child, I remember often hearing my mother mouth these words softly, just below her breath, as she faced some new crisis or disaster—the icebox door breaking, the electricity being shut off, my sister gashing open her mouth on borrowed skates.

My child’s ears heard the words and pondered the mysteries of this mother to whom my solid and austere mother could whisper such beautiful words.

And finally, my mother knew how to frighten children into behaving in public. She knew how to pretend that the only food left in the house was actually a meal of choice, carefully planned.

She knew how to make virtues out of necessities.

Linda missed the bashing of the waves against the sea-wall at the foot of Noel’s Hill, the humped and mysterious slope of Marquis Island rising up from the water a half-mile off-shore. She missed the swift-flying bananaquits and the trees and the rank smell of the tree-ferns lining the road downhill into Grenville Town. She missed the music that did not have to be listened to because it was always around. Most of all, she missed the Sunday-long boat trips that took her to Aunt Anni’s in Carriacou.

Everybody in Grenada had a song for everything. There was a song for the tobacco shop which was part of the general store, which Linda had managed from the time she was seventeen.

3/4 of a cross

and a circle complete

2 semi-circles and a perpendicular meet…

A jingle serving to identify the store for those who could not read TOBACCO.

The songs were all about, there was even one about them, the Belmar girls, who always carried their noses in the air. And you never talked your business too loud in the street, otherwise you were liable to hear your name broadcast in a song on the corner the very next day. At home, she learned from Sister Lou to disapprove of the endless casual song-making as a disreputable and common habit, beneath the notice of a decent girl.

But now, in this cold and raucous country called america, Linda missed the music. She even missed the annoyance of the early Saturday morning customers with their loose talk and slurred rhythms, warbling home from the rumshop.

She knew about food. But of what use was that to these crazy people she lived among, who cooked leg of lamb without washing the meat, and roasted even the toughest beef without water and a cover? Pumpkin was only a child’s decoration to them, and they treated their husbands better than they cared for their children.

She did not know her way in and out of the galleries of the Museum of Natural History, but she did know that it was a good place to take children if you wanted them to grow up smart. It frightened her when she took her children there, and she would pinch each one of us girls on the fleshy part of our upper arms at one time or another all afternoon. Supposedly, it was because we wouldn’t behave, but actually, it was because beneath the neat visor of the museum guard’s cap, she could see pale blue eyes staring at her and her children as if we were a bad smell, and this frightened her. This was a situation she couldn’t control.

What else did Linda know? She knew how to look into people’s faces and tell what they were going to do before they did it. She knew which grapefruit was shaddock and pink, before it ripened, and what to do with the others, which was to throw them to the pigs. Except she had no pigs in Harlem, and sometimes those were the only grapefruit around to eat. She knew how to prevent infection in an open cut or wound by heating the black-elm leaf over a wood-fire until it wilted in the hand, rubbing the juice into the cut, and then laying the soft green now flabby fibers over the wound for a bandage.

But there was no black-elm in Harlem, no black oak leaves to be had in New York City. Ma-Mariah, her root-woman grandmother, had taught her well under the trees on Noel’s Hill in Grenville, Grenada, overlooking the sea. Aunt Anni and Ma-Liz, Linda’s mother, had carried it on. But there was no call for this knowledge now; and her husband Byron did not like to talk about home because it made him sad, and weakened his resolve to make a kingdom for himself in this new world.

She did not know if the stories about white slavers that she read in the Daily News were true or not, but she knew to forbid her children ever to set foot into any candystore. We were not even allowed to buy penny gumballs from the machines in the subway. Besides being a waste of precious money, the machines were slot machines and therefore evil, or at least suspect as connected with white slavery—the most vicious kind, she’d say ominously.

Linda knew green things were precious, and the peaceful, healing qualities of water. On Saturday afternoons, sometimes, after my mother finished cleaning the house, we would go looking for some park to sit in and watch the trees. Sometimes we went down to the edge of the Harlem River at 142nd Street to watch the water. Sometimes we took the D train and went to the sea. Whenever we were close to water, my mother grew quiet and soft and absent-minded. Then she would tell us wonderful stories about Noel’s Hill in Grenville, Grenada, which overlooked the Caribbean. She told us stories about Carriacou, where she had been born, amid the heavy smell of limes. She told us about plants that healed and about plants that drove you crazy, and none of it made much sense to us children because we had never seen any of them. And she told us about the trees and fruits and flowers that grew outside the door of the house where she grew up and lived until she married.

Once home was a far way off, a place I had never been to but knew well out of my mother’s mouth. She breathed exuded hummed the fruit smell of Noel’s Hill morning fresh and noon hot, and I spun visions of sapadilla and mango as a net over my Harlem tenement cot in the snoring darkness rank with nightmare sweat. Made bearable because it was not all. This now, here, was a space, some temporary abode, never to be considered forever nor totally binding nor defining, no matter how much it commanded in energy and attention. For if we lived correctly and with frugality, looked both ways before crossing the street, then someday we would arrive back in the sweet place, back home.

We would walk the hills of Grenville, Grenada, and when the wind blew right smell the limetrees of Carriacou, spice island off the coast. Listen to the sea drum up on Kick’em Jenny, the reef whose loud voice split the night, when the sea-waves beat upon her sides. Carriacou, from where the Belmar twins set forth on inter-island schooners for the voyages that brought them, first and last, to Grenville town, and they married the Noel sisters there, mainlander girls.

The Noel girls. Ma-Liz’s older sister, Anni, followed her Belmar back to Carriacou, arrived as sister-in-law and stayed to become her own woman. Remembered the root-truths taught her by their mother, Ma-Mariah. Learned other powers from the women of Carriacou. And in a house in the hills behind L’Esterre she birthed each of her sister Ma-Liz’s seven daughters. My mother Linda was born between the waiting palms of her loving hands.

Here Aunt Anni lived among the other women who saw their men off on the sailing vessels, then tended the goats and groundnuts, planted grain and poured rum upon the earth to strengthen the corn’s growing, built their women’s houses and the rainwater catchments, harvested the limes, wove their lives and the lives of their children together. Women who survived the absence of their sea-faring men easily, because they came to love each other, past the men’s returning.

Madivine. Friending. Zami. How Carriacou women love each other is legend in Grenada, and so is their strength and their beauty.

In the hills of Carriacou between L’Esterre and Harvey Vale my mother was born, a Belmar woman. Summered in Aunt Anni’s house, picked limes with the women. And she grew up dreaming of Carriacou as someday I was to dream of Grenada.

Carriacou, a magic name like cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, the delectable little squares of guava jelly each lovingly wrapped in tiny bits of crazy-quilt wax-paper cut precisely from bread wrappers, the long sticks of dried vanilla and the sweet-smelling tonka bean, chalky brown nuggets of pressed chocolate for cocoa-tea, all set on a bed of wild bay laurel leaves, arriving every Christmas time in a well-wrapped tea-tin.

Carriacou which was not listed in the index of the Goode’s School Atlas nor in the Junior Americana World Gazette nor appeared on any map that I could find, and so when I hunted for the magic place during geography lessons or in free library time, I never found it, and came to believe my mother’s geography was a fantasy or crazy or at least too old-fashioned, and in reality maybe she was talking about the place other people called Curaçao, a Dutch possession on the other side of the Antilles.

But underneath it all as I was growing up, home was still a sweet place somewhere else which they had not managed to capture yet on paper, nor to throttle and bind up between the pages of a Schoolbook. It was our own, my truly private paradise of blugoe and breadfruit hanging from the trees, of nutmeg and lime and sapadilla, of tonka beans and red and yellow Paradise Plums.*

*Years later, as partial requirement for a degree in library science, I did a detailed comparison of atlases, their merits and particular strengths. I used, as one of the foci of my project, the isle of Carriacou. It appeared only once, in the Atlas of the Encyclopedia Brittannica, which has always prided itself upon the accurate cartology of its colonies. I was twenty-six years old before I found Carriacou upon a map.


I have often wondered why the farthest-out position always feels so right to me; why extremes, although difficult and sometimes painful to maintain, are always more comfortable than one plan running straight down a line in the unruffled middle.

What I really understand is a particular kind of determination. It is stubborn, it is painful, it is infuriating, but it often works.

My mother was a very powerful woman. This was so in a time when that word-combination of woman and powerful was almost unexpressable in the white american common tongue, except or unless it was accompanied by some aberrant explaining adjective like blind, or hunchback, or crazy, or Black. Therefore when I was growing up, powerful woman equaled something else quite different from ordinary woman, from simply “woman.” It certainly did not, on the other hand, equal “man.” What then? What was the third designation?

As a child, I always knew my mother was different from the other women I knew, Black or white. I used to think it was because she was my mother. But different how? I was never quite sure. There were other West Indian women around, a lot in our neighborhood and church. There were also other Black women as light as she, particularly among the low-island women. Redbone, they were called. Different how? I never knew. But that is why to this day I believe that there have always been Black dykes around—in the sense of powerful and women-oriented women—who would rather have died than use that name for themselves. And that includes my momma.

I’ve always thought that I learned some early ways I treated women from my father. But he certainly responded to my mother in a very different fashion. They shared decisions and the making of all policy, both in their business and in the family. Whenever anything had to be decided about any one of the three of us children, even about new coats, they would go into the bedroom and put their heads together for a little while. Buzz buzz would come through the closed door, sometimes in english, sometimes in patois, that Grenadian poly-language which was their lingua franca. Then the two of them would emerge and announce whatever decision had been arrived upon. They spoke all through my childhood with one unfragmentable and unappealable voice.

After the children came, my father went to real-estate school, and began to manage small rooming-houses in Harlem. When he came home from the office in the evening, he had one quick glass of brandy, standing in the kitchen, after we greeted him and before he took off his coat and hat. Then my mother and he would immediately retire into the bedroom where we would hear them discussing the day’s events from behind closed doors, even if my mother had only left their office a few hours before.

If any of us children had transgressed against the rule, this was the time when we truly quaked in our orthopedic shoes, for we knew our fate was being discussed and the terms of punishment sealed behind those doors. When they opened, a mutual and irrefutable judgment would be delivered. If they spoke of anything important when we were around, Mother and Daddy immediately lapsed into patois.

Since my parents shared all making of policy and decision, in my child’s eye, my mother must have been other than woman. Again, she was certainly not man. (The three of us children would not have tolerated that deprivation of womanliness for long at all; we’d have probably packed up our kra and gone back before the eighth day—an option open to all African child-souls who bumble into the wrong milieu.)

My mother was different from other women, and sometimes it gave me a sense of pleasure and specialness that was a positive aspect of feeling set apart. But sometimes it gave me pain and I fancied it the reason for so many of my childhood sorrows. If my mother were like everybody else’s maybe they would like me better. But most often, her difference was like the season or a cold day or a steamy night in June. It just was, with no explanation or evocation necessary.

My mother and her two sisters were large and graceful women whose ample bodies seemed to underline the air of determination with which they moved through their lives in the strange world of Harlem and america. To me, my mother’s physical substance and the presence and self-possession with which she carried herself were a large part of what made her different. Her public air of in-charge competence was quiet and effective. On the street people deferred to my mother over questions of taste, economy, opinion, quality, not to mention who had the right to the first available seat on the bus. I saw my mother fix her blue-grey-brown eyes upon a man scrambling for a seat on the Lenox Avenue bus, only to have him falter midway, grin abashedly, and, as if in the same movement, offer it to the old woman standing on the other side of him. I became aware, early on, that sometimes people would change their actions because of some opinion my mother never uttered, or even particularly cared about.

My mother was a very private woman, and actually quite shy, but with a very imposing, no-nonsense exterior. Full-bosomed, proud, and of no mean size, she would launch herself down the street like a ship under full sail, usually pulling me stumbling behind her. Not too many hardy souls dared cross her prow too closely.

Total strangers would turn to her in the meat market and ask what she thought about a cut of meat as to its freshness and appeal and suitability for such and such, and the butcher, impatient, would nonetheless wait for her to deliver her opinion, obviously quite a little put out but still deferential. Strangers counted upon my mother and I never knew why, but as a child it made me think she had a great deal more power than in fact she really had. My mother was invested in this image of herself also, and took pains, I realize now, to hide from us as children the many instances of her powerlessness. Being Black and foreign and female in New York City in the twenties and thirties was not simple, particularly when she was quite light enough to pass for white, but her children weren’t.

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 the 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 the 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.

Both of my parents gave us to believe that they had the whole world in the palms of their hands for the most part, and if we three girls acted correctly—meaning working hard and doing as we were told—we could have the whole world in the palms of our hands also. It was a very confusing way to grow up, enhanced by the insularity of our family. Whatever went wrong in our lives was because our parents had decided that was best. Whatever went right was because our parents had decided that was the way it was going to be. Any doubts as to the reality of that situation were rapidly and summarily put down as small but intolerable rebellions against divine authority.

All our storybooks were about people who were very different from us. They were blond and white and lived in houses with trees around and had dogs named Spot. I didn’t know people like that any more than I knew people like Cinderella who lived in castles. Nobody wrote stories about us, but still people always asked my mother for directions in a crowd.

It was this that made me decide as a child we must be rich, even when my mother did not have enough money to buy gloves for her chilblained hands, nor a proper winter coat. She would finish washing clothes and dress me hurriedly for the winter walk to pick up my sisters at school for lunch. By the time we got to St. Mark’s School, seven blocks away, her beautiful long hands would be covered with ugly red splotches and welts. Later, I remember my mother rubbing her hands gingerly under cold water, and wringing them in pain. But when I asked, she brushed me off by telling me this was what they did for it at “home,” and I still believed her when she said she hated to wear gloves.

At night, my father came home late from the office, or from a political meeting. After dinner, the three of us girls did our homework sitting around the kitchen table. Then my two sisters went off down the hall to their beds. My mother put down the cot for me in the front bedroom, and supervised my getting ready for bed.

She turned off all the electric lights, and I could see her from my bed, two rooms away, sitting at the same kitchen table, reading the Daily News by a kerosene lamp, and waiting for my father. She always said it was because the kerosene lamp reminded her of “home.” When I was grown I realized she was trying to save a few pennies of electricity before my father came in and turned on the lights with “Lin, why you sitting in the dark so?” Sometimes I’d go to sleep with the soft chunk-a-ta-chink of her foot-pedal-powered Singer Sewing Machine, stitching up sheets and pillow-cases from unbleached muslin gotten on sale “under the bridge.”

I only saw my mother crying twice when I was little. Once was when I was three, and sat on the step of her dental chair at the City Dental Clinic on 23rd Street, while a student dentist pulled out all the teeth on one side of her upper jaw. It was in a huge room full of dental chairs with other groaning people in them, and white-jacketed young men bending over open mouths. The sound of the many dental drills and instruments made the place sound like a street-corner excavation site.

Afterwards, my mother sat outside on a long wooden bench. I saw her lean her head against the back, her eyes closed. She did not respond to my pats and tugs at her coat. Climbing up upon the seat, I peered into my mother’s face to see why she should be sleeping in the middle of the day. From under her closed eyelids, drops of tears were squeezing out and running down her cheek toward her ear. I touched the little drops of water on her high cheekbone in horror and amazement. The world was turning over. My mother was crying.

The other time I saw my mother cry was a few years later, one night, when I was supposed to be asleep in their bedroom. The door to the parlor was ajar, and I could see through the crack into the next room. I woke to hear my parents’ voices in english. My father had just come home, and with liquor on his breath.

“I hoped I’d never live to see the day when you, Bee, stand up in some saloon and it’s drink you drinking with some clubhouse woman.”

“But Lin, what are you talking? It’s not that way a-tall, you know. In politics you must be friendly-friendly so. It doesn’t mean a thing.”

“And if you were to go before I did, I would never so much as look upon another man, and I would expect you to do the same.”

My mother’s voice was strangely muffled by her tears.

These were the years leading up to the Second World War, when Depression took such a terrible toll, and of Black people in particular.

Even though we children could be beaten for losing a penny coming home from the store, my mother fancied a piece of her role as lady bountiful, a role she would accuse me bitterly of playing years later in my life whenever I gave something to a friend. But one of my earlier memories of World War II was just before the beginning, with my mother splitting a one-pound tin of coffee between two old family friends who had come on an infrequent visit.

Although she always insisted that she had nothing to do with politics or government affairs, from somewhere my mother had heard the winds of war, and despite our poverty had set about consistently hoarding sugar and coffee in her secret closet under the sink. Long before Pearl Harbor, I recall opening each cloth five-pound sack of sugar which we purchased at the market and pouring a third of it into a scrubbed tin to store away under the sink, secure from mice. The same thing happened with coffee. We would buy Bokar Coffee at the A&P and have it ground and poured into bags, and then divide the bag between the coffee tin on the back of the stove, and the hidden ones under the sink. Not many people came to our house, ever, but no one left without at least a cupful of sugar or coffee during the war, when coffee and sugar were heavily rationed.

Meat and butter could not be hoarded, and throughout the early war, my mother’s absolute refusal to accept butter substitutes (only “other people” used margarine, those same “other people” who fed their children peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, used sandwich spread instead of mayonnaise and ate pork chops and watermelon) had us on line in front of supermarkets all over the city on bitterly cold Saturday mornings, waiting for the store to open so we each could get first crack at buying our allotted quarter-pound of unrationed butter. Throughout the war, Mother kept a mental list of all the supermarkets reachable by one bus, frequently taking only me because I could ride free. She also noted which were friendly and which were not, and long after the war ended there were meat markets and stores we never shopped in because someone in them had crossed my mother during the war over some precious scarce commodity, and my mother never forgot and rarely forgave.


When I was five years old and still legally blind, I started school in a sight-conservation class in the local public school on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. On the corner was a blue wooden booth where white women gave away free milk to Black mothers with children. I used to long for some Hearst Free Milk Fund milk, in those cute little bottles with their red and white tops, but my mother never allowed me to have any, because she said it was charity, which was bad and demeaning, and besides the milk was warm and might make me sick.

The school was right across the avenue from the catholic school where my two older sisters went, and this public school had been used as a threat against them for as long as I could remember. If they didn’t behave and get good marks in school-work and deportment, they could be “transferred.” A “transfer” carried the same dire implications as “deportation” came to imply decades later.

Of course everybody knew that public school kids did nothing but “fight,” and you could get “beaten up” every day after school, instead of being marched out of the schoolhouse door in two neat rows like little robots, silent but safe and unattacked, to the corner where the mothers waited.

But the catholic school had no kindergarten, and certainly not one for blind children.

Despite my nearsightedness, or maybe because of it, I learned to read at the same time I learned to talk, which was only about a year or so before I started school. Perhaps learn isn’t the right word to use for my beginning to talk, because to this day I don’t know if I didn’t talk earlier because I didn’t know how, or if I didn’t talk because I had nothing to say that I would be allowed to say without punishment. Self-preservation starts very early in West Indian families.

I learned how to read from Mrs. Augusta Baker, the children’s librarian at the old 135th Street branch library, which has just recently been torn down to make way for a new library building to house the Schomburg Collection on African-American History and Culture. If that was the only good deed that lady ever did in her life, may she rest in peace. Because that deed saved my life, if not sooner, then later, when sometimes the only thing I had to hold on to was knowing I could read, and that that could get me through.

My mother was pinching my ear off one bright afternoon, while I lay spreadeagled on the floor of the Children’s Room like a furious little brown toad, screaming bloody murder and embarrassing my mother to death. I know it must have been spring or early fall, because without the protection of a heavy coat, I can still feel the stinging soreness in the flesh of my upper arm. There, where my mother’s sharp fingers had already tried to pinch me into silence. To escape those inexorable fingers I had hurled myself to the floor, roaring with pain as I could see them advancing toward my ears again. We were waiting to pick up my two older sisters from story hour, held upstairs on another floor of the dry-smelling quiet library. My shrieks pierced the reverential stillness.

Suddenly, I looked up, and there was a library lady standing over me. My mother’s hands had dropped to her sides. From the floor where I was lying, Mrs. Baker seemed like yet another mile-high woman about to do me in. She had immense, light, hooded eyes and a very quiet voice that said, not damnation for my noise, but “Would you like to hear a story, little girl?”

Part of my fury was because I had not been allowed to go to that secret feast called story hour since I was too young, and now here was this strange lady offering me my own story.

I didn’t dare to look at my mother, half-afraid she might say no, I was too bad for stories. Still bewildered by this sudden change of events, I climbed up upon the stool which Mrs. Baker pulled over for me, and gave her my full attention. This was a new experience for me and I was insatiably curious.

Mrs. Baker read me Madeline, and Horton Hatches the Egg, both of which rhymed and had huge lovely pictures which I could see from behind my newly acquired eyeglasses, fastened around the back of my rambunctious head by a black elastic band running from earpiece to earpiece. She also read me another storybook about a bear named Herbert who ate up an entire family, one by one, starting with the parents. By the time she had finished that one, I was sold on reading for the rest of my life.

I took the books from Mrs. Baker’s hands after she was finished reading, and traced the large black letters with my fingers, while I peered again at the beautiful bright colors of the pictures. Right then I decided I was going to find out how to do that myself. I pointed to the black marks which I could now distinguish as separate letters, different from my sisters’ more grown-up books, whose smaller print made the pages only one grey blur for me. I said, quite loudly, for whoever was listening to hear, “I want to read.”

My mother’s surprised relief outweighed whatever annoyance she was still feeling at what she called my whelpish carryings-on. From the background where she had been hovering while Mrs. Baker read, my mother moved forward quickly, mollified and impressed. I had spoken. She scooped me up from the low stool, and to my surprise, kissed me, right in front of everybody in the library, including Mrs. Baker.

This was an unprecedented and unusual display of affection in public, the cause of which I did not comprehend. But it was a warm and happy feeling. For once, obviously, I had done something right.

My mother set me back upon the stool and turned to Mrs. Baker, smiling.

“Will wonders never cease to perform!” Her excitement startled me back into cautious silence.

Not only had I been sitting still for longer than my mother would have thought possible, and sitting quietly. I had also spoken rather than screamed, something that my mother, after four years and a lot of worry, had despaired that I would ever do. Even one intelligible word was a very rare event for me. And although the doctors at the clinic had clipped the little membrane under my tongue so I was no longer tongue-tied, and had assured my mother that I was not retarded, she still had her terrors and her doubts. She was genuinely happy for any possible alternative to what she was afraid might be a dumb child. The ear-pinching was forgotten. My mother accepted the alphabet and picture books Mrs. Baker gave her for me, and I was on my way.

I sat at the kitchen table with my mother, tracing letters and calling their names. Soon she taught me how to say the alphabet forwards and backwards as it was done in Grenada. Although she had never gone beyond the seventh grade, she had been put in charge of teaching the first grade children their letters during her last year at Mr. Taylor’s School in Grenville. She told me stories about his strictness as she taught me how to print my name.

I did not like the tail of the Y hanging down below the line in Audrey, and would always forget to put it on, which used to disturb my mother greatly. I used to love the evenness of AUDRELORDE at four years of age, but I remembered to put on the Y because it pleased my mother, and because, as she always insisted to me, that was the way it had to be because that was the way it was. No deviation was allowed from her interpretations of correct.

So by the time I arrived at the sight-conservation kindergarten, braided, scrubbed, and bespectacled, I was able to read large-print books and write my name with a regular pencil. Then came my first rude awakening about school. Ability had nothing to do with expectation.

There were only seven or eight of us little Black children in a big classroom, all with various serious deficiencies of sight. Some of us were cross-eyed, some of us were nearsighted, and one little girl had a patch over one of her eyes.

We were given special short wide notebooks to write in, with very widely spaced lines on yellow paper. They looked like my sister’s music notebooks. We were also given thick black crayons to write with. Now you don’t grow up fat, Black, nearly blind, and ambidextrous in a West Indian household, particularly my parents’ household, and survive without being or becoming fairly rigid fairly fast. And having been roundly spanked on several occasions for having made that mistake at home, I knew quite well that crayons were not what you wrote with, and music books were definitely not what you wrote in.

I raised my hand. When the teacher asked me what I wanted, I asked for some regular paper to write on and a pencil. That was my undoing. “We don’t have any pencils here,” I was told.

Our first task was to copy down the first letter of our names in those notebooks with our black crayons. Our teacher went around the room and wrote the required letter into each one of our notebooks. When she came around to me, she printed a large A in the upper left corner of the first page of my notebook, and handed me the crayon.

“I can’t,” I said, knowing full well that what you do with black crayons is scribble on the wall and get your backass beaten, or color around the edges of pictures, but not write. To write, you needed a pencil. “I can’t!” I said, terrified, and started to cry.

“Imagine that, a big girl like you. Such a shame, I’ll have to tell your mother that you won’t even try. And such a big girl like you!”

And it was true. Although young, I was the biggest child by far in the whole class, a fact that had not escaped the attention of the little boy who sat behind me, and who was already whispering “fatty, fatty!” whenever the teacher’s back was turned.

“Now just try, dear. I’m sure you can try to print your A. Mother will be so pleased to see that at least you tried.” She patted my stiff braids and turned to the next desk.

Well, of course, she had said the magic words, because I would have walked over rice on my knees to please Mother. I took her nasty old soft smudgy crayon and pretended that it was a nice neat pencil with a fine point, elegantly sharpened that morning outside the bathroom door by my father, with the little penknife that he always carried around in his bathrobe pocket.

I bent my head down close to the desk that smelled like old spittle and rubber erasers, and on that ridiculous yellow paper with those laughably wide spaces I printed my best AUDRE. I had never been too good at keeping between straight lines no matter what their width, so it slanted down across the page something like this:[image: ]

The notebooks were short and there was no more room for anything else on that page. So I turned the page over, and wrote again, earnestly and laboriously, biting my lip, [image: ]

half-showing off, half-eager to please.

By this time, Miss Teacher had returned to the front of the room.

“Now when you’re finished drawing your letter, children,” she said, “Just raise your hand high.” And her voice smiled a big smile. It is surprising to me that I can still hear her voice but I can’t see her face, and I don’t know whether she was Black or white. I can remember the way she smelled, but not the color of her hand upon my desk.

Well, when I heard that, my hand flew up in the air, wagging frantically. There was one thing my sisters had warned me about school in great detail: you must never talk in school unless you raised your hand. So I raised my hand, anxious to be recognized. I could imagine what teacher would say to my mother when she came to fetch me home at noon. My mother would know that her warning to me to “be good” had in truth been heeded.

Miss Teacher came down the aisle and stood beside my desk, looking down at my book. All of a sudden the air around her hand beside my notebook grew very still and frightening.

“Well I never!” Her voice was sharp. “I thought I told you to draw this letter? You don’t even want to try and do as you are told. Now I want you to turn that page over and draw your letter like everyone…” and turning to the next page, she saw my second name sprawled down across the page.

There was a moment of icy silence, and I knew I had done something terribly wrong. But this time, I had no idea what it could be that would get her so angry, certainly not being proud of writing my name.

She broke the silence with a wicked edge to her voice. “I see.” she said. “I see we have a young lady who does not want to do as she is told. We will have to tell her mother about that.” And the rest of the class snickered, as the teacher tore the page out of my notebook.

“Now I am going to give you one more chance,” she said, as she printed another fierce A at the head of the new page. “Now you copy that letter exactly the way it is, and the rest of the class will have to wait for you.” She placed the crayon squarely back into my fingers.

By this time I had no idea at all what this lady wanted from me, and so I cried and cried for the rest of the morning until my mother came to fetch me home at noon. I cried on the street while we stopped to pick up my sisters, and for most of the way home, until my mother threatened to box my ears for me if I didn’t stop embarrassing her on the street.

That afternoon, after Phyllis and Helen were back in school, and I was helping her dust, I told my mother how they had given me crayons to write with and how the teacher didn’t want me to write my name. When my father came home that evening, the two of them went into counsel. It was decided that my mother would speak to the teacher the next morning when she brought me to school, in order to find out what I had done wrong. This decision was passed on to me, ominously, because of course I must have done something wrong to have made Miss Teacher so angry with me.

The next morning at school, the teacher told my mother that she did not think that I was ready yet for kindergarten, because I couldn’t follow directions, and I wouldn’t do as I was told.

My mother knew very well I could follow directions, because she herself had spent a good deal of effort and arm-power making it very painful for me whenever I did not follow directions. And she also believed that a large part of the function of school was to make me learn how to do what I was told to do. In her private opinion, if this school could not do that, then it was not much of a school and she was going to find a school that could. In other words, my mother had made up her mind that school was where I belonged.

That same morning, she took me off across the street to the catholic school, where she persuaded the nuns to put me into the first grade, since I could read already, and write my name on regular paper with a real pencil. If I sat in the first row I could see the blackboard. My mother also told the nuns that unlike my two sisters, who were models of deportment, I was very unruly, and that they should spank me whenever I needed it. Mother Josepha, the principal, agreed, and I started school.

My first grade teacher was named Sister Mary of Perpetual Help, and she was a disciplinarian of the first order, right after my mother’s own heart. A week after I started school she sent a note home to my mother asking her not to dress me in so many layers of clothing because then I couldn’t feel the strap on my behind when I was punished.

Sister Mary of Perpetual Help ran the first grade with an iron hand in the shape of a cross. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen. She was big, and blond, I think, since we never got to see the nuns’ hair in those days. But her eyebrows were blonde, and she was supposed to be totally dedicated, like all the other Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, to caring for the Colored and Indian children of america. Caring for was not always caring about. And it always felt like Sister MPH hated either teaching or little children.

She had divided up the class into two groups, the Fairies and the Brownies. In this day of heightened sensitivity to racism and color usage, I don’t have to tell you which were the good students and which were the baddies. I always wound up in the Brownies, because either I talked too much, or I broke my glasses, or I perpetrated some other awful infraction of the endless rules of good behavior.

But for two glorious times that year, I made it into the Fairies for brief periods of time. One was put into the Brownies if one misbehaved, or couldn’t learn to read. I had learned to read already, but I couldn’t tell my numbers. Whenever Sister MPH would call a few of us up to the front of the room for our reading lesson, she would say, “All right, children, now turn to page six in your readers.” or, “Turn to page nineteen, please, and begin at the top of the page.”

Well, I didn’t know what page to turn to, and I was ashamed of not being able to read my numbers, so when my turn came to read I couldn’t, because I didn’t have the right place. After the prompting of a few words, she would go on to the next reader, and soon I wound up in the Brownies.

This was around the second month of school, in October. My new seatmate was Alvin, and he was the worst boy in the whole class. His clothes were dirty and he smelled unwashed, and rumor had it he had once called Sister MPH a bad name, but that couldn’t have been possible because he would have been suspended permanently from school.

Alvin used to browbeat me into lending him my pencil to draw endless pictures of airplanes dropping huge penile bombs. He would always promise to give me the pictures when he was finished. But of course, whenever he was finished, he would decide that the picture was too good for a girl, so he would have to keep it, and make me another. Yet I never stopped hoping for one of them, because he drew airplanes very well.

He also would scratch his head and shake out the dandruff onto our joint spelling book or reader, and then tell me the flakes of dandruff were dead lice. I believed him in this, also, and was constantly terrified of catching cooties. But Alvin and I worked out our own system together for reading. He couldn’t read, but he knew all his numbers, and I could read words, but I couldn’t find the right page.

The Brownies were never called up to the front of the room; we had to read in anonymity from our double seats, where we scrunched over at the edges, ordinarily, to leave room in the middle for our two guardian angels to sit. But whenever we had to share a book our guardian angels had to jump around us and sit on the outside edge of our seats. Therefore, Alvin would show me the right pages to turn to when Sister called them out, and I would whisper the right words to him whenever it came his turn to read. Inside of a week after we devised this scheme of things, we had gotten out of the Brownies together. Since we shared a reader, we always went up together to read with the Fairies, so we had a really good thing going there for a while.

But Alvin began to get sick around Thanksgiving, and was absent a lot, and he didn’t come back to school at all after Christmas. I used to miss his dive-bomber pictures, but most of all I missed his page numbers. After a few times of being called up by myself and not being able to read, I landed back in the Brownies again.

Years later I found out that Alvin had died of tuberculosis over Christmas, and that was why we all had been X-rayed in the auditorium after Mass on the first day back to school from Christmas vacation.

I spent a few more weeks in the Brownies with my mouth almost shut during reading lesson, unless the day’s story fell on page eight, or ten, or twenty, which were the three numbers I knew.

Then, over one weekend, we had our first writing assignment. We were to look in our parents’ newspaper and cut out words we knew the meaning of, and make them into simple sentences. We could only use one “the.” It felt like an easy task, since I was already reading the comics by this time.

On Sunday morning after church, when I usually did my homework, I noticed an ad for White Rose Salada Tea on the back of the New York Times Magazine which my father was reading at the time. It had the most gorgeous white rose on a red background, and I decided I must have that rose for my picture—our sentences were to be illustrated. I searched through the paper until I found an “I,” and then a “like,” which I dutifully clipped out along with my rose, and the words “White,” “Rose,” “Salada,” and “Tea.” I knew the brand-name well because it was my mother’s favorite tea.

On Monday morning, we all stood our sentence papers up on the chalk-channels, leaning them against the blackboards. And there among the twenty odd “The boy ran,” “it was cold,” was “I like White Rose Salada Tea” and my beautiful white rose on a red background.

That was too much coming from a Brownie. Sister Mary of PH frowned.

“This was to be our own work, children,” she said. “Who helped you with your sentence, Audre?” I told her I had done it alone.

“Our guardian angels weep when we don’t tell the truth, Audre. I want a note from your mother tomorrow telling me that you are sorry for lying to the baby Jesus.”

I told the story at home, and the next day I brought a note from my father saying that the sentence had indeed been my own work. Triumphantly, I gathered up my books and moved back over to the Fairies.

The thing that I remember best about being in the first grade was how uncomfortable it was, always having to leave room for my guardian angel on those tiny seats, and moving back and forth across the room from Brownies to Fairies and back again.

This time I stayed in the Fairies for a long time, because I finally started to recognize my numbers. I stayed there until the day I broke my glasses. I had taken them off to clean them in the bathroom and they slipped out of my hand. I was never to do that, and so I was in disgrace. My eyeglasses came from the eye clinic of the medical center, and it took three days to get a new pair made. We could not afford to buy more than one pair at a time, nor did it occur to my parents that such an extravagance might be necessary. I was almost sightless without them, but my punishment for having broken them was that I had to go to school anyway, even though I could see nothing. My sisters delivered me to my classroom with a note from my mother saying I had broken my glasses despite the fact they were tied to me by the strip of elastic.

I was never supposed to take my glasses off except just before getting into bed, but I was endlessly curious about these magical circles of glass that were rapidly becoming a part of me, transforming my universe, and remaining movable. I was always trying to examine them with my naked, nearsighted eyes, usually dropping them in the process.

Since I could not see at all to do any work from the blackboard, Sister Mary of PH made me sit in the back of the room on the window seat with a dunce cap on. She had the rest of the class offer up a prayer for my poor mother who had such a naughty girl who broke her glasses and caused her parents such needless extra expense to replace them. She also had them offer up a special prayer for me to stop being such a wicked-hearted child.

I amused myself by counting the rainbows of color that danced like a halo around the lamp on Sister Mary of PH’s desk, watching the starburst patterns of light that the incandescent light bulb became without my glasses. But I missed them, and not being able to see. I never once gave a thought to the days when I believed that bulbs were starburst patterns of color, because that was what all light looked like to me.

It must have been close to summer by this time. As I sat with the dunce cap on, I can remember the sun pouring through the classroom window hot upon my back, as the rest of the class dutifully entoned their Hail Marys for my soul, and I played secret games with the distorted rainbows of light, until Sister noticed and made me stop blinking my eyes so fast.

How I Became a Poet

“Wherever the bird with no feet flew she found trees with no limbs.”

When the strongest words for what I have to offer come out of me sounding like words I remember from my mother’s mouth, then I either have to reassess the meaning of everything I have to say now, or re-examine the worth of her old words.

My mother had a special and secret relationship with words, taken for granted as language because it was always there. I did not speak until I was four. When I was three, the dazzling world of strange lights and fascinating shapes which I inhabited resolved itself in mundane definitions, and I learned another nature of things as seen through eyeglasses. This perception of things was less colorful and confusing but much more comfortable than the one native to my nearsighted and unevenly focused eyes.

I remember trundling along Lenox Avenue with my mother, on our way to school to pick up Phyllis and Helen for lunch. It was late spring because my legs felt light and real, unencumbered by bulky snowpants. I dawdled along the fence around the public playground, inside of which grew one stunted plane tree. Enthralled, I stared up at the sudden revelation of each single and particular leaf of green, precisely shaped and laced about with unmixed light. Before my glasses, I had known trees as tall brown pillars ending in fat puffy swirls of paling greens, much like the pictures of them I perused in my sisters’ storybooks from which I learned so much of my visual world.

But out of my mother’s mouth a world of comment came cascading when she felt at ease or in her element, full of picaresque constructions and surreal scenes.

We were never dressed too lightly, but rather “in next kin to nothing.” Neck skin to nothing? Impassable and impossible distances were measured by the distance “from Hog to Kick ’em Jenny.” Hog? Kick ’em Jenny? Who knew until I was sane and grown a poet with a mouthful of stars, that these were two little reefs in the Grenadines, between Grenada and Carriacou.

The euphemisms of body were equally puzzling, if no less colorful. A mild reprimand was accompanied not by a slap on the behind, but a “smack on the backass,” or on the “bamsy.” You sat on your “bam-bam,” but anything between your hipbones and upper thighs was consigned to the “lower-region,” a word I always imagined to have french origins, as in “Don’t forget to wash your l’oregión before you go to bed.” For more clinical and precise descriptions, there was always “between your legs”—whispered.

The sensual content of life was masked and cryptic, but attended in well-coded phrases. Somehow all the cousins knew that Uncle Cyril couldn’t lift heavy things because of his “bam-bam-coo,” and the lowered voice in which this hernia was spoken of warned us that it had something to do with “down there.” And on the infrequent but magical occasions when mother performed her delicious laying on of hands for a crick in the neck or a pulled muscle, she didn’t massage your backbone, she “raised your zandalee.”

I never caught cold, but “got co-hum, co-hum,” and then everything turned “cro-bo-so,” topsy-turvy, or at least, a bit askew.

I am a reflection of my mother’s secret poetry as well as of her hidden angers.

Sitting between my mother’s spread legs, her strong knees gripping my shoulders tightly like some well-attended drum, my head in her lap, while she brushed and combed and oiled and braided. I feel my mother’s strong, rough hands all up in my unruly hair, while I’m squirming around on a low stool or on a folded towel on the floor, my rebellious shoulders hunched and jerking against the inexorable sharp-toothed comb. After each springy portion is combed and braided, she pats it tenderly and proceeds to the next.

I hear the interjection of sotto voce admonitions that punctuated whatever discussion she and my father were having.

“Hold your back up, now! Deenie, keep still! Put your head so!” Scratch, scratch. “When last you wash your hair? Look the dandruff!” Scratch, scratch, the comb’s truth setting my own teeth on edge. Yet, these were some of the moments I missed most sorely when our real wars began.

I remember the warm mother smell caught between her legs, and the intimacy of our physical touching nestled inside of the anxiety/pain like a nutmeg nestled inside its covering of mace.

The radio, the scratching comb, the smell of petroleum jelly, the grip of her knees and my stinging scalp all fall into—the rhythms of a litany, the rituals of Black women combing their daughters’ hair.

Saturday morning. The one morning of the week my mother does not leap from bed to prepare me and my sisters for school or church. I wake in the cot in their bedroom, knowing only it is one of those lucky days when she is still in bed, and alone. My father is in the kitchen. The sound of pots and the slightly off-smell of frying bacon mixes with the smell of percolating Bokar coffee.

The click of her wedding ring against the wooden headboard. She is awake. I get up and go over and crawl into my mother’s bed. Her smile. Her glycerine-flannel smell. The warmth. She reclines upon her back and side, one arm extended, the other flung across her forehead. A hot-water bottle wrapped in body-temperature flannel, which she used to quiet her gall-bladder pains during the night. Her large soft breasts beneath the buttoned flannel of her nightgown. Below, the rounded swell of her stomach, silent and inviting touch.

I crawl against her, playing with the enflanneled, warm, rubber bag, pummeling it, tossing it, sliding it down the roundness of her stomach to the warm sheet between the bend of her elbow and the curve of her waist below her breasts, flopping sideward inside the printed cloth. Under the covers, the morning smells soft and sunny and full of promise.

I frolic with the liquid-filled water bottle, patting and rubbing its firm giving softness. I shake it slowly, rocking it back and forth, lost in sudden tenderness, at the same time gently rubbing against my mother’s quiet body. Warm milky smells of morning surround us.

Feeling the smooth deep firmness of her breasts against my shoulders, my pajama’d back, sometimes, more daringly, against my ears and the sides of my cheeks. Tossing, tumbling, the soft gurgle of the water within its rubber casing. Sometimes the thin sound of her ring against the bedstead as she moves her hand up over my head. Her arm comes down across me, holding me to her for a moment, then quiets my frisking.

“All right, now.”

I nuzzle against her sweetness, pretending not to hear.

“All right, now, I said; stop it. It’s time to get up from this bed. Look lively, and mind you spill that water.”

Before I can say anything she is gone in a great deliberate heave. The purposeful whip of her chenille robe over her warm flannel gown and the bed already growing cold beside me.

“Wherever the bird with no feet flew she found trees with no limbs.”


When I was around the age of four or five, I would have given anything I had in the world except my mother, in order to have had a friend or a little sister. She would be someone I could talk to and play with, someone close enough in age to me that I would not have to be afraid of her, nor she of me. We would share our secrets with each other.

Even though I had two older sisters, I grew up feeling like an only child, since they were quite close to each other in age, and quite far away from me. Actually, I grew up feeling like an only planet, or some isolated world in a hostile, or at best, unfriendly, firmament. The fact that I was clothed, sheltered, and fed better than many other children in Harlem in those Depression years was not a fact that impressed itself too often upon my child’s consciousness.

Most of my childhood fantasies revolved around how I might acquire this little female person for my companion. I concentrated upon magical means, having gathered early on that my family had no intention of satisfying this particular need of mine. The Lorde family was not going to expand any more.

The idea of having children was a pretty scary one, anyway, full of secret indiscretions peeked at darkly through the corner of an eye, as my mother and my aunts did whenever they passed a woman on the street who had one of those big, pushed-out-in-front, blouses that always intrigued me so. I wondered what great wrong these women had done, that this big blouse was a badge of, obvious as the dunce cap I sometimes had to wear in the corner at school.

Adoption was also out of the question. You could get a kitten from the corner grocery-store man, but not a sister. Like ocean cruises and boarding schools and upper berths in trains, it was not for us. Rich people, like Mr. Rochester in the movie Jane Eyre, lonely in their great tree-lined estates, adopted children, but not us.

Being the youngest in a West Indian family had many privileges but no rights. And since my mother was determined not to “spoil” me, even those privileges were largely illusory. I knew, therefore, that if my family were to acquire another little person voluntarily, that little person would most probably be a boy, and would most decidedly belong to my mother, and not to me.

I really believed, however, that my magical endeavors, done often enough, in the right way, and in the right places, letter-perfect and with a clean soul, would finally bring me a little sister. And I did mean little. I frequently imagined my little sister and I having fascinating conversations together while she sat cradled in the cupped palm of my hand. There she was, curled up and carefully shielded from the inquisitive eyes of the rest of the world, and my family in particular.

When I was three and a half and had gotten my first eyeglasses, I stopped tripping over my feet. But I still walked with my head down, all the time, counting the lines on the squares in the pavement of every street which I traveled, hanging onto the hand of my mother or one of my sisters. I had decided that if I could step on all the horizontal lines for one day, my little person would appear like a dream made real, waiting for me in my bed by the time I got home. But I always messed up, or skipped one, or someone pulled my arm at a crucial moment. And she never appeared.

Sometimes on Saturdays in winter, my mother made the three of us a little clay out of flour and water and Diamond Crystal Shaker Salt. I always fashioned tiny little figures out of my share of the mixture. I would beg or swipe a little vanilla extract from my mother’s shelf in the kitchen, where she kept her wonderful spices and herbs and extracts, and mix that with the clay. Sometimes I dabbed the figures on either side of the head behind the ears as I had seen my mother do with her glycerine and rosewater when she got dressed to go out.

I loved the way the rich, dark brown vanilla scented the flour-clay; it reminded me of my mother’s hands when she made peanut brittle and eggnog at holidays. But most of all, I loved the live color it would bring to the pasty-white clay.

I knew for sure that real live people came in many different shades of beige and brown and cream and reddish tan, but nobody alive ever came in that pasty-white shade of flour and salt and water, even if they were called white. So the vanilla was essential if my little person was to be real. But the coloring didn’t help either. No matter how many intricate rituals and incantations and spells I performed, no matter how many Hail Marys and Our Fathers I said, no matter what I promised god in return, the vanilla-tinted clay would slowly shrivel up and harden, turn gradually brittle and sour, and then crumble into a grainy flour dust. No matter how hard I prayed or schemed, the figures would never come alive. They never turned around in the cupped palm of my hand, to smile up at me and say “Hi.”

I found my first playmate when I was around four years old. It lasted for about ten minutes.

It was a high winter noontime. My mother had bundled me up in my thick one-piece woolen snowsuit and cap and bulky scarf. Once she had inserted me into all this arctic gear, pulled rubber galoshes up over my shoes and wrapped yet another thick scarf around the whole as if to keep the mass intact, she planted me out upon the stoop of the apartment building while she dressed herself hurriedly. Although my mother never liked to have me out of her sight for any period of time, she did this to keep me from catching my death of cold from becoming overheated and then going outdoors.

After many weighty warnings to me not to move from that spot, dire descriptions of what would happen to me if I did, and how I was to yell if any strangers spoke to me, my mother disappeared down the few feet of hallway back to our apartment to get her coat and hat, and to check all the windows of the house to make sure that they were locked.

I loved these few minutes of freedom, and treasured them secretly. They were the only times I ever got to be outside without my mother urging me along on my short stubby little legs that could never run fast enough to keep up with her purposeful strides. I sat quietly where she had put me on the slated top of the stone banisters of the stoop. My arms stuck out a little from my sides over the bulk of my clothing, my feet were heavy and awkward with sturdy shoes and galoshes, and my neck was stiffly encased in the woolen cap and wrapped scarf.

The sun shone with a winter milkiness onto the sidewalks across the street, and onto the few banks of dirty soot-covered snow that lined the sidewalks near the gutter’s edge. I could see up to the corner of Lenox Avenue, about three houses away. At the corner near the building line, the Father Divine man ran his Peace Brother Peace shoe repair business from a ramshackled wooden kiosk heated by a small round stove. From the roof of the kiosk, a thin strand of smoke drifted upward. The smoke was the only sign of life and there was nobody on the street that I could see. I wished the street was warm and beautiful and busy, and that we were having cantaloupe for lunch instead of the hot homemade pea soup that was simmering on the back of the stove awaiting our return.

I had almost made a boat of newspaper just before I had to start being dressed to go out, and I wondered if my bits of newspaper would still be on the kitchen table when we got back, or was my mother even now sweeping them away into the garbage bag? Would I be able to rescue them before lunch or would there be nasty wet orange-peelings and coffee grounds all over them?

Suddenly I realized that there was a little creature standing on a step in the entryway of the main doors, looking at me with bright eyes and a big smile. It was a little girl. She was right away the most beautiful little girl I had ever seen alive in my life.

My lifelong dream of a doll-baby come to life had in fact come true. Here she stood before me now, smiling and pretty in an unbelievable wine-red velvet coat with a wide, wide skirt that flared out over dainty little lisle-stockinged legs. Her feet were clad in a pair of totally impractical, black patent-leather mary-jane shoes, whose silver buckles glinted merrily in the drab noon light.

Her reddish-brown hair was not braided in four plaits like mine, but framed her little pointy-chinned face, tight and curly. On her head sat a wine-colored velvet beret that matched her coat, and on the very top of that sat a big white fur pompom.

Even with decades of fashion between us now, and the dulling of time, it was the most beautiful outfit I had ever seen in my not quite five years of clothes-watching.

Her honey-brown skin had a ruddy glow that echoed the tones of her hair, and her eyes seemed to match both in a funny way that reminded me of my mother’s eyes, the way, although light in themselves, they flashed alight in the sun.

I had no idea how old she was.

“What’s your name? Mine’s Toni.”

The name called up a picture book I was just finished reading, and the image came out boy. But this delectable creature in front of me was most certainly a girl, and I wanted her for my very own—my very own what, I did not know—but for my very own self. I started to image in my head where I could keep her. Maybe I could tuck her up in the folds under my pillow, pet her during the night when everybody else was asleep, and I was fighting off nightmares of the devil riding me. Of course, I’d have to be careful that she didn’t get squeezed into the cot in the morning, when my mother folded up my bed, covered it with an old piece of flowered cretonne bedspread and shoved the whole thing tidily into a corner behind the bedroom door. No, that certainly wouldn’t work. My mother would most assuredly find her when, in my mother’s way, she plumped up my pillows.

While I was trying to image a safe place to keep her by a rapid succession of pictures in my mind’s eye, Toni had advanced towards me, and was now standing between my outspread snowsuited legs, her dark-bright fire-lit eyes on a level with my own. With my woolen mittens dangling down from cords which emerged from the cuffs at each of my wrists, I reached out my hands and lightly rubbed the soft velvet shoulders of her frock-coat up and down.

From around her neck hung a fluffy white fur muff that matched the white fur ball on the top of her hat. I touched her muff, too, and then raised my hand up to feel the fur pompom. The soft silky warmth of the fur made my fingers tingle in a way that the cold had not, and I pinched and fingered it until Toni finally shook her head free of my hand.

I began to finger the small shiny gold buttons on the front of her coat. I unbuttoned the first two of them at the top, just so I could button them back up again, pretending I was her mother.

“You cold?” I was looking at her pink and beige ears, now slowly turning rosy from the cold. From each delicate lobe hung a tiny gold loop.

“No,” she said, moving even closer between my knees. “Let’s play.”

I stuck both of my hands into the holes of her furry muff, and she giggled delightedly as my cold fingers closed around her warm ones inside the quilted dark spaces of the fur. She pulled one hand out past mine and opened it in front of my face to reveal two peppermint lifesavers, sticky now from the heat of her palm. “Want one?”

I took one hand out of her muff, and never taking my eyes off her face, popped one of the striped candy rings into my mouth. My mouth was dry. I closed it around the candy and sucked, feeling the peppermint juice run down my throat, burning and sweet almost to the point of harshness. For years and years afterward, I always thought of peppermint lifesavers as the candy in Toni’s muff.

She was beginning to get impatient. “Play with me, please?” Toni took a step backward, smiling, and I was terrified suddenly that she might disappear or run away, and the sunlight would surely vanish with her from 142nd Street. My mother had warned me not to move from that spot where she had planted me. But there was no question in my mind; I could not bear to lose Toni.

I reached out and pulled her back gently towards me, sitting her down crosswise upon my knees. She felt so light through the padding of my snowsuit that I thought she could blow away and I would not feel the difference between her being there and not being there.

I put my arms around her soft red velvet coat, and clasping my two hands together, I slowly rocked her back and forth the way I did with my sisters’ big Coca-Cola doll that had eyes that opened and closed and that came down from the closet shelf every year around Christmas time. Our old cat Minnie the Moocher did not feel much lighter sitting on my lap.

She turned her face around to me with another one of her delighted laughs that sounded like the ice cubes in my father’s nightly drink. I could feel the creeping warmth of her, slowly spreading all along the front of my body through the many layers of clothing, and as she turned her head to speak to me the damp warmth of her breath fogged up my spectacles a little in the crisp winter air.

I started to sweat inside my snowsuit as I usually did, despite the cold. I wanted to take off her coat and see what she had on underneath it. I wanted to take off all of her clothes, and touch her live little brown body and make sure she was real. My heart was bursting with a love and happiness for which I had no words. I unbuttoned the top buttons of her coat again.

“No, don’t do that! My grandma won’t like it. You can rock me some more.” She cuddled down again into my arms.

I put my arms back around her shoulders. Was she really a little girl or a doll come alive? There was only one way I knew for sure of telling. I turned her over and put her across my knees. The light seemed to change around us on the stoop. I looked over once at the doorway leading into the hall, half-afraid of who might be standing there.

I raised up the back of Toni’s wine-red velvet coat, and the many folds of her full-skirted green eyelet dress underneath. I lifted up the petticoats under that, until I could see her white cotton knickers, each leg of which ended in an embroidered gathering right above the elastic garters that held up her stockings.

Beads of sweat were running down my chest to be caught at my waist by the tight band of my snowsuit. Ordinarily I hated sweating inside my snowsuit because it felt like roaches were crawling down the front of me.

Toni laughed again and said something that I could not hear. She squirmed around comfortably on my knees and turned her head, her sweet face looking sideways up into mine.

“Grandma forgot my leggings at my house.”

I reached up under the welter of dress and petticoats and took hold of the waistband of her knickers. Was her bottom going to be real and warm or turn out to be hard rubber, molded into a little crease like the ultimately disappointing Coca-Cola doll?

My hands were shaking with excitement. I hesitated a moment too long. As I was about to pull down Toni’s panties I heard the main door open and out of the front hallway hurried my mother, adjusting the brim of her hat as she stepped out onto the stoop.

I felt caught in the middle of an embarrassing and terrible act from which there could be no hiding. Frozen, I sat motionless as Toni, looking up and seeing my mother, slid nonchalantly off my lap, smoothing down her skirts as she did so.

My mother stepped over to the two of us. I flinched, expecting instant retribution at her capable hands. But evidently the enormity of my intentions had escaped my mother’s notice. Perhaps she did not care that I was about to usurp that secret prerogative belonging only to mothers about to spank, or to nurses with thermometers.

Taking me by the elbow, my mother pulled me awkwardly to my feet.

I stood for a moment like a wool-encased snow-girl, my arms stuck out a little from my body and my legs spread slightly apart. Ignoring Toni, my mother started down the steps to the street. “Hurry now,” she said, “you don’t want to be late.”

I looked back over my shoulder. The bright-eyed vision in the wine-red coat stood at the top of the stoop, and pulled one hand out of her white rabbit-fur muff.

“You want the other candy?” she called. I shook my head frantically. We were never supposed to take candy from anybody and certainly not strangers.

My mother urged me on down the steps. “Watch where you’re stepping, now.”

“Can you come out and play tomorrow?” Toni called after me.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow. My mother was already one step below, and her firm hand on my elbow kept me from falling as I almost missed a step. Maybe tomorrow…

Once on the street pavement, my mother resumed hold of my hand and sailed forth determinedly. My short legs in their bulky wrappings and galoshes chugged along, trying to keep up with her. Even when she was not in a hurry, my mother walked with a long and purposeful stride, her toes always pointed slightly outward in a ladylike fashion.

“You can’t tarry, now,” she said. “You know it’s almost noon.” Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

“What a shame, to let such a skinny little thing like that out in this weather with no snowsuit or a stitch of leggings on her legs. That’s how among-you children catch your death of cold.”

So I hadn’t dreamed her. She had seen Toni too. (What kind of name anyway was that for a girl?) Maybe tomorrow…

“Can I have a red coat like hers, Mommy?”

My mother looked down at me as we stood waiting for the street light to change.

“How many times I tell you not to call me Mommy on the street?” The light changed, and we hurried forward.

I thought about my question very carefully as I scurried along, wanting to get it exactly right this time. Finally, I had it.

“Will you buy me a red coat, please, Mother?” I kept my eyes on the treacherous ground to avoid tripping over my galoshed feet, and the words must have been muffled or lost in the scarf around my neck. In any case, my mother hurried on in silence, apparently not hearing. Tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow.

We had our split-pea soup, and hurriedly retraced our steps back to my sisters’ school. But that day, my mother and I did not return directly home. Crossing over to the other side of Lenox Avenue, we caught the Number 4 bus down to 125th Street, where we went marketing at Weissbecker’s for the weekend chicken.

My heart sank into hopelessness as I stood waiting, kicking my feet in the sawdust that covered the market’s floor. I should have known. I had wanted too much for her to be real. I had wanted to see her again too much for it to ever happen.

The market was too warm. My sweaty skin itched in places I couldn’t possibly scratch. If we were marketing today, that meant tomorrow would turn out to be Saturday. My sisters did not go to school on Saturday, which meant we couldn’t go pick them up for lunch, which meant I would spend all day in the house because my mother had to clean and cook and we were never allowed out alone to play on the stoop.

The weekend was an eternity past which I could not see.

The following Monday I waited again on the stoop. I sat by myself, bundled up as usual, and nobody came except my mother.

I don’t know how long I looked for Toni every day at noontime, sitting on the stoop. Eventually, her image receded into that place from which all my dreams are made.


Until this day, the essence of sorrow and sadness like a Picasso painting still-lifed and forever living, is the forlorn and remembered sight of a discarded silk stocking brick-caught and hanging against the rain-windy side of the tenement building wall opposite our kitchen window from which I hung, suspended by one hand, screaming at my elder sister who had been left in charge of the three of us while my mother went out marketing.

What our interactions had been before is lost, but my mother came home just in time to pull me back inside the dark kitchen, saving me from a one-story drop into the air shaft below. I don’t remember the terror and fury, but I remember the whipping that both my sister and I got. More than that, I remember the sadness and the deprivation and the loneliness of that discarded, torn, and brick-caught silk stocking, broken and hanging against the wall in the tenement rain.

I was always very jealous of my two older sisters, because they were older and therefore more privileged, and because they had each other for a friend. They could talk to one another without censure or punishment, or so I thought.

As far as I was concerned, Phyllis and Helen led a magical and charmed existence down the hall in their room. It was tiny but complete, with privacy and a place to be away from the eternal parental eye which was my lot, having only the public parts of the house to play in. I was never alone, nor far from my mother’s watchful eye. The bathroom door was the only door in the house that I was ever allowed to close behind me, and even that would be opened with an inquiry if I tarried too long on the toilet.

The first time I ever slept anywhere else besides in my parents’ bedroom was a milestone in my journey to this house of myself. When I was four and five, my family went to the Connecticut shore for a week’s vacation during the summer. This was much grander than a day’s outing to Rockaway Beach or Coney Island, and much more exciting.

First of all, we got to sleep in a house that was not ours, and Daddy was with us during the day. Then there were strange new foods to sample, like blue soft-shelled crab, which my father ordered for his lunch and would sometimes persuade my mother to let me have a taste of. We children were not allowed such alien fare, but on Fridays we did have fried shrimp and little batter cakes with pieces of clam in them. They were good, and very different from my mother’s codfish-and-potato fishcakes which were our favorite Friday dinner back home.

A shimmering glare of silver coats every beach in my mind’s eye. Glistening childhood summers that sparkled like the thick glass spectacles I could not wear because of the dilating drops in my eyes.

The dilating drops were used by the Medical Center eye doctors to examine the progress of my eyes, and since the effects seem to have lasted for weeks, my memories of those early summers are of constantly squinting against the piercing agony of direct sunlight, while stumbling over objects that I could not see, since everything was dazzled by light.

The crabshells in the sand were distinguished from the clamshells, not by shape, but by the different feel of them beneath my brown toes. Delicate crabshells crumpled up like glasspaper around my heels, while the tough little clamshells crunched a hard and sturdy sound from under the balls of my fat little feet.

An old beached boat, abandoned on its side, lay in the sand above high tide down the beach a little from the hotel, and there my mother sat, day after day, in her light cotton dresses. Her ankles were properly crossed and her arms folded as she watched my two sisters and I play at the water’s edge. Her eyes would be very soft and peaceful as she gazed over the water, and I knew she was thinking of “home.”

Once my daddy picked me up and carried me into the water, as I squealed with delight and fear at being so high up. He dropped me into the ocean, holding onto my arms, and I remember, as he raised me up, screaming in outrage at the burning taste of saltwater in my nostrils that made me want to fight or cry.

The first year there I slept in a cot in my parents’ room, as usual, and I always went to bed before anyone else. Just as at home, the watery colors of twilight came in to terrify me, shining greenly through the buff-colored window-shades which were like closed eyes above my bed. I hated the twilight color and going to bed early, far from the comfortingly familiar voices of my parents, downstairs on the porch of this hotel which belonged to my father’s real-estate buddy who was giving us a good deal for the week.

Those yellow-green window-shade twilights were the color of loneliness for me, and that has never left me. Everything else about that first summer week in Connecticut is lost to me, except the two photographs which show me, as usual, discontent and squinting up against the sun.

The second year we were even poorer, or maybe my father’s real-estate friend had raised his prices. For whatever reason, the five of us shared one bedroom, and there was no space for an extra cot. The room had three windows in it, and two double beds that sagged ever so slightly in the middle of their white chenille-spread-covered expanses. My sisters and I shared one of these beds.

I was still put to bed earlier than my sisters, who were allowed to stay up and listen to “I Love a Mystery” on the old upright cabinet radio that sat in the living room downstairs near the porch window. Its soft tones would drift out across the porch to the cretonne-covered rocking chairs lined up in a row in the soft-salty back-street shore-resort night.

I didn’t mind the twilights so much that year. We had a back room and it got darker earlier, so it was always night by the time I went to bed. Unterrified by the twilight green, I had no trouble at all falling asleep.

My mother supervised the brushing of my teeth, and the saying of my prayers, and then after assuring herself that all was in order, she kissed me goodnight, and turned out the dim, unshaded bulb.

The door closed. I lay awake, rigid with excitement, waiting for “I Love a Mystery” to be over, and for my sisters to come and get into bed beside me. I made bargains with god to keep me awake. I bit my lips and pinched the soft fleshy parts of my palms with my fingernails, all to keep myself from falling asleep.

After an eternity of about thirty minutes, during which I reviewed the entire contents of my day, including what I should and shouldn’t have done that I didn’t or did do, I heard my sisters’ footsteps in the hallway. The door to our room opened and they stepped into the darkness.

“Hey, Audre. You still wake?” That was Helen, four years older than me and the closest to me in age.

I was torn with indecision. What should I do? If I didn’t answer, she might tickle my toes, and if I did answer, what should I say?

“Say, you wake?”

“No,” I whispered in a squeaky little voice I thought consistent with a sleeping state.

“Sure enough, see, she still wake.” I heard Helen’s disgusted whisper to Phyllis, followed by the sharp intake of her breath as she sucked her teeth. “Look, her eyes wide open still.”

The bed creaked on one side of me. “What you still doin’ up, staring like a ninny? On the way in, you know, I told the boogieman come bite your head off, and he comin’ just now to get you good.”

I felt the bed sag under the weight of both of their bodies, one on either side of me. My mother had decreed that I should sleep in the middle, to keep me from falling out of bed, as well as to separate my two sisters. I was so enchanted with the idea of sharing a bed with them that I couldn’t have cared less. Helen reached over and gave me a little preliminary pinch.

“Ouch!” I rubbed my tender upper arm, now sore from her strong little piano-trained fingers. “Oh, I’m goin’ to tell Mommy how you pinching me and you goin’ to get a whipping sure enough.” And then, triumphantly, I played my hole card. “And too besides, I’m goin’ to tell her what among-you doing in bed every night!”

“Go ahead, ninny, run your mouth. You goin’ to run it once too often ’til it drop off your face and then just see how it’s goin’ to gobble up you toes!” Helen sucked her teeth again, but moved her hand away.

“Oh, just go to sleep now, Audre.” That was Phyllis, my eldest sister, who was always the peacemaker, the placid, reasonable, removed one. But I knew perfectly well what I had pinched my palms to stay awake for, and I was waiting, barely able to contain myself.

For that summer, in that hot back room of a resort slum, I had finally found out what my sisters did at home at night in that little room they shared at the end of the hall, that enticing little room which I was never allowed to enter except by an invitation that never came.

They told each other stories. They told each other stories in endless installments, making up the episodes as they went along, from fantasies engendered by the radio adventure shows to which we were all addicted in those days.

There was “Buck Rogers,” and “I Love a Mystery,” “Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy,” “The Green Hornet,” and “Quiet Please.” There was “The FBI in Peace and War,” “Mr. District Attorney,” “The Lone Ranger,” and my all-time favorite, “The Shadow,” whose power to cloud men’s minds so they could not see him was something I did not stop lusting for until quite recently.

I thought that the very idea of telling stories and not getting whipped for telling untrue was the most marvelous thing I could think of, and every night that week I begged to be allowed to listen, not realizing that they couldn’t stop me. Phyllis didn’t mind so long as I kept my mouth shut, but by bedtime Helen had had enough of a pesky little sister and my endless stream of questions. And her stories were always far and away the best, filled with tough little girls who masqueraded in boys’ clothing and always foiled the criminals, managing to save the day. Phyllis’s hero was a sweet strong boy of few words named George Vaginius.

“Please, Phyllis?” I wheedled. There was a long moment of quiet, with Helen sucking her teeth ominously, then Phyllis, whispering, “All right. Who’ turn it is tonight?”

“I’m not saying a word ’til she asleep!” That was Helen, determined.

“Please Phyllis, please let me listen?”

“No! No such thing!” Helen was adamant. “I know you too well in the dark to have to shine a light on you!”

“Please, Phyllis, I promise I be quiet.” I could feel Helen swelling up beside me like a bullfrog, but I persisted, not realizing or caring that my appeal to Phyllis’s authority as the elder sister only infuriated Helen even more.

Phyllis was not only softhearted, but very practical, with the pragmatic approach of an eleven-year-old West Indian woman.

“Now you promise you never goin’ to tell?”

I felt like I was being inducted into the most secret of societies.

“Cross my heart.” Catholic girls never hoped to die.

Helen was obviously not convinced. I stifled a squeak as she nipped me again with her fingers, this time on the thigh.

“I’m getting tired of all this, you know. So if you ever so much as breathe a word about my stories, Sandman’s comin’ after you the very same minute to pluck out you eyes like a mackerel for soup.” And Helen smacked her lips suggestively, giving way with a parting shot.

I could just see those little white rubbery eyeballs swimming about in the bottom of the Friday night fish stew, and I shuddered.

“I promise, Helen, cross my heart. I don’t say a word to nobody, and I’ll be so quiet, you’ll see.” I put both of my hands up across my mouth in the darkness, jittering with anticipation.

It was Helen’s turn to begin.

“Where were we, now? Oh yes, so me and Buck had just fetched back the sky-horse when Doc…”

I could not resist. Down came my hands.

“No, no, Helen, not yet. Don’t you remember? Doc hadn’t gotten there yet, because…” I didn’t want to miss a single thing.

Helen’s little brown fingers shot across the bedclothes and gave me such a nip on the buttocks that I screeched in pain. Her voice was high and indignant and full of helpless fury.

“You see that? You see that? What I tell you, Phyllis?” She was almost wailing in fury. “I knew it! She can’t keep that miserable tongue in she mouth one minute. Sure enough, I told you so, didn’t I? Didn’t I? And now too besides she want to steal me story!”

“Sh-h-h-h! The two-a-you! Mommy’s comin’ back here just now, and among-you two goin’ to make us all catch hell!”

But Helen wasn’t going to play any more. I felt her flop over on her side with her disgruntled back towards me, and then I could feel our bed shaking with her angry sobs of rage, muffled in the sweaty pillow.

I could have kicked myself. “I truly sorry, Helen,” I ventured. And I really was, because I realized that my big mouth had done me out of a night’s installment, and probably of all the installments for the rest of the week. I also knew that Mother would never let me out of her sight the next day long enough for me to catch up to my sisters, as they ran off down the beach to complete their tale in secret.

“Honest, I didn’t mean to, Helen.” I tried one last time, reaching over to touch her. But Helen jerked her body sharply backward and her butt caught me in the stomach. I heard her still outraged warning hissed through clenched teeth.

“And don’t you dare pat me!” I had been on the receiving end of her fingers often enough to know when to leave well enough alone.

So I turned over on my stomach, said goodnight to Phyllis, and finally went to sleep, too.

The next morning, I woke up before either Phyllis or Helen. I lay in the middle of the bed, being careful not to touch either one of them. Staring up at the ceiling, I listened to my father snoring, in the next bed, and to the sound of my mother’s wedding ring hitting the headboard in her sleep, as she flung her arm across her eyes against the morning light. I relished the quiet, the new smells of strange bedclothes and sea-salty air, and the frank beams of yellow sunlight pouring through the high windows like a promise of endless day.

Right then and there, before anybody else woke up, I decided to make up a story of my own.


In the Harlem summers of my earliest days, I walked between my two sisters while they plotted the overthrow of universes, in the casual make-believe language of comic books. For those comic books, the other reigning and possessive passion of our summer days besides the library, we walked for miles uphill. With determination and great resolve, we trudged up Sugar Hill, 145th Street from Lenox to Amsterdam, to trade in old comic books at the used comic-book store up on Amsterdam Avenue in Washington Heights, which was an all-white section of town then, in those days before the war, and which is where my mother now lives.

The store was run by a fat white man with watery eyes and a stomach that hung over his belt like badly made jello. He tore the covers off the leftover comic books and sold the books at half-price, or exchanged them for other old comics in good condition, one for two. There were rows and rows and rows of table bins with garish, frontless comics in them, and as soon as my sisters took off down one of the rows for their favorites, Buck Rogers and Captain Marvel, I started searching for pictures of Bugs Bunny. The old man followed me down the aisle, puffing his evil cigar.

I tried to run back to my sisters, but it was too late. His bulk took up the whole row, and I was painfully aware that I was not supposed to have left their sides, anyway.

“Lemme help you up, sweetheart, you can see better.” And I felt his slabby fingers like sausages grab my ribs and hoist me through a sickening arc of cigar fumes to the edge of the bins full of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig comics. I seized whichever was nearest and squirmed to be put down, frantic for the feeling of the floor under my feet once more, and sickened by the squishy touch of his soft belly against the small of my back.

His nasty fingers moved furtively up and down my body, now trapped between his pressing bulges and the rim of the bin. By the time he loosened his grip and allowed me to slide down to the blessed floor, I felt dirtied and afraid, as if I had just taken part in some filthy rite.

I soon learned I could avoid him by staying close to my sisters. If I ran out the other end of the row he would not follow, but then when my sisters finally tallied up their transactions, there would be no extra one tossed in, “for the little sweetheart.” The slabby fingers and the nauseating hoist were the price I paid for a torn and faceless copy of an old Bugs Bunny comic. For years I had nightmares of being hoisted up to the ceiling and having no way of getting down again.

It was a day’s journey up the hill for us, three little brown girls, one not even yet able to read. But it was a summer outing, and better than sitting at home until our mother came back from the office or from marketing. We were never allowed to go out and simply play in the street. It was a day’s journey there and back again, across the two flat crosstown blocks to Eighth Avenue where the Father Divine shoe repair booth stood, and then up the endless hills, block after crosstown block.

Sometimes, when my mother announced to my father after dinner our planned journey the next day, they would slip into patois for a brief consultation. By searching their faces carefully, I could tell they were discussing whether or not they could afford to spare the few cents necessary to finance the expedition.

At other times, we were commissioned by our father to drop off his shoes at the Father Divine booth to be half-soled. That would also include a shoeshine, an allowable extravagance because it only cost three cents and a Peace, Brother, Peace salutation.

Right after breakfast was cleared away, my mother left to go down to the office and we walked with her as far as the corner. Then the three of us turned left to 145th Street, past the Lido Bowling Palace, a few bars and some indeterminate candy-grocery stores whose largest turnover was in little white slips with numbers scrawled upon them.

Three plump little Black girls, dimpled knees scrubbed and oiled to a shine, hair tightly braided and tied with threads. Our seersucker sunsuits, mother-made, were not yet an embarrassment to my budding older sister.

We trudged up the hill past the Stardust Lounge, Micky’s Hair-Styling—Hot and Cold Press, the Harlem Bop Lounge, the Dream Café, the Freedom Barber Shop, and the Optimo Cigar Store which seemed to decorate every important street corner of those years. There was the Aunt May Eat Shoppe, and Sadie’s Ladies and Children’s Wear. There was Lum’s Chop Suey Bar, and the Shiloh Baptist Mission Church painted white with colored storefront windows, the Record Store with its big radio chained outside setting a beat to the warming morning sidewalk. And on the corner of Seventh Avenue as we waited for the green light arm in arm, the yeasty and suggestively mysterious smell issuing from the cool dark beyond the swinging half-doors of the Noon Saloon.

We started up the hill, which was really six hills. Standing up at the bottom on Eighth Avenue and looking upward in the bright sunlight seemed like forever. Vertical trolley tracks dissected the hills. The sidewalks were ribbons of pavement and people. Halfway up the hill on the right side, between Bradhurst and Edgecombe Avenues, was the broad expanse of tufted green, surrounded by a high wrought-iron fence, that was Colonial Park. It was not a public park, or at least it was not free. Since we never had the ten cents admission price, we had never been inside.

My arm was sore from being pulled along, but that was the price I had to pay if I dared fall behind. Just as taking me along was the price my literate, comic-book-reading sisters had to pay if they wanted to go out at all. I was always much too out of breath to complain.

We crossed over the busy thoroughfare of 145th Street, all holding hands. We paused halfway up the hills at Bradhurst, to press our faces against the wrought-iron bars around Colonial Park. I could barely hear the splashing of cool bright water and the liquid laughter rising up from the half-hidden private swimming pool. But even those faint sounds of coolness drifted greenly toward our dry mouths. By that time it seemed as if we had been walking forever. The sun beat down without mercy straight out of the sky over Colonial Park. There was no shade anywhere. But beside the park, the air was somewhat cooler. We hung around for a while even though there were no benches outside. The busy life of the Harlem thoroughfare swept along past us.

Despite Mother’s cautionings not to tarry, we lingered near the green pool’s fresh smell. The bags of comic books were jealously guarded in the hands of each of my sisters, and in my sweaty hands I clutched a bag of saltines and three banan