Audre Lorde’s School Days

Audre Lorde (1924–92) was an African-American poet and professor of English at the City University of New York. She was born in Harlem, New York, during the Depression. The following extract is taken from her autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). Lorde describes the pedagogical game her teacher played in her attempts to teach Lorde how to write:

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 … 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 about seven or eight of us little black children in a big classroom, all with various serious deficiencies of sight …

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 … [H]aving 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 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 walls and get your backass beaten, or color around the edges of pictures, but not to write. To write, you needed a pencil. ‘I can’t,’ I said, terrified, and started to cry.

… I took her nasty old smudgy crayon and pretended it was a nice neat pencil with a fine point … I bent my head down close to the desk … 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 the page something like this:


Lorde, Audre. 1982. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – A Biomythography. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press. || Amazon || WorldCat