Audre Lorde: Taboo

24 February 2018

My parents never discussed color, really, in our house—or, to be exact, they never discussed race. But we knew it was important. My mother would tell us that we must never trust white people, but not why. While we were growing up in Harlem, our contacts were with other black people. White was that thing out there that you never trusted, though of course white nuns and the priests, again, were supposed to be special. They were supposed to believe in God. I knew they weren’t special but my mother warned me that Sister So-and-So and Father So-and-So were different from other white people—somehow immune from the racist disease. So there were all these double messages, and what was clear was that everybody lies and nobody will tell you the truth. You have to listen and you have to look because no one is going to tell you.

In 1947 or so when I was thirteen, I went to Washington with my family as a graduation present. There were my father and my mother and the three of us. Washington was still segregated. My father had a huge sense of history. He would bring us American Heritage books and talk to us all of the time about our history, our country, Washington, the Capitol and the Supreme Court. The Sunday we arrived we went to look at the Federal buildings, and afterward, as a special treat my father took us to an ice cream parlor across the street from the Supreme Court. We walked in and sat down at the counter (because it wouldn’t cost as much as if you sat in a booth), and the waiter came over and said in a whisper, “I can’t serve you here but I can give it to you to take out.” Right? And there we sat as if we had never been black before. That is something I will never forget. Never. I was outraged. Because nobody had told me. I went home and on my father’s typewriter I typed an impassioned plea for justice filled with every cliché you can imagine. But this terrible thing had happened, and I wondered why no one got upset about it. My father had never gotten upset, never gotten embarrassed. This is what I thought: “You’ve been telling me all these wonderful things about American history, and we can’t be served in that store.” It made a profound impression. It was my first great betrayal. And the sense of outrage never leaves.
Audre Lorde, interviewed by Nina Winter, 1976

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