Transmuting the “immutable givens” of childhood through the alchemical power of purposeful memoir

Mainstream communication does not want women, particularly white women, responding to racism. It wants racism to be accepted as an immutable given in the fabric of your existence, like evening-time or the common cold. Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger”

For many years now, I have been reading and re-reading, alone and with students, this powerful essay on “the uses of anger” by African American writer Audre Lorde, published in her essential collection of essays, Sister Outsider

The quote above has always struck me as especially important; it is Lorde’s poetic way of describing, avant la lettre, what we now call “structural racism”—the kind we are conditioned, by “mainstream communication” not to see, much less respond to. 

In my 2020-21 online memoir workshop series, “Purposeful Memoir as a Path to a Thriving Future,” we will be looking at our life stories through many different lenses, none of them “mainstream.” 

In the first session, on August 30, we’ll look at the childhood years, probing the people, places and events that loom large in your early memories, asking a question you won’t often find raised in memoir classes: What were you conditioned as a child “to accept as an immutable given in the fabric of your existence”? 

Asking this question reveals the often unspoken social compacts that we were conditioned, as children, to understand as normal—so ordinary and conventional that we absorbed them without question. 

Now, as adults in these difficult early years of the 21st century, I believe it is essential for us to explore our early social conditioning, in order to better understand how we became active partners in co-creating the reality we are all living now. 

Only through arriving at this understanding of our past can we fully comprehend our freedom in the present to choose what we want to bring with us into the future, and what we prefer to leave behind. 

A story from my own childhood may illustrate this. 

In fourth grade, my best friends were Daphne and Louise, the two glamorous, talented African American girls in my class.  We used to run around the playground together at recess, laughing and skipping and playing hopscotch in the corner.  Daphne was the best double-dutch jump roper I had ever seen—her feet flew as Louise and I turned the ropes ever faster, until finally she tripped and tangled, bent over laughing, out of breath and joyous.  

They both came to my ninth birthday party—the only kid-focused birthday party I had as a child—and we played pin the tail on the donkey and ate a big chocolate cake.  But my mother, who usually was accommodating and generous with her time, absolutely refused to consider letting me go to Daphne’s birthday party when I was invited the following spring.  As soon as she saw the address on the invitation—an apartment building on Fifth Avenue north of 96th Street—the conversation was closed.  I protested, looking at the invitation—Daphne’s house was on Fifth Avenue!  Wasn’t that a nice neighborhood?  The Fifth Avenue I knew, near the Metropolitan Museum, was every bit as clean and safe as our own Park Avenue.  The answer continued to be a flat no, without any explanation that satisfied me.  I was downcast, knowing Daphne would take it as an insult that I didn’t show up.  

The next year, Daphne and Louise mysteriously disappeared from my class at P.S.6., the IGT (“intellectually gifted and talented”) class. In fact, they disappeared from the school altogether. I missed them and wished I had some way to get in touch, to find out what had happened. Had they moved? Not until many years later did I realize that they must have been part of the integration-by-bussing program in the P.S. 6 school district. By the time we reached sixth grade, the class was 100% white. I never saw Daphne or Louise again. 

As a child, I had no idea about the bussing that half-heartedly tried to integrate the NYC schools around 1970, when I was in 4th grade, and I did not understand why my mother was afraid to set foot in Harlem. But I was conditioned to accept the whiteness of my public school class, and the whiteness of my Upper East Side neighborhood; not only to see it as “normal,” but not even to see it at all, by the time I was moving out of childhood into my teen years. It was, to use Lorde’s memorable phrase, “like evening-time or the common cold,” just an unremarkable part of life. 

Now, looking back, I can see in my personal story how I was impoverished by the loss of my friends Daphne and Louise; and how, writ large, our society was frayed and damaged by the structural racism that briefly brought us together and then segregated us again. 

The personal is political, Audre Lorde knew, and brilliantly illustrated in her own memoir,  Zami: A New Spelling of my Name. And it is planetary, too, as she makes clear in the final lines of her essay “The Uses of Anger,” drawing a distinction between anger that wounds and destroys, versus productive anger can change the world for the better. 

Purposeful memoir seeks to recover the wisdom that lies embedded, often unrecognized, in our memories of the past. By reanimating the joys and tenderly transmuting the sorrows we have lived through, we will be able to move more powerfully and surely into the thriving future we can co-create with kindred spirits on our path. 

Today I salute Daphne and Louise, wherever they may be, in gratitude for the joy they brought to the forbidding asphalt playground of P.S. 6 some 50 years ago.  May the friendship that we briefly enjoyed as children blossom more broadly across the still-segregated landscapes of the Americas. May I play some small role in helping this more open, loving reality manifest in our world. 

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1 Comment

  1. Audrey Kalman

    This is such a heartbreaking story, and all the more for the many times it has no doubt been repeated in other cities and other schools. But, as with so many deeply wounding experiences from our childhoods, returning to it with intention, and held in a safe space, can be so healing. I feel the country may be on the brink of such a collective healing, if we can only make our shared spaces welcoming and safe enough.

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