June 6, 2011 § 8 Comments
JUST LIKE FAMILY is a blog about African American women who raised white children in mid- to late-20th century—giving voice to a history and experience not often acknowledged in this country. This cultural fusion of black and white and the intimacy it suggests has undeniably shaped the lives of many in this country in complex ways that I think need to be explored. But how do we bear witness to such complexity from different points of view? With reader input and my own postings, we will form a purpose toward inclusiveness and healing that I hope will be enriched through our exploration.
December 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
This video segment features Katherine Robertson-Pilling and Faye Williams, daughter of Thelma Johnson, the African American woman who raised Katherine. In the film, we see Katherine watching unedited video footage of an interview of Faye displayed on my computer monitor. Katherine learns quite a bit she didn’t know about Faye’s mother and hears about tensions between her own mother and Thelma.
Although their memories of Thelma and of certain circumstances differed, they both agreed that Thelma was stubborn and proud. In the 1950s, Thelma was hired by Katherine’s family as a housekeeper. In addition, part of her job was to take care of Katherine, while Katherine’s mother, a pediatrician and psychiatrist, worked full-time. For Katherine, Thelma was her protector. As she grew up, Thelma was always there. She was not just like family—she was family.
Thelma was born in 1918 and was the oldest of eight children. Her father owned 40 acres near Houston, a remarkable feat for a black man in that day. Faye was told by Thelma that her mother’s grandfather had been a slave but that he knew Greek and Hebrew. In contrast, Katherine’s grandfather started out as a sharecropper in the panhandle of Texas. He became like a son to his landowner, who had no children, and so he inherited his land from him when “Old Man Chandler” died.
Thelma finished eighth grade and “worked the fields” during the depression. She escaped picking cotton by arranging to marry a man who agreed to divorce her after they got to Houston. (Faye said her mother told her that the only way her parents would let her leave the farm was if she got married.) She had a second husband but they split up—he was already married! Faye was a result of Thelma being told she could never have children and a man who turned out to also be married.
Thelma’s first job as a housekeeper was at a hotel in Dallas. Then she worked for a white family who “took Faye in” so she could get to school in the morning without taking the early bus with Thelma. In 1967, Thelma began working for Katherine’s parents and stayed there for 18 years. Blacks were not eligible for social security until 1950. And like most white employers of domestics—even many today—Katherine’s parents maintained the “tradition” of not paying into the system. When Thelma retired, she opened a successful flea market booth. In her lifetime, she survived two severe car crashes, colon cancer, Lupus, trouble with white people, and a nearly fatal childbirth, as well careers ranging from car repair to security officer.
While Katherine expresses her deep love for Thelma, Faye said she and her mother weren’t close. She described her as a “drill sergeant, a disciplinarian and a nit-picker.” Thelma thought of Katherine as “poor little Kathy.” Katherine says she and Faye talked about Thelma’s presence in Katherine life and that Faye told her she was jealous of Katherine. (Many conflicting feelings can exist at the same time.) Katherine was jealous of her mother’s young patients. In the end, although Katherine and Faye had different experiences with Faye’s mother, they shared in their knowledge of Thelma’s determination and dignity. Katherine visited her in a Houston hospital a few weeks before she died and urged her to hang on to see the election of the first black president. Thelma died shortly before this historical event.
November 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
I am pleased to introduce Lucia King who has posted the following essay about the African American woman who raised her and her experience of confronting the nuclear age. She, like many others, struggles with the conflicts and confusions, as well as the presence of love, that the relationship engendered, which continue to haunt her today, and the absurdity of the possibility of nuclear war. I think many will recognize and empathize with her experiences.
In addition to being an essayist, Lucia King is a poet. Her poem, A Litany On The Origins Of Our Nuclear Dilemma: 1981 is published below as part of this post after the “More” tag. Despite it being written in 1981, the themes of the poem are relevant today. She writes about loss in childhood. “Childhood–the great burial ground for human pain.” And “How does a child understand this skewed picture of life–this split?” And nuclear war’s verisimilitudes that converge with memories of childhood. ‘ “We are now a global nuclear community tied together by warheads checkering our global landscapes, not unlike those seemingly random memories from childhood landscapes.” ‘
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by Lucia King
In 1981 I wrote a poem entitled “A Litany on the Origins of Our Nuclear Dilemma.” I wrote it around the time of significant negotiations between the U.S. and Russia on nuclear arms reduction I call “Litany” a therapy poem. I was engaged in family systems therapy when I wrote it, trying to give voice to the many dualities that had marked my childhood. As described in the poem, one of the dualities I was struggling with was how we treated the black woman my mother hired as our maid in 1948 a few months before I was born and who worked for my mother and father for 24 years until I and my three siblings left for college.
As toddlers we couldn’t pronounce Julia, so we called her Ju-Ju. My experience with Ju-Ju, was loving and fun, and yes, she scolded us when we were naughty. However, from the perspective of the white, segregationist culture in which I was raised, my relationship with her in childhood created a painful duality I could not understand, and a duality in which, as an adult, I have harbored a lifetime of guilt. Ju-Ju fed me, changed my diapers, rocked me in the old wooden rocker, took me out on strolls, and listened to my ramblings when I came home from school–you get the picture–she was the other woman who mothered me. But I was taught that she was different from me, and therefore she, and those like her, had to be separate from me.
In the poem I refer to meals with Julia–she did not eat at the table with us. I took a little poetic license in that verse– Ju-Ju did eat at the table with us, but only when she attended us on family vacations. In our home Ju-Ju had her own bathroom off the kitchen. We called it, “Ju-Ju’s bathroom,” even though we used it. After the workday, she lived in a separate neighborhood across the tracks. She didn’t have children. I always thought of myself as her child, as well as my mother’s. As I learned in Memphis in the 50’s and 60’s of my childhood, there was a litany of do’s and don’ts that were supposed to separate Ju-Ju from me and vice versa. I was taught that Julia was not like me and I was not like her, all because of the color of her skin. Of course, no one ever said we were actually separate because of the color of my skin.
How does a child understand this skewed picture of life–this split? I couldn’t. I was confused by this picture. But I accepted it and from my culture learned to internalize that difference. That split in my culture became a split in my psyche. I had two mothers, one who loved me because I was hers, and another who loved me unconditionally even though I wasn’t hers.
In 2012 I signed up to take a course on the craft of writing poetry at a place called Writerhouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, near where I live. The last assignment the teacher gave us in that first eight-week session was to write a poem about my mother’s kitchen. Ju-Ju figured prominently in that poem. One poem about Ju-Ju led to other poems about my life with her, and other poems led to essays, my first one describing my experience in attending her funeral. Julia died in 1983. Now, thirty years after she died, Julia’s love is still sounding within, helping me let go of the guilt about the culture of segregation in which I was raised and allowing me to give voice to my unresolved grief and love for her–and to honor her.
In my exploration of Julia’s presence and meaning in my life, I realized I needed to read more about the culture and history of the south. I needed to come out of my silence and face the history of my place of birth and culture. In my research I have heard a term which was new to me–intergenerational trauma. Understanding its meaning and realizing that it applies to both the oppressed and oppressors has opened up space for me. At the time I wrote the poem, “A Litany on the Origins of Our Nuclear Dilemma” in 1981, I did not realize that my “therapy” poem was giving voice to that intergenerational trauma. I did understand my need for reconciliation and peace. This has been and is a lifetime journey for me. Here is “The Litany.” « Read the rest of this entry »
September 29, 2013 § 1 Comment
A new book from the Louisiana Press, The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South “shares the memories of black domestic workers and the white families they served, uncovering the often intimate relationships between maid and mistress. Based on interviews with over fifty people—both white and black—these stories deliver a personal and powerful message about resilience and resistance in the face of oppression in the Jim Crow South.” The authors, Katherine Van Wormer, David Walter Jackson, and Charletta Sudduth deftly address the conflicts, paradoxes and realities of African American women who worked in white homes and adds significantly to the sparse information about African American domestics.
Lewis R. Gordon, an Afro-Jewish philosopher, political thinker, educator, and musician, features the book in his blog and writes a beautiful tribute to ancestors who worked as domestics. “The Maid Narratives tells a story with which many of us are familiar and one that continues to be misrepresented in so many ways, as the movie 2011 movie The Help (which I found unbearable) attests. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
Maizie Frazier Rumph Glover worked for several white families in Bamberg, SC and “did double duty” according to her son Thomas Rumph (see post Ironing) who vividly remembers his mother washing and ironing for these families. In this tribute we learn about her “other life”–not washing and ironing for others–of community, church and family. Mrs. Maizie Glover, widow of Mr. Willie Glover, and mother of Willie and Thomas Rumph, formerly of Bamberg. Was 98 years old on December 25, 2010!
Her birthday was celebrated on Christmas Day at her home with a few family and friends and a light lunch, birthday cake and ice cream was served, she opened her birthday and Christmas gifts. She had dinner with her children at their home later Christmas Day, and opened the remainder of her Christmas gifts. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
Often in this blog, I focus on relationships between African American women and the white families they worked for in the middle of the last century. But these women had full lives outside of their jobs. Usually I don’t have access to this part of their story. I am pleased to post a “Tribute To ‘Miss’ Maizie Frazier Rumph Glover” written by her daughter-in-law, Martha Rumph. Mrs. Glover worked for several different white families in and around Bamberg, SC. The post “Ironing” is a description of her special technique for ironing clothes with a fire heated iron. There is also a post of another tribute published on her 98th birthday.
by Martha Rumph
The seasons of this year so far have been the most interesting of my life. I had the opportunity to care for my 99 year old mother in law, “Miss” Maizie Frazier Rumph Glover, of 53 years for 16 hours a day for 3 months and the experience is one that will be with me going forward. She was married to the son of a slave at a young age and had 2 sons, the youngest is my husband. She married a second time and that husband was the father that my husband knew and loved. She saw so much of this world from the small town of Bamberg, S.C and developed a caring and loving attitude about life and her fellow humans. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
According to The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South, “Cleaning clothes over a washtub, bleaching, starching, and pressing them with heavy irons was grueling work that could take all day.” Several narratives I’ve collected describe the backbreaking but precise methodology of ironing. Thomas Rumph’s mother Maizie Glover worked for several white families in Bamberg, SC in the mid-century, and Thomas vividly remembers his mother’s specific technique for ironing.
“Mom shared a double duty, the white families that she actually [and] indirectly worked for as what we called a housekeeper or maid. She also washed clothes for other whites. She ironed clothes (what we called a smoothing iron) hand held. After you took a towel to pick the iron up with, she would rub the iron a piece of cedar limbs to put a coating on the iron, then rub it on a piece of old clothing before ironing the clothing; this method worked until the iron cool off then you would have to put it on the fire near some hot ashes to reheat the iron. This was a repeated process until all the ironing was done.
September 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
A friend of mine recently read some of the posts on the Just Like Family blog and offered the following. I was not raised by an African American woman, but we did have maids who cleaned for us throughout my childhood. The interaction was strange and strained…my parents were not welcoming. Although my mother was not vocally derisive, she did not seem to appreciate having them in our home. She was not interested in house-keeping, and my father, who was and is more outwardly racist, demanded that she hire someone to clean. Despite my parents, I’ve had numerous close friends who are African American. When I moved to Colorado, my partner in the adventure, was Jonathan, a black friend I met in college in Lafayette.
Having grown up in the south near New Orleans, I have a rich appreciation for the culture there. One of my favorite memories is, after having lived in Colorado for a long while, traveling back to New Orleans and just walking through a supermarket in Chalmette and listening to the ladies talk in the aisles. I remember being so tickled and feeling such a wave of nostalgia. Reading and then watching the movie of “The Help,” I identified with Skeeter’s bewilderment at beliefs and behaviors that were at odds with her own, and with her attacks on her parents statements and choices. I’ve experienced the same, having very public and vocal disagreements with my father when I couldn’t bear to hear him speak another disrespectful word about people I love. « Read the rest of this entry »