January 31, 2012 § 1 Comment
Nancy Smith’s mother died when she was 7. The blow was softened by Rosie White, an African American woman who was hired for childcare and as the maid in Nancy’s household. They lived in New Orleans. Nancy had two older siblings and her father traveled a great deal. Someone had to raise these children. Nancy was particularly affected by Rosie’s loving spirit and generosity. She talks about this formative relationship and Rosie’s “other life” as well as Rosie’s granddaughter who was the same age as Nancy.
January 30, 2012 § 3 Comments
Me and It
by Dorothy Day Ciarlo
At some point in life, one has to talk about certain troubling things whether anyone wants to listen or not. For me, It began in childhood and has been a burden of pain and shame. I’m thinking I’d better talk about It now, and a good place to begin is with Idabelle. But first, let me tell a few things about my childhood.
Though time supposedly weakens memory, the Dickensian names of my childhood are forever there, waiting for a tug on the memory chain to come tumbling out. My schoolmates’ names all denoted something—Mary Ellen Finger, Nancy Jean Sharp, Janet Love-it, Jane Ann Cook, Uldene LongStretch, Basil Butler, to list but a handful. So, too, the places: Boil Park, where we went for picnics: Right-Sell, my elementary school, and Win-Field Methodist where my sister Peggy and I went to church every Sunday morning and evening. And the streets—Chest-er Street, Gain Street, Arch Street, Ring-o, stream out of my memory closet. But the Thing that clouded my childhood and in fact my whole life, didn’t have a name. In my own mind, I began to call it It. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 14, 2012 § 3 Comments
I came across a children’s book recently that approaches some of the themes of Just Like Family but only gives a limited view of the primary character—the African American maternal figure in a little girl’s life. The 30-page book is Dear Willie Rudd by Libba Moore Gray published in 1993 with drawings added in 2000 by Peter M. Fiore. From the synopsis on the back cover we learn:
Fifty years have passed since Miss Elizabeth was a girl, but she still remembers Willie Rudd, the black housekeeper who helped raise her. She remembers the feeling of sitting on Willie Rudd’s lap while the housekeeper sang to her. And she remembers how Willie scrubbed the floor on her hands and knees. What would Miss Elizabeth say to Willie Rudd if she were alive today? She decides to write her a letter telling her how things would be different. Now, Willie Rudd would come in the front door—not the back. She would ride in the front of the bus with Miss Elizabeth, and they could sit together at movies. The two of them would have a wonderful time. And in her heartfelt letter, Miss Elizabeth has the chance to tell Willie Rudd something she never told her while she was alive—that she loved her.
Although a lovely tribute to an important person in a little girl’s life, the author leaves much to the imagination, as if Willie only existed as Miss Elizabeth’s caretaker and housemaid. She doesn’t comment on the child’s feelings about seeing the person she loves “scrubb[ing] the floor on her hands and knees.” She doesn’t speculate on Willie’s family life, the hardships she likely endured, the trials of segregation, and her other encounters with white people. It gives the impression to its audience, children, that blacks naturally take on the roll of serving white people.
“She remembered the feel of Willie’s big lap, covered with a flowered apron, the feel of Willie’s generous bosom against her cheek. This kind of stereotype is reproduced innumerably among whites as if all black women had “generous bosoms.” More comments on the mammy stereotype in later posts.
The book does confirm an increasing desire of whites raised by black women—that there is a wish to thank her and to tell her they loved her. Perhaps because of the popularity of The Help, whites are returning to childhood memories to consider the important relationship—though one sided or not—with their caretakers.
January 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
On December 1, 1999, Howell Raines, the Executive Editor of The New York Times from 2001 until he left in 2003 and contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio, published a remarkable tribute to the African American woman who raised him. It appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I present it in its entirety.
“…she taught me the most valuable lesson a writer can learn, which is to try to see — honestly and down to its very center — the world in which we live.”
GRADY SHOWED UP ONE DAY at our house at 1409 Fifth Avenue West in Birmingham, and by and by she changed the way I saw the world. I was 7 when she came to iron and clean and cook for $18 a week, and she stayed for seven years. During that time everyone in our family came to accept what my father called “those great long talks” that occupied Grady and me through many a sleepy Alabama afternoon. What happened between us can be expressed in many ways, but its essence was captured by Graham Greene when he wrote that in every childhood there is a moment when a door opens and lets the future in. So this is a story about one person who opened a door and another who walked through it. « Read the rest of this entry »