Dear Willie Rudd,

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.

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§ 3 Responses to Dear Willie Rudd,

  • Susan Becker says:

    Well said. It sounds like a book written more out of guilt rather than true understanding.

  • Mary Lou says:

    This book was written by a close life-long friend of my oldest sister, Libba Gray Moore. Libba grew up down the block from us in Roanoke VA and did not start writing children’s books until 1993 after she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 56. She died of cancer in 1995 and her children’s books are award winning Scholastic Reader books. Dear Willie Rudd is a book that is poignant & directed toward children ages 5 – 9. It is based on Libba’s own life and reflects a little girl’s feelings and the same grown up girl’s wishes that she had been able to do something to help Willie Rudd. I disagree strongly with your critique.

    • Thank you so much for your response to a Just Like Family blog post about the book Dear Willy Rudd. It’s been a while since I read the book so I thought I would go back to it and read it again. I find issues and concerns around race always changing—my views included—and it will be good to go back to assess where my thinking is now. Thanks again for your response.

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