May 10, 2017 § 10 Comments
Reference to this article in the Charleston (SC) Post and Courier (see below) appeared in my email more than a month ago. I was completely taken aback. I was not sure how to respond despite having committed to the examination of all aspects of the “Just Like Family” phenomenon many years ago. In short, the 10-year-old Charleston Gospel Choir, a renown and respected mixed-race choral group, advertised a program called “Just Like Family: The Black Mother that Raised Me — A Story of Love, Loyalty and Devotion.” It was a mistake. The title, of course, refers to the story that has been told by white people raised by African American women for generations. Often the white children did in fact have intense love, loyalty and devotion for their caretaker. But the title was incomplete. Or rather it did not address the complexities and contradictions of this relationship or the point of view of the women who raised white children and the impact this relationship might have had on their own children or grandchildren. Nor does the title suggest an unpacking of the incongruous and paradoxical shared history of African American and white people. These relationships deeply affected the economic and social lives of many African American women as well as the white people they served. (I wonder if there are African American women working in Charleston homes today as caretakers of the white family. I bet there are.) After some very nasty responses, the choir changed the name of the program to “Women: Honoring Global Sisterhood”–a total re-framing of the original theme.
After reading this article, I wonder if I run the risk with this blog of being completely ignored because of the title–Just Like Family. Although I agree that the title and theme of the choir program should have been changed, Charleston lost an opportunity to open up a conversation about the realities of a part of our history that is barely recognized.
However, we can safely express our opinions about this history through this blog–one way to clarify and engage the feelings aroused by the subject. I hope you will read the article below and reply with your comments and perhaps suggest another name for this blog!
Lee Pringle, producer of the Charleston Gospel Choir, was shocked and offended by the social media outbursts and subsequent phone calls. The experiences of black domestics are part of an important history, he said. “It’s a story that needs to be told.”
Domestic servitude is a basic component of the African-American experience. During slavery times, planter families relied on a staff of black servants to manage affairs of the house. After emancipation, most jobs were off-limits to blacks, who had been denied the education to qualify for them as well as the opportunity to pursue them because of widespread discrimination.
One of the few jobs a black woman could get from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s was that of a domestic servant — maid, cook or nanny.
In the South and elsewhere, the black nanny helped raise white children, and often strong bonds of love and gratitude were formed. It can be an uncomfortable topic, but the historical record is clear.
Consider Angela W. Williams’ 2015 memoir “Hush Now, Baby” in which the Mount Pleasant-based author recounts her relationship with Eva Aiken, who was “the central figure in my life” from infancy until marriage. Or read photographer Sally Mann’s 2015 memoir “Hold Still” in which the author shares the story of her relationship with Gee-Gee.
“I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back,” Mann writes. “Gee-Gee’s love was unconditional, a concept I might never have believed in had I not experienced it.”
Never ‘just like family’
White people too often have ignored or denied that these black caregivers have an inner life — emotions, preferences, concerns — so that the domestic servants have been reduced to caricatures, Patton said.
“I’m not disrespecting generations of black women who were domestics,” she said. “My great-grandmother was a domestic in North Carolina. She worked so she could take care of her own family.”
And there was an inherent double-standard in all of this, she added. The children might have considered their black nanny “family,” and the nanny’s white employers might have considered her “part of the family,” but it was never permitted to be the other way around.
“They were never ‘just like family,’ ” Patton insisted. “These women never saw themselves as part of white people’s families.”
The problem with the Gospel Choir’s concert was not the desire to examine the issue — Patton said she harbored no objections to such an investigation — but the way it was advertised, using that charged phrase and photograph.
“Context and marketing matter,” she said. “How do you think people are going to interpret that?” The poster might reassure or comfort some white viewers hesitant to confront the difficult issue head-on; but for black viewers, the poster is a harsh reminder of injustice, Patton said.
When she posted the image on her Facebook page, many of her followers had a visceral reaction, and she encouraged them to contact concert organizers and complain, she said.
Pringle, a black man in charge of an integrated choir, insisted the concert was not to celebrate “Aunt Jemima” but to pay tribute to hard-working African-American women who persevered in the face of oppression and bigotry. Their children generally did better, and their grandchildren did better still.
“Black women have gone from being domestics to some of the most powerful people in America,” he noted. That’s what happens when discrimination lessens over time.
And the phenomenon of black servitude is hardly unique to the South, Pringle noted.
“There’s a whole segment of white people in the North and the South who had black servants” — doormen, janitors, chauffeurs, repairmen, nannies, nurses. These black workers typically endured insults and indignities in the public square, but they were often treated with respect (albeit often paternalistic and condescending) by white people in their homes, Pringle said. Sometimes, genuine relationships developed.
But the many critics of the concert were not interested in knowing any of this, he said. And after receiving a few threats, Pringle decided to scrap the theme and its planned narration, opting to redefine and retitle the event: “Women: Honoring Global Sisterhood.” The switch cost him nearly $4,000 in new posters, website changes, marketing efforts and more, he said. A new script was quickly put together by Karen Chandler, who will narrate the program.
The Rev. Dr. Eric Childers, pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church, said the episode has been discouraging. The predominantly white St. Matthew Church is hosting the concert. For the past six years, it has gladly collaborated with the Charleston Gospel Choir, providing concert and rehearsal space, Childers said.
March 5, 2015 § 2 Comments
This past summer I ran into Mary Francis Roberts, the daughter of my father’s best friend. They had had a falling out many years ago. In our conversation, we had the opportunity to discuss the facts as well as the emotions surrounding the events of the split. We were able to find closure for us and we think for our deceased fathers, too. As we talked about our families, Mary Francis spoke about the African American woman who raised her and promised to post her story on Just Like Family. I’ve copied below the email that Mary Francis recently sent to me about Thelma, her partner in crime.
In reading your wonderful blog “Just Like Family” and the stories therein, I wanted to share my story of my beloved Thelma Austin whose influence I was privileged to enjoy for many years when I was young.
Thelma came to us when I was about four years old. Every morning, she would ride the city bus from where she lived off of Pleasantburg Drive, and walk a couple of blocks to our house. Her husband, James, who worked at the filling station picked her up every day at 5:30. He had to be at work early, so that is why she took the bus in the morning. When I got older and figured out that she was riding the bus to work, I would get out of bed in the summer time and walk up to the bus stop to meet her and walk back home with her so she wouldn’t be lonely. We would often hold hands. It delighted me to no end when I would see her get off that bus.
I was the baby at the time she came, and my brother and sister were several years older than I. My first memory of Thelma was of her washing my hair. She would lay me down on the kitchen counter and I would hang my head back in the sink so she could shampoo and cream rinse without getting it in my eyes. Then she would make a towel turban and then we would move on to the combing out, detangling, and all that painful stuff. Sometimes she would roll it up and I would get to sit under my sister’s big dryer. It was a long process and great fun. Much more fun than if mother had to do it, which always involved a great deal of whining and crying on my part, but never with Thelma.
Thelma raised us, cared for us, did all those things all of the other ladies did for their white families. She cleaned, did the laundry and ironing, child care and did some cooking. She cooked two or three nights a week, and that was a huge highlight of my life! She let me help all the time and nurtured my love for the kitchen, cooking at eating! Everyone was happier on the nights Thelma cooked supper! Sometimes she would bring a sweet potato to work to cook for herself while mother was gone, and she always brought one for me. She would bake them in the oven and we would peel and eat them straight from their jackets like a banana. She also brought Oreos sometimes which we ate with thick slices of cheddar cheese! Delicacy! These were our secret snacks…just for us.
Mother was gone for the better part of the day most days, for she was a great golfer and bridge player and had her Junior League activities. My brother and sister were around, but they were older and had outside activities and friends. Our baby sister was born when I was eight, so she, Thelma and I spent a lot of time together.
As I got older, Thelma and I became buddies…friends…partners in crime…mischievous. We had fun! My brother and sister loved her, and she loved them, but our relationship was different…they left for college or prep school long before our little sister or I did, so we had a chance to become really close, and she knew I needed her and loved her.
Mother and I had a difficult relationship, and Thelma and Mother also had a difficult relationship, as Mother was “hard to please!” Thelma “had my back” with Momma, and I had hers. As time went on, she assisted me with my teenage shenanigans, and sometimes would call the high school for fake early dismissals so I could skip and hang out with my friends (she always knew where I was and with whom), or give us cigs, or teach me how to sneak out the window at night…not too often, but I think when she thought I was having a particularly rough time at home. She would keep a deck of cards in her apron so when Momma left, she could play a game with me. She taught me to iron, polish silver, and I actually “helped” her with her work. She wasn’t being lazy, she knew that I wanted to learn about these things, and she carefully taught me the right way to do things. She taught me a lot of things about keeping house, all of which I was very interested in, and I credit her with helping me become what I am today. Thelma was my friend, ally..accessory to my teenage crimes, my best friend. We ate things together we weren’t supposed to be eating, we did all sorts of naughty things like watching Days of Our Lives instead of working. I could talk to her, and she told me what it felt like to have a baby when I asked her, and about my womanly monthly thing I would get… Momma didn’t! I could never discuss these things with Momma! She was one of THE most influential people in my life, and one of the most loved. She was my momma. I was playmates with her granddaughter, Karen, whom I continued to be friends with even after college years.
Don’t get me wrong, she never put me in danger. I think she felt sorry for me and wanted me to get a break. Momma was very, very hard on me because I was so different from my older brother and sister, and this caused many treacherous and disastrous times which Thelma was witness to. She wanted to quit years before she did, but when she saw how distraught I was, she told me she would stay until I left for college, and she did. She quit the week I left and went to work at a hotel in housekeeping. It still broke my heart, but I was just being selfish. I was glad she got a better job. I am sure it was better for her.
By the way, Daddy loved her and broke all the rules, too. He insisted she eat lunch with him at the table when he came home for lunch and, a lot of times, he would stop by the Eight O’Clock Superette and bring her lunch to her….( don’t tell Sarah!) on Momma’s golf and bridge days..which was every day, just about! He joked and teased and played with her just like he did everyone else. He thanked her for everything she did…all the time. She adored him. I am sorry for Momma that she never let herself see the great person Thelma was.
After college, for many years, I continued to visit Thelma on her birthday and take her a cake.
Did my relationship with Thelma help shape my life? Yes. Did it help shape how I relate to people from other walks of life? Yes. She made me feel loved, and helped influence how I am able to love others.
November 6, 2014 § 1 Comment
I was digging around in my Just Like Family content files recently and came across a letter-to-the-editor from a 1997 Utne Reader. I had always meant to locate the article, “The Color of Love,” to which it referred, and finally, with some effort, I found it in the archived magazine collection in the dusty basement of the local university. The letter-to-the-editor states the following:
As a black woman, I am weary of reading these oh-so-tender stories of white families who “love” their black maids. I have never heard a little black girl say, “I want to be a maid when I grow up.” I suspect that, just as Daniel Stolar [the author of “The Color of Love”] has never seen the upstairs of Lillie’s home, he has never envisioned the “upstairs” of her ambitions. After her years of faithful service, did he and his parents ever ask Lillie what her dreams were, and how they could help make them come true? If their “love” for Lillie was contingent on her continuing to clean up after them, then I respectfully suggest that a more appropriate title for Stolar’s article would be “The Color of Money.”
Lillie (no last name given) worked for Stolar’s family for 27 years, raising him as well as doing housework and cooking. When Stolar was 12, Lillie’s son James, an older playmate of Stolar’s, was imprisoned for murder—he drove the getaway car after his accomplice killed a white man in St. Louis’s Forest Park and was jailed for life. Stolar’s affluent and civic-minded family had led the effort to restore the majestic urban park, the second-largest in the country, which, for a period of time, was “surrounded by row upon row of dismal boarded-up tenements.” The kind of housing that Lillie lived in. The tall muscular James, who had tried out for the St. Louis Cardinals, was at once distant and attentive. He coached Stolar in baseball. James was his idol. In later years, Stolar questioned whether James’s coaching was nothing more than an extension of the servant-employer relationship his mother had with his parents. Although Stolar’s influential parents were able to convince the courts not put James on death row, he was later killed in prison by another inmate. After James’ death, Stolar was discomforted when Lillie would say that she had only one son now–him.
Since childhood, Stolar considered what to call Lillie—maid, housekeeper, nanny, even good-friend-of-the-family, or adopted aunt, or surrogate mother. His need to give title to Lillie arose from his “inability to explain her role in my life and my embarrassment about it. But these are not titles that clarify. In their very inadequacy, they point to an underlying cliché, colored perhaps with racist assumptions: Jewish white boy raised in a well-to-do inner-city enclave by professional parents with a black maid….”
Still, at 76 (her age in 1997 when the article was written) she came to work at his parents’ home two days a week. She continued to cook dinner, wash dishes and go on a weekly grocery-shopping trip. The family also used a professional maid service for what the parents called “the real cleaning.”
Stolar contemplates if he could be part of the murder instead of James. “No matter how I try, I can’t imagine arriving at the handball courts as James did that afternoon. It could never, ever have been me in the car with the black man who became a murderer that day. This is the real answer to the questions that troubled my 12-year-old mind. The reality of living 24 hours a day in a black man’s skin in north St. Louis is unimaginable to me. How could it be otherwise?”
Stolar visited Lillie often after she retired and states that after many visits he had never been upstairs in her house. The letter writer sees this as evidence that Lillie did not feel the intimacy toward him that he felt toward her. He says, “I’m still trying to figure out exactly what Lillie’s role has been in my life. Yes, I love her. Yes, I have depended on and confided in her. But have I really known her? Have we ever met on equal grounds?”
Stolar’s questions are, of course, rhetorical. He knows that he and Lillie could never meet on equal ground. Like his reflections on James, how could it be any other way? He was the son of affluent parents. She was one of many exploited black women in the middle of the 20th century caught up in someone else’s household, stereotyped in the figure of “Mammy.” At that time in the United States, Lillie was viewed as an inferior. She was there to cook and clean. And like many whites raised by African American women, Stolar felt guilt and shame, not knowing who his caretaker really was, what to call her or their relationship. The care-giving relationship would not have developed under any other conditions. Lillie and Stolar were as far apart as people could get even after a lifetime of connection. We can’t know how Lillie felt or what her dreams and aspirations were or whether her employers sought to help her reach some goal as the letter writer doubts. All we know is that she worked for Stolar’s family for 27 years and was in a relationship with them that was surely fraught with the confusions and sublimations characteristic of connections based on the inequalities of race and class.
October 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
This is a short video interview of Ms. Josephine Fleming who worked in domestic service for a white family. The interviewer is not named.
October 26, 2014 § 2 Comments
Text from YouTube: From the 1860s to the 1960s one of the few employment opportunities for black women in America was as a domestic servant. Consequently, the Mammy stereotype became the standard characterization of black women in film and television. The mammy roles, played by actress like Hattie McDaniels, Louise Beaver, & Ethel Waters, put a happy face on black women’s lowly position in society, helping to set at ease the hearts of white audiences. Mammies were so happy to serve whites that they were shown giving up their pay and even their freedom for the chance to continue serving “their white family”. These images are juxtaposed with news footage of the civil rights movement to show that this was not the case in the real world.
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.