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 »
December 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Hi, Felicia. I want to tell you about our black maid/caretaker/cook/second mother to me. Here are the facts. Ada Bell Young came to work for my family when I was two years old, in 1950. She lived with us. She was not married but had several brothers and sisters, most of whom lived in Laurens, SC. Bell owned the house they all lived in and had several pieces of furniture there from my Daddy, who owned a furniture store. The floors were covered in carpet sample squares, all different colors, and the walls were covered in wallpaper sample squares. I loved this house and thought of it as the “patchwork” house. Bell went to Laurens one weekend a month and otherwise lived with us. Bell did all of the cooking and cleaning for us as well as some yard work, which she liked. She grew peanuts in our back yard and beautiful flowers. Bell baby-sat me, took me on the city bus to town…to Woolworth’s…bathed me, fed me, etc., etc., etc. I have letters she wrote me when I was away at summer camp and when I was in college. Bell finished the third grade and then had to work in the fields and pick cotton, but she could read and write…just not well. I loved her dearly. My parents also loved her and heavily depended on her. They, however, grew up in another generation, in the Deep South, and could never get over their life-long prejudices, specifically against “people of color”. Therefore, Bell’s bedroom and bathroom were in the basement. When I was older I sometimes argued with them about Bell having to sleep in the basement, but only succeeded in making them defensive and angry. I miss Bell every day of my life and wish I could tell her how she meant to me. I look forward to reading your blog.
Linda Quinn Furman