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.
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.
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.” ‘
* * * * * * * * *
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 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 »
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 »