January 30, 2012 § 2 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 »
September 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
Visions, Inc. executive director Dr. Valerie Batts has written a straight forward and balanced view of The Help that I wanted to share. The link is http://myemail.constantcontact.com/VISIONS–In-Our-Opinion–THE-HELP.html?soid=1102645492743&aid=eKJMe45QUvE#fblike. Visions provides consulting and training in diversity and inclusion. The article was forwarded to me via Coming To The Table, http://www.comingtothetable.org/, a program that is addressing the legacy of slavery in the US through stories related to slavery’s legacies under the topics of history, healing, connecting and action. Coming to the Table members are descendants of enslaved people and slaveowners from the same plantation property before the Civil War. The orgainzation was launched when people whose ancestors were connected through an enslaved/enslaver relationship realized they had a shared story that remained untold. Today, they and many others believe that the legacies and aftermath of slavery impact our nation in seen and unseen ways and they are committed to writing and telling a new story about our nation’s past and the promise of our collective future.
Also see www.sharedhistory.org, my own story of descendants coming together at Woodlands Plantation in South Carolina.
September 15, 2011 § 4 Comments
THE HELP: A “Satan Sandwich?”
I read the book The Help last year and have seen the movie now twice. I’ve read at least 13 film reviews (from the New York Times and the Rolling Stone to the Christian Science Monitor and the Hollywood Reporter) as well as several academic responses (see the rather strident statement from the Association of Black Women Historians at http://www.abwh.org/ ) and innumerable comments from bloggers. From a term used recently by Representative Emanuel Cleaver regarding the August debt deal, it seems that The Help has created a “satan sandwich” of its own.
Despite all of the laments about stereotypes and the question about whether whites can write about black experience (check out the 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Peterkin at http://www.virginia.edu/woodson/courses/hius324/peterkin.html) and the creation of two new magical negro characters (see The Rumpus blog below for an illuminating description), I decided I like “The Help.” I appreciate the struggle of the director to create a film on the subject of “help” in the 1960s. It would be controversial from any point of view. I’ve been looking at the issues of the impact of African American domestics on the white children they raised in the blog at www.justlikefamily.wordpress.com. I hope to open discussion about this complex and sometimes perplexing relationship and invite the biological children of the domestics to weigh in on what it was like to have their mother raise white children. « Read the rest of this entry »