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.
May 15, 2013 § 1 Comment
Lillian Smith (1897 – 1966) was a remarkable Southern white author, educator and activist who spoke out all her life against injustices, in particular the impact of segregation on blacks and whites in the 20th century South. In her seminal work, Killers of the Dream, she draws on memories of her own childhood to describe the psychological and moral costs of the powerful, contradictory rules about sin, sex and segregation—what she calls intricate systems of taboos that still undergird US society. « 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 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 »