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 § 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 11, 2012 § 1 Comment
Recently, I asked my second cousin, Anne Simms Pincus, to write about the African American women who raised her and her sister, Betty in the fifties. There were three: Miriam Gibson, Louise Weeks, and Dorothy Huggins. I was impressed that my cousin knew their last names. Many whites never knew the last names of the women who raised them. Here is my cousin’s rememberance of these three women and the unspoken acceptance of segregation in their community.
My sister and I were born in South Carolina into a socially prominent family with very little money. My father was away as a pilot in the Army Air Corps when we were born (my sister in 1942 and I in late 1943). My mother had moved with him to various army postings in St Louis and Memphis where he was a flight instructor. She moved to his small home town with his parents where my sister was born. As the war continued she started working as a bookkeeper and eventually built a nice small house. Since she worked long hours she employed a lovely African American Miriam Gibson to take care of us. Miriam had a younger sister Carrie Lee who would come to our house to play with us. They were both very sweet and we loved them. My mother was very generous and thoughtful and was never rude or condescending to them. Miriam got married and moved to Baltimore and my mother then hired Louise Weeks who was like a second mother. She was a marvelous cook and made the best banana cream pie and fried chicken ever. She also cleaned and did our laundry. Louise did not have a car so my mother would pick her up from her home and drive her home at night. Many white families in our town expected the “help” to walk to work — even in the rain. My father never came back from the war. He met someone else and abandoned my mother and us. My mother had to totally support us, and on her small salary was able to take care of Louise and her family as well. My mother shared our food and our outgrown clothes with Louise’s family. Louise worked for my mother for more than 20 years, and after my sister and I left for college out of state, we always visited her at her home when we returned for vacations. She was loved by all of us, and I know she loved us. My sister and I went to public school which was segregated. I graduated from high school in 1962. During my school years I was totally unaware that the Brown vs. the Board of Education law suit was — filed in our County. It was never discussed among our family, and I never heard any of my mother’s friends discuss the suit. It was as if it never happened. Eventually the white public school closed in our town and all the white children went to a new private school. After our dear Louise died, her niece Dorothy Huggins came to work for my mother several days a week–and eventually five days. Dorothy was educated an had worked as a certified nurses aide. She took excellent care of our mother (for about 20 years) until our mother died…Since my sister and I lived in other states, Dorothy became our African American sister. We love her trusted her completely, she cooked, cleaned and drove our mother to various doctor appointments — handled her expenses, car maintenance, etc. After our mother died several years ago, my sister and I gave Dorothy her car and many pieces of nice furniture. We still talk to Dorothy by telephone at least several times a month, and consider her “just like family”. (as I was writing this, I got a call from Dorothy) I’ve also seen Carrie Lee on several visits “home”. We were both happy to reminisce about our playing as children.
February 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
Jane Dalrymple-Hollo and Dezzie McIntosh grew up in rural north Mississippi, but in different generations. Jane was from a well-to-do white family and Dezzie was a black domestic servant in Jane’s household throughout most of her childhood. Their relationship deepened after Jane spent a long evening in Dezzie’s living room in December, 1999, and recorded an informal oral history in which she asked Dezzie to describe her childhood, her relationship with Blues music and her family life. « 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.
November 28, 2011 § 1 Comment
I have the honor of introducing you to Tomaca Govan, a new friend and a possible cousin of mine. She is the Founder and Editor of the blog, Women Move the Soul. We met through LinkedIn. She is a colleague and cousin of a friend who had been very helpful to me in creating a documentary film entitled Shared History. Tomaca tells us some of the memories her mother shared with her about spending a few months as a maid in the World War II era.
My Mom was born in 1922. When she came of college age, she was on the waiting list for nursing school. While waiting, she was one of several maids working for a wealthy white woman in Maryland. She’s told me some very interesting stories about the few months that she worked there including how all the maids had to share their rations with this woman because during the war [WW II) people were given rations for food and things like that.
Even though the maids were required to share their rations with the Mrs., they were not allowed to eat the “luxuries” such as butter. My mother insisted on eating butter whenever she wanted to because they were her rations, so why shouldn’t she have some? The other maids did not and they would fuss at my mom for her lack of proper etiquette… : )
My mother was the youngest of 5. Her mother died when she was two. Her only sister was 7 years older and took care of my mom like she was her child. Her father remained a single parent for the rest of his life. My mother was his favorite and was very spoiled, sheltered and catered to. She was the baby so everyone protected her. That’s why she had a certain amount of feistiness when she started what was her first job as a maid.
But, she was there for less than a year because she was eventually called to school. And she was really glad about that because she had no interest in being someone’s maid.
Also, in terms of my mom working as a maid – she refused to call the woman’s daughter Miss ____, because the daughter was younger than she was. All the other maids kept telling her to call her Miss ___ so she wouldn’t get in trouble, but she was never reprimanded for that and stuck to her guns.
One of the maids was responsible for polishing the silver on a regular basis. She would make a grand presentation of pulling it all out and then polishing only a few pieces and putting everything back. The silverware was never used, so she felt it was a waste of time.
When my mother started working as a nurse, there was a white police officer who had been shot and brought to the Black hospital because it was the closest. They performed surgery and saved his life. The next day, his family and people from his job wanted to move him to a white hospital, but he insisted on staying there because “these people saved my life.”
Blacks and whites have a very rich history [together] and is something that his not taught in schools. I really feel fortunate to have met you and to have access to the information that you are putting on the internet. You give us light.