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.
September 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
According to The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South, “Cleaning clothes over a washtub, bleaching, starching, and pressing them with heavy irons was grueling work that could take all day.” Several narratives I’ve collected describe the backbreaking but precise methodology of ironing. Thomas Rumph’s mother Maizie Glover worked for several white families in Bamberg, SC in the mid-century, and Thomas vividly remembers his mother’s specific technique for ironing.
“Mom shared a double duty, the white families that she actually [and] indirectly worked for as what we called a housekeeper or maid. She also washed clothes for other whites. She ironed clothes (what we called a smoothing iron) hand held. After you took a towel to pick the iron up with, she would rub the iron a piece of cedar limbs to put a coating on the iron, then rub it on a piece of old clothing before ironing the clothing; this method worked until the iron cool off then you would have to put it on the fire near some hot ashes to reheat the iron. This was a repeated process until all the ironing was done.
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 »
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 »
February 3, 2012 § 7 Comments
I found this tribute online at a website called Southern_Style. It is reminiscent of so many other tributes I’ve read. This one is particularly lacking in awareness of what “Mammy” thought about her relationship with the author’s family and how segregation and racism affected her. Where is the appreciation of her services? What I’m struck with, though, is how similar the feelings are that are revealed by the adult white children toward the beloved caregiver. In this tribute, the author says “…Mammy became as dear to us as our grandmothers.” With so many whites expressing their love and respect for their black caretaker, was there something about Africa American women in the 20th century that, beyond the stereotype, really did represent a pure ideal of maternal care? Or after a model was established by white child and loving black women during slavery, did housemaids and caretakers eventually contrive their affections because that was what was expected by the white family? How many white children were, perhaps, fooled? I hope to explore this issue in future posts. I would love to have your thoughts.
I REMEMBER MAMMY
Mattie Lee Martin (“Mammy”)
By one who loved her, Sharman Burson Ramsey
Thirteen year old Mattie Lee Martin took her mentally challenged older sister by the hand and led her down the rutted, red clay country road. Neither looked back. Mattie was determined her sister would not be abused again in their grandparents’ home. She’d finally accepted that her parents would never come back to get them. The road led to the town of Dothan, Alabama, and a life, Mattie Lee hoped, that would be better than the one they’d known on that god-forsaken farm. « Read the rest of this entry »