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.
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 »
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 § 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 »
December 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Hi, Felicia. I want to tell you about our black maid/caretaker/cook/second mother to me. Here are the facts. Ada Bell Young came to work for my family when I was two years old, in 1950. She lived with us. She was not married but had several brothers and sisters, most of whom lived in Laurens, SC. Bell owned the house they all lived in and had several pieces of furniture there from my Daddy, who owned a furniture store. The floors were covered in carpet sample squares, all different colors, and the walls were covered in wallpaper sample squares. I loved this house and thought of it as the “patchwork” house. Bell went to Laurens one weekend a month and otherwise lived with us. Bell did all of the cooking and cleaning for us as well as some yard work, which she liked. She grew peanuts in our back yard and beautiful flowers. Bell baby-sat me, took me on the city bus to town…to Woolworth’s…bathed me, fed me, etc., etc., etc. I have letters she wrote me when I was away at summer camp and when I was in college. Bell finished the third grade and then had to work in the fields and pick cotton, but she could read and write…just not well. I loved her dearly. My parents also loved her and heavily depended on her. They, however, grew up in another generation, in the Deep South, and could never get over their life-long prejudices, specifically against “people of color”. Therefore, Bell’s bedroom and bathroom were in the basement. When I was older I sometimes argued with them about Bell having to sleep in the basement, but only succeeded in making them defensive and angry. I miss Bell every day of my life and wish I could tell her how she meant to me. I look forward to reading your blog.
Linda Quinn Furman