What it was like for me as a child . . .
When I think of my childhood, its most intimate space was that Memphis bedroom with my twin brother. We were one-year old when we began to sleep in that bedroom, and it would remain our private “sanctuary” for the next seventeen years. Into that space only two other people found it normal to enter and exit freely. One, obviously, was my mother; the other, less obviously, was our black maid, Vannie. At that time it was impossible for me to think “outward” about Vannie. What mattered was “inward,” between us alone. It would take many more years to grasp how much my thinking about my bond with her needed to widen. In time I would come to glimpse that my childhood relationship with a beloved maid might resonate more broadly throughout the American South during the first half of the 20th century—its mix of blindness and insight echoing in the experience of other white children. Like other crucial arrangements, this one seemed innocent. It would take on its fuller range of meanings only long after it had passed.
Van Price was the woman who helped to raise me, my twin, and our older brother from earliest childhood on. My twin and I were barely a year old when she arrived. Seventeen years later we would leave the South to go Northeast—for college and (as we by then all but recognized) for good. In Memphis at the time, black maids were commonly hired—even by families with moderate means, though not by the poor. Their capacities, however appreciated, were pretty much taken for granted within a spectrum of attitudes that never called the practice itself into question. Since I call the practice into question, I need to bear in mind that at the time nothing about it seemed questionable. Seen at this distance, my relationship with Vannie looks uncannily different. It radiates, even, an estranging light on how childhood, family, and race were lived during these decades in the American South.
All we knew at first was that she was present (eight or nine hours a day, five and a half days a week, and—it seemed—unfailingly when needed). Her task (though we never saw it as such) was to care for us physically—and emotionally—like a mother. She watched, bathed, dressed, fed, advised, comforted, and scolded us. I remember how, during the day, she would move throughout the house, though her favorite room (the one she kept returning to) was the kitchen. There she ironed in the afternoons, singing if alone (she liked to sing), chatting with us (while she kept on with her work) after we came home from school. The clothes she would be ironing were ones she had washed earlier that morning, then taken out in a huge straw basket to hang on the clothesline in the backyard to dry, gathering them up in the same basket several hours later. In the late afternoon, having got the house into the state she wanted, she would go on to prepare dinner and set the table. She would usually leave for her own home in the early evening, a half hour or so before we would sit down to enjoy her meal.
We knew she went home each evening to a world of other people, her people, but my recurrent images are of her alone—such as her putting on several layers of old family clothes (and a beat-up fraternity jacket that belonged to my older brother) before braving the weather (often cold and rainy) to make the trip to the backyard clothesline. We also knew that Vannie had a husband named Jim, but we rarely saw him, and she rarely spoke of him. When he would come now and then to pick her up in the late afternoon, he always remained inside his car, parked in our driveway. I don’t remember Jim’s ever entering our house. My images remain of her alone because, fueled by my affection and neediness, they leave room for only the two of us: Vannie the nourishing one being seen and me the needy one doing the seeing.
At times, though, my twin brother finds his way into this picture, making it a threesome. He and I had a hard time adjusting to the first grade, and when we would return from the school bus at three in the afternoon, dropped off just a block from our house, Vannie would be coming down Walnut Grove Road (two lanes in those days, six lanes now) to meet us. Our sense of regained security was as palpable as it was unspoken. Sometimes when meeting us at our bus stop, she would—if we showed signs of distress—pick one or the other of us up in her arms. She picked us up often, to take us out of the tub (in the summers) once she had scrubbed us clean, but also to separate us when we fought. I especially remember her coming into our screaming bedroom one afternoon and silently picking us both up, one on each arm (she was a big woman: that effectively broke up the fight). This image stays in my mind because we had reached an age when our mother was picking us up less often.
She gave us advice from the earliest days on—about respecting our parents (especially our father), about being kinder to each other, about seeing less of some friends and more of others, about not telling lies (she would wash our mouths out with soap if she caught us doing this). Five years older than my mother, she was also more determined in her views, so we often heard her “pronounce” on ethical matters. On racial matters, though—and race was the all-explaining reason for her being in our home—she never said a word. Nor did her silence about race—actually a blanket of silence that it took all of us to weave together—ever seem (to us five whites) amiss. Looking back many decades later, I am astonished that, in and after 1954 (not an ordinary American year, racially speaking), no verbal space existed in our home for crucial acknowledgments: that we were white, that she was black, and that the social arrangements fueled by these facts were on the edge of disruptive change. No such space existed, nor did we miss it.
Vannie’s wit was no less shrewd than her capacity for sizing up character and situations. About a drunken bartender who “officiated” at one of our rare family parties and who claimed not to have touched a drop, she declared: “He sho do stagger sober”—a phrase that took on a sort of family immortality. Once my twin brother and I were old enough to drive our parents’ car, we would regularly take her to the bus stop on Highland around 6pm (about a mile away). If we arrived late and that bus had already come, we would take her all the way to Jackson (another couple of miles), where she would catch the second bus that she normally transferred to from the Highland one. We felt virtuous doing this but never said so.
Memphis in the 1940s and most of the 1950s was a peacefully segregated city. No blacks were visible in our neighborhood or present in our public school (although they made up 40% of that larger neighborhood’s population). But the Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, and during my high school years many teachers were consumed with racial anxiety. A chemistry teacher once co-opted a class period in order to correlate urban violence with black character—claiming that once “they” came, rape and violence would follow in abundance. When my twin brother and I raised our hands to ask why he thought so, he stared at us, then asked if we were “nigger lovers.” That rejoinder pretty much shut us up: I guess—without our knowing it—we were “nigger lovers.” With such sorts of encounter accumulating, it was easy in 1958 to decide (for other reasons as well) to go to the Northeast to college. Who would want to face the “nigger lover” question on a recurring basis? Except for brief visits, neither my twin nor I have returned to the South.
Vannie died in April 1971. I was living in Cambridge, MA, at the time, but my twin brother had gone back to Memphis to visit our parents, with his wife and two children (the smaller of them a one-month old baby). Vannie was taking care of the baby that day, putting on his tiny shoes, when my brother heard (from another room) the recurrent sound of something being dropped—and a few moments later being dropped again. Vannie was unable to put the baby’s shoes on, unwilling to let this task go, incapable of speaking. It was immediately clear that she was experiencing a tremendous internal upheaval (later diagnosed as a cerebral hemorrhage). She went in and out of consciousness for the next fifteen minutes, and the last words she said, as the ambulance arrived, were “Put on my red shoes.” She eventually lost consciousness and died later that day in the hospital.
Going to a Memphis hospital was, even in 1971 (seventeen years after Brown vs. the Board of Education) a race-coded act. Native residents were perfectly familiar with the map of who went to what places. As it happened though, my Swedish sister-in-law (deeply distressed by Vannie’ situation, and coming from a culture not fixated on racial codes) insisted on her going to the best hospital we knew of. This was the Baptist Hospital, the one my father often used. The Baptist Hospital was reserved for white people, however, and they admitted Vannie only with great reluctance. As she gradually gave up her life that endless afternoon, the hospital permitted my twin brother and his wife to visit her bedside at will. But they allowed Vannie’s own family to come into her room only one at a time, and only as ushered in by my brother.
A few days later, the racial drama was reversed. At the burial service in Somerville, Tennessee, my brother and his wife were the only whites present. One of Vannie’s male relatives tried to get my brother to back off—not to serve as one of the pall-bearers who lowered her coffin into the ground. But my brother insisted on his place in her burial ceremony. As he told me afterwards, she had been neither mother nor mammy (she had no children of her own) to anyone else there. My brother knew that, so did I. But it is not difficult to understand the offense that grieving black family might take at a claim of “ownership” once more being made on Vannie, this time at her death as earlier throughout her life, by the white family she spent thirty years working for.
As a scholar of literature, I have been writing about Faulkner for a long time, and I think of Vannie whenever I read about Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury. About twenty years ago, however, I began to realize how much my ways of knowing yet not knowing Vannie shaped my optic not just on Dilsey, not just on Faulkner’s body of work, but more generally on the realities of race in the mid-twentieth century South. The more I pondered this, the more I recognized that what I knew about Vannie when growing up—my attachment to her was as deep as that for a parent—had all along remained shrouded in a deeper ignorance. Shrouded not accidentally, moreover, but rather by social designs I was only later to decipher. So when I return next week to my opening portrait of Vannie, everything looks different. All the lights and shadows have been recast.