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Vannie, Part Two

What it is like for me as an adult looking back . . .

“So I return now to my opening portrait of Vannie, and everything looks different. All the lights and shadows have been recast.” That is how I ended my blog about Vannie as seen by me as a child, growing up under her guidance. Those two sentences launch this second blog that focuses on the same person—Vannie—but this time seen from a later perspective. That later perspective—no longer sheltered by innocence—seeks to lay out the appalling history that brought Vannie into our lives. This is the “back-story” I knew nothing about at the time.

What seemed the most natural phenomenon imaginable—Vannie’s role in our house for many decades—reveals itself as the most socially calculated of domestic arrangements. Serving as housemaids in white households was the dominant form of work that Southern black women were able to find for almost century after the war that was supposed to liberate them had ended. Such work could be peculiarly galling for at least two reasons. First, it reenacted, within a “softened” framework, the fate of enslaved black women. They were once again installed in “the big house,” there to take on the more onerous chores. Second, they were not providing an expertise that might be paid for by the hour and that permitted a margin of independence. Rather, they could be drawn on in countless unwritten ways, by a white mistress who might be as understanding as my mother, but might also be as tyrannical as she wished. The physical person was being hired, not that person’s skills. Black women had virtually no opportunity for higher education before the later twentieth century (Vannie had gone no further than the eighth grade). All they could offer, within market terms, was the unskilled labor of their bodies.

Such labor was poorly paid. When Vannie first came to work for us, we paid her three dollars a week, an amount that must have been normative at the time. She worked five and a half days a week, eventually (some twenty years later) cutting back to five days. Her wages increased to ten dollars per week in the later 1940s, and by the time of her death (1971) she was being paid forty dollars a week. It is hard to see how she could have lived on this, but so long as her husband, Jim, was alive, he supported her with his garage business. Years later I was to learn that she sent almost all her money to her younger sister, Hattie Mae, who lived in Somerville (where Vannie had grown up) and whose children those wages helped to support.

The layered clothes and fraternity jacket move me now in complex ways. On the one hand, Vannie scrupulously protected her own finer clothes (and she had stylish tastes) from the routine work of our household—a protection that has a psychological as well as a material dimension. On the other hand, she lived her life with us in a makeshift uniform that, however it served to “professionalize” her, also signaled a sort of servitude. The borrowed clothes and fraternity jacket bespeak a certain alienation, signaling her place within our hierarchical system of clothing. She would not have been caught dead (I mean this literally) wearing such things in her own world.

More, the house that seemed unconstrainedly hers was itself subdivided racially in ways I would only later understand—the kitchen her “favorite” room only in the sense that the greatest amount of work to be done took place there. The meals she cooked in that room were for us alone. During the eighteen years I spent at home I never saw her eat a meal, never saw her sit down anywhere else than in the kitchen. The other rooms were to be entered only as work-spaces. More, her husband’s casual absence from our house reads, in retrospect, as the motivated enactment of an unstated racial code. Not that Jim was a sinister figure, but he was “other,” whereas Vannie was—ours. And the fact of our driving her first to one bus stop and then (if need be) to another testifies eloquently—when reconsidered—to the racial map shaping the segregated neighborhoods of midcentury Memphis. As historian C. Vann Woodward noted in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the proliferation of Jim Crow laws throughout the South underwrote (ever since the 1890s) a racial barrier extending “to virtually all forms of public transportation, to sports and recreations, to hospitals, orphanages, prisons, and asylums, and ultimately to funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries”: from cradle to grave.

As Vannie’s daily presence in our house made her other (her entire routine marking her difference from us), it no less worked to make us normal. Like countless middle-class white families in the urban South of the 1940s and 1950s, we demonstrated our middle-classness, in part, through our ability to hire Vannie. The entire economy of white families with black housemaids descends, relatively undisguised, from the antebellum South. It advertises, even, a measure of race-based aristocratic ease almost a century after the Lost Cause was lost. With a black woman working in our house, we gained (automatically, like our neighbors) a certain status, showing us to be members of the leisure class. And since my own family’s origins were Jewish, not Christian (our nineteenth century history was Eastern European, not American), this veneer of traditional Southern practice served us effectively. (All the more so for being unconscious.)