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.)
What Vannie did for me—taking care of me physically, washing and dressing and attending to me—I now see no longer as a care destined for me alone. Rather, I see it as a (seamlessly carried out) dimension of her larger socially proposed and accepted role: to take care of a white family’s (luckily, my family’s) entire physical enterprise—our bodies, our food, our clothes, our rugs, rooms, furniture . . . “Having got the house into the state she wanted,” I wrote above, but this was not her house, nor was the chore of cleaning it her chosen project. William Faulkner is famously on record for expressing his gratitude for his black mammy’s care of himself and his family. But Toni Morrison’s fiction lets me get closer to how black maids themselves might have regarded the interminable task of getting rid of the various kinds of dirt found in white people’s homes. When Ondine (in Morrison’s Tar Baby) can no longer restrain herself, she faces her dysfunctional white family and lashes out, “I am the one who should have some more respect. I’m the one who cleans up the shit.” The work Vannie did for us for thirty-five years involved infinitely more than cleaning up our shit, but it rarely involved less.
In late 1994 my wife and I drove from Memphis to Somerville (less than an hour away), and I finally met Vannie’s younger sister, Hattie Mae Bond. (“I’ve been waiting for this visit for twenty-three years,” she murmured, in a tone somewhere between anticipation and upbraiding.) There, in the presence of a sibling who uncannily resembled Vannie herself, I saw photographs of her extended family—all the images absent from my childhood sense of Vannie. I learned that she was one of eleven children (eight of whom survived and went to the Somerville school through at least the eighth grade). I learned as well that she had lived in St. Louis a number of years before coming to us in Memphis, and that she had helped to pay for the college education of Hattie Mae’s four children—who had become teachers and doctors. I suddenly brought together two ideas scrupulously kept apart during my own childhood: black people and higher education.
Two further vignettes remain, both resonant beyond my capacity to unpack them. “Put on my red shoes,” Vannie had demanded just before being taken in the ambulance to the hospital. When her brother-in-law, Reverend Brewster, asked my family about the events of Vannie’s last hours, my twin supplied that isolated detail. A couple of days later it came back amplified unforgettably. Reverend Brewster had woven it into his funeral sermon and inserted it into the overwhelming gospel music that the gathered group of family and friends sang in memory of Vannie. Those red shoes were now transformed into the sign of her entry into heaven, by the side of Jesus, her triumphant negotiation of this life she had endured below. I would discover, more than twenty years after Vannie’s death, that the motif of transcendent shoes figures in traditional black spirituals, and that Reverend Brewster drew on the resources of a still-living culture to make this detail shine with prophecy. “What kind o’ shoes is dem-a you wear?. . . Dat you can walk upon de air?” the slaves had asked in an early spiritual, and the answer came loud and clear: “Dem shoes I wear am de gospel shoes . . . An’ you can wear dem ef-a you choose.” It took me twenty years to see that Vannie’s red shoes might resonate not just personally but culturally, because up to that time I had remained more or less unaware that American blacks had an enabling culture.
Finally, Hattie Mae showed us the photograph she had been saving for last, the one of her mother and father, Evelyn Taylor Nelson and Thomas Nelson. Evelyn Nelson had a strong, dignified, unsmiling, dark-tan face; she wore a simple sarong-like dress and looked about thirty-five. Thomas Nelson, some fifteen to twenty years older, mustached and dressed in somber black, stared out at the camera. He was white. I stared back at the photo, too stunned to speak, as my wife turned to Hattie Mae. “But your father was white?” my wife asked. “Yes,” Hattie Mae responded, with a slight smile hovering about her lips, knowing she had furnished us information we had never guessed on our own. We asked a few more timid questions that tiptoed around the issue of segregation, and Hattie Mae averred that none of her family had especially suffered from it. They had lived together on a large Somerville farm; her father had conducted his professional life as an administrator in the local school system. On the way home I replayed in my mind a number of scenes from the past, and I read within a new perspective Vannie’s light-colored dark skin and her willingness to hold her own in any encounter (without ever venturing into racial territory, however). Hattie Mae’s daughter left the room when this photograph was unveiled, perhaps because the mixed blood that might function as a strange source of pride in one generation had become a distinctly more vexed inheritance in the next one, perhaps not for this reason at all. Most suggestive is the way in which this capital fact remained unknown to us during Vannie’s lifetime. It doubtless affected her daily way of accessing her own identity and ours as well. Yet it remained unspeakable to us, the white family who hired her but who loved her too.
I close this reminiscence on the note of love. All of us—the three sons, our parents—loved her, and I believe that she loved us in return. At least I want to believe this. The structural constraints I have tried to identify, the impersonal racial pressures ensuring that this relationship remain one between unequals, shrouded in an impenetrable ignorance—these constraints do not invalidate an affection that was precious. But they do rewrite it as a racial pact enabled and disfigured by larger social norms, and opening into mystery. When does a more or less forced labor (she had to work, to accept our meager wage) turn into love? To what extent is what I took for a gift of self better understood as the best of a necessary bargain? What can you know of someone when you not only never meet that person’s family but never think it odd to know nothing about them? When you never even consider broaching the unspoken barriers that construct the relationship itself? How can my knowledge of Vannie count as valid when it lacks virtually every element of the knowledge of her that her own friends and family possessed?
Yet the feeling we shared was real, in part because the differences between us were not just white and black but childhood and maturity. I needed to love and be loved; she was prepared to respond to that need. In many houses throughout the South up to the mid-twentieth century, such black women must have answered the call of needy white children—this despite the inequality wrought into the arrangement. (In many other houses, no doubt, it did not happen.) The solicited generosity of spirit that passes across the membrane of race is not illusory, even though it is steeped (for the white child) in ignorance, maintained (for the black woman) by economic compulsion. Something precious was given and received. Still, the imbalance of it all never ceased to play a shaping role. We did not both need to love in the same way, nor was our love of the same kind. In fact, at this distance of over fifty years, I have to wonder whether my continued investment in this bond does not participate in a larger Southern white myth of black forgiveness of white privilege. Is this lingering fantasy that I am forgivable and forgiven one of the reasons I keep returning to the image of Vannie?
I come away with mystery. I shall never know what she thought of me in her heart—how she silently negotiated the differences between the constraints of mandated labor and the flow of free feeling. I need to remember that I do not know this. In its place I know something less comforting. What I took (throughout my childhood) to be ours alone—my precious and reciprocated love for Vannie—was at the same time my culture’s way of keeping the races unequal in the very act of putting them so intimately together. This contradictory truth keeps reminding me how intricately knowledge and ignorance may share the same space, and how the dance of time can reveal the one to be the other.