Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Race Talk at Brunch

Sunday morning at a small get-together, I had the first direct personal conversation I ever had with an African-American about growing up on opposite sides of the color line in the South.

I'm almost sixty years old; how could it have taken this long?

Surprisingly it wasn't the Obama campaign that started the conversation. It was the movie The Secret Life of Bees, with the black woman in the group saying it was a shallow and unrealistic treatment of the black characters in the story. She called it "a white woman's fantasy."

This friend--I'll call her Jane--grew up with a mother who worked in a white woman's home. I grew up with a black woman helping to take care of me from my earliest memory until adulthood. In only a few minutes, we took a run through some very sensitive stuff: how this kind of arrangement could affect a black kid, how a black nanny might really feel about the white family. A fuller picture than either side typically saw.

During the conversation, I felt as if I were walking a high-wire: easily, but not daring to look down. At the same time, I felt a growing exhilaration and relief.

By the time I was halfway home, though, I was very sad. I didn't feel the connection with the earlier talk; but I knew it was there: how much my privilege has cost people I love, and how little I ever did to shift that balance.

I've come to feel that there's not a lot of point in flaunting guilt, or at least no admirable point; there's plenty to be done still, so I should shut up and do it.

Still, the straight talk was a good thing. For me, anyway.

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kenju said...

My mother grew up on a farm, and her parents had a black woman who took care of the children and cleaned the house and did some cooking. Claudia taught mom to dance and called her "my little white chap". When mom was grown, Claudia told her that when black women were treated poorly by their white families, they would spit in the food they cooked for them (and she claimed never to have done that with them). As a youngster, I couldn't understand why that would happen, but now I see.

We have NO idea how black people feel about us - or how justified their feelings are.

mamie said...

One of my missed opportunities involves the woman who raised the five of us (my mother was a mental escape artist), Olivia Clark. Her husband worked for my father. I have often wished I could ask her about HER two daughters. Who took care of them while she was taking care of us?

I remember her first day at our house. She was eighteen and very, very beautiful. She had a great sense of humor and we still laugh when we recount some of the old stories. My younger sister and she used to watch soap operas together, Olivia ironing. When something ominous happened on the show, she would say, "Uh oh, Susie." This is a favorite phrase among my sibs.

When she walked us to the shopping center, if we encountered another black person I would ask if she knew him or her. I assumed all black people knew each other. Although it must have irritated the hell out of her, she always said absently that she didn't know the person.

billie said...

I, too, had a wonderful black woman who came to us when I was born and stayed until my youngest brother went to high school.

In the community, these black women were referred to as "maids" but what they did was basically mother us, clean house, cook, everything! while our own mothers worked.

My "Mae" had 6 children of her own, all older than me. We knew them, attended their weddings, and Mae sat with our parents at each of ours.

I stopped going to church in the 5th grade b/c she couldn't go with me. It was a huge family ordeal - my mom set up a meeting with the minister, who tried to explain why she couldn't come. "They have their own church to go to." I wanted no part of any church (or religion, for that matter) that didn't include Mae, who was a very spiritual woman and more so by far than many of the adults I encountered at our church.

I've been lucky to be able to continue visiting with Mae off and on, and one of the red letter days in my adult life was taking my children to see her and watch them play on her big front porch while she and I sat and caught up.

She thinks it's hilarious that I now live on a farm and have all the farm chores (they had cows, horses, and pigs when I was young and I was so jealous!). It's funny - people ask how I got into horses since none of my family were horse folk - but it came from Mae. She told me stories about farming and the things her kids did every day, and she entertained my questions about all the farm animals.

She was also my model for how to keep a house clean (she did it so much better than I do, though!) and meals cooked while enjoying the bits and pieces of the day in the process. She never stressed about things. She moved through them with grace.

Peggy Payne said...

Thanks for these stories, Billie, Mamie, Kenju. I love your church rebellion, Billie. I so wish I'd done something like that.

I have a comment from the woman I had the race conversation with on Sunday. Here's what she had to say:

"I too came home thinking about that conversation. I was so disappointed that the writer didn't take the time to really reflect on what the black woman really felt or even if she had learned anything really from that part of her life. I know my mother did learn things from the white women she worked for. She learned things like how to roast a turkey. My mother grew up in a household, where my grandfather boiled his. And she also learned from a white woman that no matter how down she was to put on her best face because overall, it would make you feel better. And I bet those white women learned some things from my mother as well. I hate that the movie didn't explore that.
But as always, I really do enjoy our brunches and the free exchanges we do have. I feel so comfortable with our group, being myself. And that is such a blessing."

Debra W said...

Having not grown up in the south, I can't really relate to what Kenju said about "having NO idea how black people felt about us-or how justified their feelings are." I grew up in the 60's and 70's in NY, and never knew a time when black women raised white women's families. We did have a black "maid", but one of the things that I remember most about her is my mother and her sitting at our kitchen table gossiping together over coffee. They were just two women enjoying one another's company.

The stories I read here made me a bit sad, but not because of the black/white thing. They made me realize how little time we sometimes take to get to know individuals who we encounter on a regular basis. Everyone has a story, and everyone's story is important. Maybe we should spend a bit more time getting to know one another.

I loved the book The Secret Lives of Bees, but after reading "Jane's" comment, I think that I might have to go back and read it again. I guess it's difficult to cover all perspectives.

Peggy, as a child, you could not have possibly understood that things were so imbalanced. You loved and adored Ethel, as I am sure that she did you. You and Ethel were able to change the feelings about the black/white situation in just one short generation. My opinion is that you began "doing" something at that point in your young life. Good for you for wanting to continue on that journey. Guilt is not generally productive, but love is.


Peggy Payne said...

Debbie, you are consistently so kind!

And you remind me that more and more of the population didn't live through Jim Crow, doesn't remember it. I thought that this morning as I bought a Mickey D's tea from a young black woman who was so open-faced and friendly.

Kelley said...

The most poignant discussion I've ever had about race and racism was with you, Peggy, about a year ago. What you expressed then was very similar to your blog. It was very eye opening for me. I am grateful for it and I think of it quite often.

Peggy Payne said...

Thanks, Kelley. I think we never know when some word or action is going to last in some one else's mind.