Southern Women & The Indispensable Myth

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“WE’RE USED to living around ‘em. You Northerners aren’t. You don’t know anything about ‘em.” This is or was the allpurpose utterance of white Southerners about blacks. Everybody from Jefferson Davis to Strom Thurmond has said it, in some version, at one time or another. Turned on its obverse, the old saw means, “You can’t know how bad they are. ” Or conversely, “You can’t imagine how deeply we understand them.” This racial intimacy has served as the explanation of everything from lynch mobs to the recent and comparatively peaceful integration of Southern schools, accomplished while Boston and Detroit sometimes literally went up in flames.

In the small town in Arkansas where I grew up, I heard about this interracial coziness, or read about it in novels, and for years I believed in it. But in fact it simply did not exist, at least not for me. With one exception, the only people I ever knew were white.

Several thousand black people lived in Hot Springs, of course, in three or four different tumbledown sections that butted right up against equally tumbledown white neighborhoods. I always saw more black men than black women. Black men ran the elevators in the three or four buildings where doctors and dentists had offices. They swept the floors and emptied the spittoons in the casino where my father worked. (Gambling—illegal—was the major local industry. I was not allowed inside a gambling house, even to visit my dad, but he used to tell me about the high rollers from New York who would tip the black porter twenty dollars.) Black men worked as garbage collectors, as waiters, as kitchen help—sometimes as yardmen, though elderly white men most often claimed such jobs.

Besides the kitchen help and porters, there existed, according to my father, an utterly terrifying class of Negroes who got drunk and went after each other with razors on Saturday nights. Their names and crimes would be listed in the newspapers in the “Colored” column on Mondays.

I never saw hide or hair of these bad men with their razors. But I knew a few of the well-behaved black men by name. For example, I knew Crip, who ran the elevator in the Medical Arts Building, a twelve-story skyscraper where all the dentists had offices. My teeth rotted continuously, so Mother and I got quite familiar with Crip, white-haired, bent forward at the middle, his joints twisted by arthritis into grotesque knots of agony. He always put on the most astonishing act. My father’s nickname in the gambling world was “Hat,” as Crip knew, since his son worked as a casino porter, so Crip called my mother “Miz Hat.” “Why, mornin’, Miz Hat,” and he would hand her in and out of the creaky old elevator cage as though she were some plantation queen mounting and dismounting her blooded steed. I was “Little Miz Hat,” and he would bow and scrape and somehow make me feverishly aware of my adorable blonde curls. He never would sit down in the presence of whites and would set me on the operator’s jump seat instead. I don’t know how my mother felt about all this, but I loved it. It made me feel that my mother and I were ladies. Why else would this poor old man act so silly?

Black women were a complete mystery to me. In those days, surely, most black women earned their living as domestics, and yet I scarcely knew a family who kept a maid. Then, when I was about seven, my father got a raise and decided to hire one for my mother—over her objections, for she was quite capable of keeping the house clean by herself and would rather have banked the money. But Daddy wanted his wife to have some leisure, and so one morning, very early, he brought Emma to our back door. For the two or three years that we were able to afford her, he would go and fetch her in the car six mornings a week, and then Mother would drive her home again in the afternoon. Emma earned ten dollars a week and Daddy sixty-five dollars (he too worked six days out of seven). He forbade me to tell any of the neighbor children what Emma’s salary was, since the going rate was a dollar a day and sometimes less. But Mother had said she would be ashamed to work anybody for a dollar a day.

Thus commenced my only childhood association with a black woman. Emma was five feet tall, round but not fat, and so black that her facial features, quite delicate and small, seemed indistinct. Her eyes were blacker than her skin and seemed to have no whites to them. Though she looked like a girl, she was already a grandmother. Watching her as she expertly thrust the point of the iron into ruffles and pleats, I used to beg to touch the palms of her hands, which were the color of cream slipper satin, and when I asked her how she got her palms so light, she would laugh and say it was from washing on a rub-board.

 

I WAS ALREADY corrupted, perhaps by books, or perhaps by Emma’s shy deference toward me. I wanted to play the daughter of the manor. How wonderful to have a maid to order around. But Mother quickly set me straight. The first time she heard me bragging to the neighborhood children that we had a maid, she gave me a switching. And worse than that, my dream of becoming a pampered child of the leisure class vanished as Mother proceeded to work side by side with Emma.