Family Politics

It’s rained overnight and the air is fresh. Up early the cardinals chip-chip as they come to the feeders. The most beautiful of the backyard birds, yet the most shy, they arrive in the twilight hours, as if wanting to hide their beauty, or hoping to avoid the swarms of sparrows. Or simply preferring semi-obscurity.

I’ve been musing about women and politics. Tis the season. The family politics of my girlhood in Charleston were fraught with tension. My father, the Italian-American from Pittsburgh, never muted his opinions. He was bitten by rabid racism and paranoia during the 1950s and 60s, convinced that Commies were poised to invade or Northern radicals were sending their “nigger lovers” down to subvert the American (read Southern) ideal. I know, his phrase sounds hateful to our ears, as it did to mine in those days, yet he spewed the term with little compunction. Most of the time, my mother sat silent, occasionally complaining, “Oh, Leonard.” I, on the other hand, argued with him: “Daddy, you don’t know what you’re talking about: They are not poised to come down on us!” In fact, he did know, except that Charleston was rather subdued compared to Montgomery or Selma. Charleston had no actual civil rights demonstrations until the late 60s, and its gentry class did not spout racial diatribes. My father was by far the most vociferous local racist I ever heard. Which was part of my objection: Why couldn’t he act more gentile? Why did he have to disturb our Sunday dinners with denunciations.

I knew no blacks except Shorty, the janitor of The Old Citadel who took our Woolworth Easter chicks down to his farm on Johns Island when they lost their pink/blue/or green fluffy feathers and sprouted wings. Yet my perceptions were direct and unclouded: I saw the poverty of black families when I walked to school or rode the bus–children with torn and dirty clothes, old women trudging to the back of the bus carrying heavy shopping bags, unable to sit in empty seats close to the front because of segregation. Their stoic, yet obvious weariness made me very ashamed of being white, of being unable to jump up and give them my seat. Even though no one articulated this for me, I intuited that even had I made that gesture, they would have ignored me.

So many Southern women black and white, I have since learned, quietly or openly resisted racism: they fought for anti-lynching laws, they trained at Highlander Folk School and with Rosa Parks started and sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They quietly continued relations with families across the racial divide with whom their kin had been associated for generations. Many white Charlestonians had black relatives, though they may not have known or admitted it. David Ball’s Slaves in the Family brought this to light, admitting that the black relatives he traced around the country sometimes wanted nothing to do with him.

Recently I’ve enjoyed reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Hands because the secret connection she imagines between a very independent Southern young woman and the African-American women who work as maids for her friends beautifully transgresses the distance and fear that tainted the intimacy of so many white and black women who raised white children. Whether her story is truly fiction or might actually have happened, I can’t say. All I remember is that in the homes of my well-to-do white Charleston friends, a black woman almost always presided in the kitchen and gave orders on cleanliness, deportment, even on language which I received only from my mother.

Stockett’s tribute to the African-American “help” of her childhood is one of the most honest description of this deep affection and dependence I’ve ever read. But it’s from a white point of view. To begin to grasp what that relation meant to black women we have to read Toni Morrison or Alice Walker or see Tony Kushner’s play “Caroline or Change.” These works portray the resistance and toll of black women’s subservience even to decent white mistresses. Though I’ve indulged a romantic version of an “across the divide” relation between Southern black and white women, these works knock that notion hard.

Then I withdraw into the twilight of a kind of beauty that chooses to hide. In my case because I don’t have the tools to navigate a Southern white woman/black woman connection in broad day. I’m not afraid of what “the public” would say or do, seeing us together; I’m aware of a centuries-deep gulf that makes real intimacy hard to sustain.

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