Thursday, February 14, 2013

Part 2: Battlefields, Myths Of Lesser People, And My Rosetta

                                 America’s history is an ongoing civil war.

                                                                               — Chris Matthews, TV Commentator

In my last blog, I said I'd introduce you to Rosetta, an African-American maid who worked in my childhood home in North Carolina during the 1960s. Rosetta's story, I think, helps illustrate the historical disconnect between American ideals of equality and our carefully cultivated myths of lesser people that began with the first European explorers on New World soil.  

President Abraham Lincoln presents his
Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet in this
1864 painting by artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter.
Lincoln's history-making order freed
African Americans enslaved in the rebellious
(Confederate) states, where ironically, the federal
government's power wasn't recognized.  Photo, Wikipedia. 
If we read our nation’s story as a metaphorical civil war, the chapter about America’s actual Civil War epitomizes the fight. That fight took a sharp turn with President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and viscerally continued through the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. (That's when my family hired Rosetta as a maid.) Myths of lesser people persist today in our nation's political, cultural and religious arenas.  

In my book-in-progress about the Civil War and its legacy, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, I write about Rosetta against the background of the war in which African Americans sought recognition as soldiers on battlefields misty with prejudice, and newly freed slaves sought a place in a nation built on democratic principles. Even Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, often characterized as great a liberator as Lincoln, didn't know how to deal with the problems of freed slaves. (More on this later.)

The original Emancipation Proclamation
 in President Lincoln’s handwriting.
  Photo courtesy National Archives
 and Records Administration

In my last blog, I explored the Civil War as one chapter of America’s ongoing story, often focusing on the war's legacy. While the Civil War ended slavery for African Americans (though slavery continues today in America, especially in the sex trade), the war did not end the myths of lesser people. They flourish today, in our nation's politics, culture and religion. I plan to further explore this topic and welcome your input.

Meanwhile, I introduce you to my Rosetta.

From  Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You:  

 From the time I was born until I went to college, a long line of African-American women worked in our home. Some people in our town called these women housekeepers or domestics.  In my middle-class neighborhood, we called them maids. 

            Most of our maids were industrious, upright and kind, but a few were none of these things.  They screamed at us kids and hit us when our parents weren’t around. Beatrice once took my father’s belt and whipped the daylights out of my brother as he rolled on the ground begging for mercy.  Annette told us lies, including where babies came from.  Ethel ignored dust, stole our allowances and helped herself to the brandy my father hid in a kitchen cabinet for New Year’s Eve.  
             Our maids usually were young to middle-aged, but one maid, Rosetta, was bent, wrinkled and gray haired when she came to work for us in the1960s.  Rosetta would have been well past retirement age, if retirement had been a possibility.
            The neighborhood kids called Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, who lived across from us on Carr Street, “Mister Alsey” and Miz Faye.” We addressed Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, who lived a block up General Lee Avenue from us, as “Mister Tommy” and “Miz Julia.”  We called Rosetta simply “Rosa.” I never knew her last name.
HISTORICAL DISCONNECT: This photo of the author, center,
 her two sisters and one of our many "maids," whose name I don't
 remember, was taken circa 1952 in my small-town,
 N.C., home.  My parents, who both worked full-time,
 often six days a week,routinely left us in the care
of African-American employees.  I've often contemplated
how working parents in my neighborhood, in a
 disconnect between the American ideal of equality
and the reality of making economic ends meet, turned over
their most precious gifts — their children —
to the care of under-paid strangers, whom most
 whites in my town regarded as lesser people.
 Many maids came and went in our home as I grew up.
            Most every day when I got home from junior high, Rosa already had cleaned the house – except for the kids’ rooms, which were our responsibilities - and taken the wash from the clothesline.  She had a pan of hot bread pudding plumped with raisins waiting for us because it was my favorite. The smell of those bread puddings surrounded me in perfume of grace as soon as I walked through the door.
            When I did something to anger my parents, Rosa defended me. Her sorghum words flowed over big, yellowed teeth that stuck out from her top lip, reminding me of the cowcatcher on a Durham and Southern locomotive. 
            “She didn’t mean no harm, Miz Lucille,” she’d say.  “She didn’t mean no harm, Mista Ed.”
             Of all the maids who came and went at our house, I liked Rosa best. She did things for me that others had no time to do.
Most of the mothers in my neighborhood worked as teachers, hair stylists, secretaries, bank tellers, nurses and bookkeepers.  My Mother labored six days a week as
a self-taught bookkeeper in my father’s wholesale grocery business and other enterprises around town.  When Rosetta became our maid, my mother was toiling relentless hours in her small clothing store, Lucille’s Shop, “For The Woman Who Cares.” 
            In my Southern small-town existence, I didn’t experience the magnolia women of ease depicted in Hollywood films and ill-informed sentimentality. What I saw was mothers trying to bring home the bacon, achieve independence and gain a little dignity. I saw black women doing white women’s household tasks, including the traditional work of child rearing, all for weekly wages of twenty bucks under the table.
            Once I asked Mother why she paid Rosa only twenty dollars a week when she did so much. 
            “That’s what everybody pays,” she pointedly answered.  “If I paid more, all the maids would demand more.  They talk to each other. Our neighbors would never speak to me again.”
             I’d often find Rosa bent over the ironing board in a corner of our kitchen, an electric fan making her homemade dress billow about her scrawny body.  She’d sprinkle our garments with water from a Coca Cola bottle, then engineer the hot iron over them as sweat beads snaked from her head-kerchief down her face. Sweat slid past her thick bifocals and dropped from the tip of her nose. Rosa transformed our dirty laundry into crisp piles of cleanliness easily tucked into closets and drawers. 
             Sometimes, Rosa applied rags soaked in Clorox to whiten our enamel kitchen sinks until they shimmered. For supper she’d fry chicken or pork chops with gravy, boil green beans from our "lower forty" in ham-meat, and bake biscuits light as balloons.            
            After Rosa had washed our supper dishes and cleaned the kitchen floor with the dishpan water, she’d perch her bird-like self on a high stool and wait for my mother to drive her home.  Rosa would sit on that stool with her back straight, her legs crossed at the ankles, her hands neatly folded across the pocketbook in her lap.  
            My mother didn’t live by a watch.  Rosa always waited a long time to go home.