Seeing and hearing black nannies
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’ exhibit Framing Shadows features 22 photos of African American nannies of white children from the 1840s to the 1920s, a family photo type found during these years in the eastern United States. It also displays novels that feature the mammy-child relationship such as Gone with the Wind, which Dr. Wallace-Sanders has written about in Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. The juxtaposition shows a progression in Dr. Wallace-Sanders scholarship from the fictive mammy character in narratives, images, and artifacts to the real African American taking care of white children in historical photos and biographical accounts. The exhibit previews her upcoming book on this work Nannies, Mammies, and Love Slaves: Portraits of Black Women Taking Care of White Children 1850-1950.
Dr. Wallace-Sanders treated me to a narrated tour of the exhibit this week. The dominant fictive narrative of the mammy-nanny, she said, is one of wonderful black women taking care of white children who are loved by those children almost more than their real mothers (the “Black Mary Poppins”). She has traced this character, seen from the point of view of the child, in classics such as Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936 – Mammy), The Member of the Wedding (Carson McCullers, 1946 – Berenice), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960 – Calpurnia), The Help (Kathryn Stockett, 2009 – Aibileen), and others. The unchanging repetition of this depiction was suspicious:
I think in the South, in particular, people are deeply invested in anything that resembles a benevolent inter-racial relationship, because there’s such racial tension in the South. It’s like, Oh there were all these terrible things that happened but this one was a fabulous relationship. Those women loved our children. They were so grateful to have these jobs. It’s all about how wonderful their lives were, and I can tell that that’s propaganda. – Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
The counter narrative is on display in the photos in the exhibit. They show women who are exhausted (sometimes sleeping), with children of their own (sometimes pregnant), with little chance to live (sometimes growing up having to care for younger white children). The counter narrative can also be found in one novel in particular – Like One of the Family (1956) by Alice Childress – which Dr. Wallace-Sanders feels that people today should read. Pointing to Robert Frank’s photo “Charleston, South Carolina” displayed in the exhibit above the novel, she said, “It’s this story.”
The ironically named novel (which I’ve personally nicknamed Straight Talk) showcases the voice of Mildred Johnson, a single 32-year old African American woman who came to New York City from South Carolina and found employment as a “house servant” in various homes of white families. She lets off steam by talking with Madge, a woman about the same age who lives in the same apartment complex in Harlem. Readers are put in the position of her confidant Madge, listening in on vignettes told with gusto and humor about the injustices of what it’s like to be a domestic worker and to be a black woman in the 1950s as the civil rights movement heats up. Mildred acts out bits of transformative dialogue for the amusement and benefit of her friend. In the very first vignette Mildred describes overhearing her employer Mrs. C saying to a friend in the next room, “We just love her! She’s like one of the family and she just adores our little Carol! We don’t know what we’d do without her! We don’t think of her as a servant!”
A little while later Mildred confronts Mrs. C, point by point. The following sound clip provides a flavor of her words:
This is one of many talking-tos or straightening outs across the vignettes. Mildred’s techniques include mirroring the actions and words of employers and peers who don’t realize how offensive they are and taking their words at face value and extrapolating from these false premises to show how they the conclusions don’t add up. These words can be read differently by different audiences. For white readers the stories may indicate how their words and ideas are perceived and experienced, building sensitivity. For black readers, these vignettes of speaking up and confronting may look like a kind of cathartic fantasy, but they may also model what a person could actually say under certain circumstances, even to this today.
The novel also provides a rare viewpoint of the United States in the 1950s. The vignettes fall into several categories, and their titles make good teasers. Some regard issues of employment (e.g., “Like one in the family,” “If you want to get along with me,” “The pocket book game,” “The health card,” “In the laundry room,” “Inhibitions,” “We need a union, too,” “On leavin notes”). Others relate to social justice (e.g., “Ridin’ the bus,” “Signs of the times,” “What does Africa want?”, “I visit yesterday,” “Northerners can be so smug,” “If Heaven is what we want,” and “Where is the speaking place?”) Others address slights against groups of people such as ethnic groups (e.g., “Nasty compliments”), old people (“Old as the hills”), and women (“Dance with me, Harry”). And some offer something completely different, such as “I wish I was a poet” and my absolute favorite of the whole novel, the fabulous and transcendent Ch. 2 “Listen for the Music.”
The portraits in Framing Shadows come from the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection at Emory, a collection of more than 12,000 photographs, and are on display in the Schattan Gallery of Woodruff Library. Dr. Wallace-Sanders said she was struck by how the photographs, although designed to feature the family’s child held by the nanny, actually set off the nanny more than the child: “I realized that way early photography was set up is that it’s most likely that the adults were posing first, so the lighting is set for them and for their skin tone, and that’s why the children sort of fade away.”
She pointed out the highly visible details on the care workers’ faces such as wrinkles or glowing skin, a furrowed brow, closed eyes, and details of ornamentation such as handmade clothes with personalized details such as an ornamental comb and hair ribbons, which suggested that they dressed up for the pictures in individualized ways indicating their identity, dignity and sometimes defiance. At the same time they display nuanced emotions: “I cannot get over facial expressions, women who look tired, sometimes they look like they’re looking affectionately at the children but I think, by and large, what strikes most people is that they’re not smiling, they really don’t look that happy. They look like they were asked to do this.”
Of note there are few mentions of the black domestic workers’ names in the nanny-child photo records. Dr. Wallace-Sander asks, “If they [the servants] were important enough to be included in the photograph, why didn’t anyone keep track of their names?”
On May 8, 2019, Emory hosted an evening on Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’ exhibit. It began with an hour-long reception in the exhibit hall in the library, with refreshments and mingling. At the reception Dr. Wallace-Sanders explained some of the nuances of the photos, such as how exceptional it was for a black nanny to have her full name displayed (below center) or the disturbing way that one photo cut out all of the nanny but her “black hands” holding a white child (below right):
Following the exhibit we walked to Cannon Chapel for a conversation introduced by Pellom McDaniels (curator of the African American Collections at Emory’s Rose Library), moderated by Rose Scott (journalist and host of “Closer Look” on NPR’s Atlanta radio station WABE), and conducted by Kimberly Wallace-Sanders (associate professor of American and African American Studies) and Mary Schmidt Campbell (president of Spelman College). Dr. Wallace-Sanders drew applause when stating the pledge she made to the women in the photographs:
I know you’re there and I’m going to tell your story. I’m going to make sure that you’re not erased from history. I’m going to make sure that you’re not invisible. I’m going to make sure that people look at your face and see you as a real person and not as human furniture. – Kimberly Wallace-Sanders
The counter narratives uncovered through texts tell of domestic work from dawn through dinner or beyond, exhaustion, and return to their black families to take care of their children when the day was done.
Dr. Campbell pointed out that the exhibit comes at an auspicious moment as part of a national effort to change narratives about the legacy of the slavery and racial injustice. Even the newest dramatic adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway, by Aaron Sorkin, she said, is different in that Finch’s nanny-maid Calpurnia “tells you what’s on her mind.”
Dr. Wallace-Sanders hopes people will come forth with information about the nannies in the photos. It is possible that what is on display will also be found in family collections. It is reasonable to expect additional information given the new digitized reach of the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection through the Luna platform. As Dr. McDaniels explained, people can submit information about the photos online, which will then be vetted by researchers, building knowledge through crowdsourcing.
Framing Shadows runs through January 5, 2020, in the Schattan Gallery on the third floor of Woodruff Library at Emory University. Parking decks at Emory are free on weekends and during the week after 4:30 p.m.