Not like one of the family

Seeing and hearing black nannies

Robert Frank Charleston South Carolina
Robert Frank, “Charleston, South Carolina,” from Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

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

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From Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

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.

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From Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

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.”

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From Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

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.”

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From Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

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?”

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Backside reads, “Elizabeth C’s mammy holding a friend. Eliz. Didn’t like this” with no mention of nanny, Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

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):

Dr. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders at the Framing Shadows reception, May 8, 2019

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.”

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From left to right: Rose Scott, Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Mary Schmidt Campbell, Pellom McDaniels

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.

In and around the oak

In honor of Earth Day

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“Hank Aaron” white oak in Connally Nature Park, East Point

What are the significant trees in your world?

Last month I stumbled upon a memorial to “Big Al,” a massive willow oak on the Georgia Tech campus that spontaneously split and fell last autumn, shocking the community. Fall of a Champion was a student-produced exhibit on the more than 100-year-old tree that included benches, bookmarks, hinged wooden book covers, and coasters made out of Big Al, a poster that juxtaposed important events in the history of the university against dates of the rings in Big Al’s trunk, and paper meditations on trees. After that event I got to thinking about how trees inspire communication. Continue reading In and around the oak

Majestying in Buckhead

Out to dinner at King + Duke

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Restaurant at the corner of Peachtree Road NE and West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Huckleberry Finn? It might be “floating down the Mississippi River on a raft,” or “friendship with Jim the runaway slave,” or maybe “smoking, cussing, fibbing… with a heart of gold,” or even “escaping ‘sivilization.’” Chances are you’re not going to say “food.” Continue reading Majestying in Buckhead

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Romeo and Juliet at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern

As Valentine’s Day looms, the thoughts of those so inclined naturally turn to one love classic above all, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this romantic tragedy, young lovers – Juliet is not even 14 years old! –  from feuding families – the Montagues and the Capulets – unite but fail to bring their families together; they die from hate, misunderstanding, and bad timing.

Like many Americans I first encountered Romeo and Juliet in high school, and imagined myself to be on the balcony where “stony limits cannot hold love out.” The thrill was enhanced with exposure to the Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 classic film adaptation with Olivia Hussey. But amid government shut-downs, and from the vantage point of the national capital of the civil rights movement, I confess that these days my thoughts turn more to the feuding Montagues and the Capulets than to the lovers Romeo and Juliet. Continue reading Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Till it reaches the city of the sun


Reading Ovid in winter

There’s something very wonderful about the coming of winter, cold, and darkness. It allows a person to burrow in, curl up with the dog or cat, bask in the warmth of the hearth, and read things like Ovid. Culturally it’s the Season of Light. Falling close to the winter solstice, the Season of Light marks the darkest part of the year. Winter celebrations involving light date from the Stone Age if not before. The Romans had two winter celebrations:  Saturnalia, sometimes depicted as a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, and Sol Invictus, the festival of the sun God. Saturna, another pagan festival during the eight days up to the solstice, is depicted in the Jewish Talmud. The feast o Yule was celebrated by ancient Germanic peoples. Some of the old pagan rituals are similar to those in Christmas traditions. The Season of Winter, therefore, transcends any one religion or creed.  So does most mythology, which is so distant in time and place from our world today. In reading it, you simply disconnect from the present time and watch the struggle of larger-than-life characters play out in your mind’s stage. You bring the stories back to our world.

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House in December, Druid Hills, Atlanta

Ovid (43 BC-AD 17) rewrote Greek myths for a Roman audience. For example he retells the myth of Persephone as the myth of Proserpine (Book V), and it is a myth that explains winter. Continue reading Till it reaches the city of the sun

Back in the Wren’s Nest

Joel Chandler Harris turns 170

My mother used to read to us, but she never read us Uncle Remus. We weren’t from the South and also she hated dialect. I can understand. With dialect, a reader doesn’t just listen to the writer’s words but enact them in weird voices. Not everyone is up for that.

In anticipation of the anniversary of the 170th birthday of Joel Chandler Harris at the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta this December 9, I sat down with his Complete Tales of Uncle Remus (compiled by Richard Chase, 1983 [1955], 808 pages!) and went through the first book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, from Chapter 1 “Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy” to Chapter 32 “The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox.” Trying to read the regular silent way, the dialect was torturous. I sounded out phrases I couldn’t understand and figured some of them out – e.g., that “bimeby” means “by and by.” Eventually I gave up on silent reading. I started hearing an oral tale spoken by me.

Continue reading Back in the Wren’s Nest

Flying hair, bright eyes, ruddy cheeks

Atlanta’s Little Women Collaborative Altered Book Project

A teaser: Which March sister does Louisa May Alcott refer to as Atlanta? (i.e., the huntress and sprinter in Greek mythology who agreed to marry any man who could outrun her, spearing those who couldn’t)***

This year is the sesquicentennial of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), a book that is regarded, on the one hand, as a heart-warming tale of love, nuclear family, small-town community, and wholesome Christian goodness and a perfect read for the holiday season, or, on the other hand, as a pioneering work of distinct and independent female characters challenging the feminine norms of Civil War era society that continues to inspire girls in our own time. And a gamut in between. Sesquicentennial discussions and celebrations are happening all around the world, from the Alcott epicenter at Orchard House in Concord, MA, all the way to the Southern Hemisphere (see this compelling interview), from the pages of USA Today to those of the Paris Review. A sign the of book’s lasting popularity is that at the end of October Little Women was voted #8 of 100 best-loved American novels in The Great American Read. And take note: As part of this year’s festivities, high school students still have a couple of more weeks to submit to the Orchard House’s Louisa May Alcott short story contest (deadline November 29).

Little Women is more complicated and nuanced than it may at first seem. Continue reading Flying hair, bright eyes, ruddy cheeks