This Story Won a 2021 International Human Rights “Creators of Justice Literary Award” Honorable Mention
In 1952 when I was 9 years old, my father was stationed at an Air Force base in Atlanta, Georgia. Soon after we moved into a new house there, other officers’ wives started suggesting to my mother that she hire a “Negro” maid (at that time, “Negro” was the polite term for African American people). For some weeks, my mother rejected these suggestions. She could certainly care for her own household and children. She changed her mind, however, when she found out she would only have to pay a dollar an hour for help. A small amount to her, $8 a day might be all a Southern Negro family would have to live on. So, she hired a very nice lady named Suzy to come clean our house twice a week.
Suzy’s first day at our house was interesting. Come lunchtime, for example, Suzy informed us that she had to have a different set of dishes than those we used. My mother had to rummage around to find dishes with a different pattern than our dishes, so the dishes “fo dah coloreds,” as Suzy said, could be kept separate from the dishes “fo dah white people” like us. What she found that was different were my brother’s well-used plastic plate and cup. My brother, who until that day had not known he was white, would not be using his Lone Ranger dishes anymore.
That wasn’t all: Suzy also had to have different kitchen and bathroom towels to dry her hands-on, which we could no longer use. And she got to sit in the cheerful kitchen to have lunch, while we now had to sit in the dining room, where we had to practice our manners.
My brother and I understood less than nothing about what the color of one’s skin meant in those days. My mother, however, was learning how much damage slavery, poverty and racism had done to this woman who had come into our lives.
Over the next few weeks, my mother tried several times to treat Suzy as an equal, but each time she succeeded only in upsetting her. On these occasions, Suzy would say, “Yes’m, but you don unnerstan. Dat be what is.” My mother realized she would have to go along with the status quo.
Then came a day my mother would always remember.