North Carolina Miscellany
There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which such a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism. Indeed, for the black person, the feigning of an expected emotion could be the very coinage of survival.2
Mayhew doesn’t sail completely smoothly through the rough waters that white writers must navigate in depicting and giving voice to black characters, especially of this time period, but for the most part she creates a rounded, dignified character in Mary Luther and offers a thorough if not always clearly connected analysis of how the system of segregation remained so firmly in place for so long. Mrs. Mary Constance Culpepper Luther came to work for the Watts family when Jubie was five years old. Mayhew takes care to
Howell Raines, “Grady’s Gift,” New York Times 1 Dec. 1991: web.
suggest that while the rest of the Watts family views Mary as merely an employee and usually as a lesser being, Jubie looks upon her as more, is interested in her comfort and wellbeing, and is most affected by what happens to Mary. The author takes time to show their developing relationship and, while depicting a relationship of reciprocal love between a white child and her black caretaker marks one of those treacherous spots in the telling of such a story (since the love was not necessarily reciprocal), Mayhew gives some understanding as to why Mary does feel affection for Jubie. Jubie’s attitude is protective of Mary, her thirteenyear-old self not yet infected with the condescending racial superiority many others demonstrate. For example, Jubie is disturbed that her handsome cousin who comes to stay with them while on a break from West Point treats Mary “as if she were no more than a piece of furniture” (131) and resolves to speak to him about this treatment – though Jubie does not. She is concerned when the family arrives at her uncle’s home in Pensacola and Mary is given a small, sweltering room in the attic. And on their travels, Jubie observes with consternation the more overt forms of Jim Crow encountered than those she is aware of in Charlotte – that is portrayed, at least until the end of the novel,
united press photograph, courtesy of the Library of Congress
Jubie’s growing awareness of racial discrimination and hatred, hatred so strong that it drives some to violence and consumes the society in which she lives. That knowledge is particularly painful to Jubie, whose attachment to Mary is intense and devoted and, for most readers, genuine. This relationship between white children and the black women who took care of them or between white employers and their black “help” is not new terrain for Southern white writers, but it can be treacherous. As Howell Raines noted in his famous 1991 New York Times essay, “Grady’s Gift,”
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as not so harsh in its actual practice of segregation. Traveling in the year of Brown v. Board of Education, Jubie starts noticing signs in people’s yards saying “SEPARATE BUT EQUAL IS GOOD FOR EVERYONE” (7) and signs at town limits proclaiming, NEGROES Observe Curfew! WHITES ONLY After Sundown! (10).
And while she is aware that in their home Mary uses a bathroom in the basement that no one in the family seems to use, Jubie still is a careful observer when on the road she sees that Mary must use dirty outhouses behind gas stations or bathrooms off the kitchens of greasy spoons where they eat. This sympathetic stance is particularly understandable considering Jubie’s family’s poisonous dynamic – her father’s rages that he takes out in physically abusing Jubie and her
ABOVE Fifteen-year-old Dorothy Geraldine Counts on her way to enroll at the recently
desegregated Harding High School, Charlotte, NC, 4 Sept. 1957
Published on Feb 7, 2012
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