Back in college, I was asked to sit on a discussion panel about race. I remember feeling honored to be asked, but I only recall one thing that I said that night. We were deep into the session and people began to get honest about the way they saw racial divides showing themselves on our little campus–in the classroom, in the dining hall, on elected boards.
At that point, a young white woman who was a well-known campus leader took the floor and said, with exasperation shaking the bow in her hair, “I just feel like we’re LOOKING for a problem here. I mean, nobody’s stopping anybody from sitting where they want to in the dining hall. I’m not a racist if I want to eat lunch with my friends. I mean, I was RAISED by a black woman…I love black people!”
I remember my friend, Terri, catching my eye and looking like she was about to bust. I spoke up and took a chance on satire: “I loved my Mammy too but that doesn’t fix the problem.”
The punchline worked. It got a good laugh and kept the discussion on track, without saying, “Sit down and shut up, Miss Scarlett.”
And it was true–I did spend several of my formative years under the care of Ms Jenny Mae Bray**, better known in our town as “Quicker.” She never liked her given name so she went by her family nickname, a reminder of how fast she got things done. Quicker watched us while our parents were at work. Now, don’t get any highfalutin’ ideas–we lived in a single-wide trailer with some wooden steps on the front. She had full reign over us and what Quicker said WENT. One time Joe snuck out into the yard without Quicker’s permission and she spanked him with my Bolo Paddle until it cracked in two.
Quicker was a giant presence in my youth. I lost touch with her after we moved when I was in second grade, but my memories of her are sweet and rich. When I was all grown up and in graduate school, Mom took me by to see Quicker at Baby Sister Argroves’ house, where she was working. Later that afternoon, I saw my brother and said, “Joe? How big was Quicker?” He blew out a long breath and said, “Oh man, she had to be six feet at least and maybe 225, 250?” I held up my hand at my shoulder and said, “She comes up to HERE on me! She’s tiny!” We marveled at the truth that time had revealed. And we agreed that we still wouldn’t try any foolishness while she was in charge.
Yes, I loved Quicker. I still remember how, when she gave me a bath in the green tub, she squeezed the washcloth filled with warm water on my shoulder. I do that to my children and think of her. I remember the smell of her egg custard pies and the way she would put a little pat of butter in the center of each while they cooled on the kitchen table. I remember the smell of the iron and how she sang to herself while she ironed shirts in the center of our tiny living room.
I loved Quicker, but I didn’t know her. I only knew the narrow part of her life where it intersected with mine. That’s why I said what I said on that panel about race at Wesleyan. Loving one person through a narrow lens doesn’t mean you understand what life is like for her or her family or her race. Proximity doesn’t equate to intimacy. That’s why the first step in joining the discussion about race in America is listening. Widening the lens that we’ve used for so many years to “see” our neighbors, our friends, our beloved.
Spoiler Alert I’m about to talk about a scene in “Go Set a Watchman.” Yes, I read it. Go ahead and judge me.
A lot of people didn’t want to read Harper Lee’s “newly discovered” first novel because they didn’t want it to change the way they saw the characters that we’ve all grown to love from To Kill a Mockingbird. How could Atticus be a racist? How could Jem not be around? How could Scout be a grown woman drinking booze and kissing men?
In reading another view of them, from 20 years past the TKAM storyline, I might have to widen my lens. Kind of like getting to know someone like Quicker, who had been a big part of my life, but only on my terms.
The scene that most moved me in Watchman was when Jean Louise visits Calpurnia at her home. Calpurnia’s family has suffered a great blow with the arrest of her grandson. The situation is made hopeless by the racial politics of the time (because if the racial roles were reversed in the car crash, and a young white man had hit a drunk old black man, no charges would have been filed). When Jean Louise shows up at Calpurnia’s knee, she is devastated to find that Calpurnia “is wearing her company manners.” Jean Louise is not welcome; she is cast out into her whiteness. In shock, Scout cries, “Cal, Cal, Cal what are you doing to me? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?”
And Calpurnia answers, “What are you all doing to us?”
With those words, Jean Louise’s lens is shattered because Calpurnia insists on being seen in her entirety, not just as a part of Scout’s life. “She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks.”
Quicker took good care of me. Because I loved her, it’s my duty to honor her too. To seek to understand. To listen. To widen my lens. To right what has been wrong.
**Edited to change Quicker’s name from Strozier to Bray. My mama corrected my memory. I think the fact that I didn’t even recall her name correctly is a great comment on the point I was trying to make: I loved her, but I didn’t know her.