By Dr. Robert Keller
“What’s does it feel like to raise a white child when your own child’s at home being looked after by somebody else?”
In the movie “The Help”, there’s a dramatic pause after that line as the character Aibileen contemplates her answer to the budding journalist Skeeter. In that pause is where my life story lies.
“When I came home from the hospital, I gave you to Viola” my mother likes to tell me. Beginning that day in the fall of 1957, those two women have raised me. One…….a single, white, professional woman trying to raise three boys. That’s my mom. Her name is Marian. Being a single mother trying to raise young kids has never been a walk in the park.
But doing it in the 60’s in the South while trying to climb the corporate ladder? Now that was relatively unheard of. Marian’s life was tough.
The other…..a single, black, housekeeper trying to raise three boys of someone else’s while also trying to raise a large family of her own. That’s my mom, too. Her name is Viola. Because of the Jim Crow laws of the day, she was relegated to a status of “separate but equal.” She had to ride in the back of the bus, had to sit in a separate section of the local movie theater, and had to carry her hotdogs out to the curb to eat them while the white children that she cared for could eat inside. Viola’s day-to-day life made Marian’s travails pale by comparison.
They met when both were relatively young. Marian was twenty-nine, and Viola was thirty-five. Both were in very similar situations…..and both of their situations was dire. Their men were gone, and they were stuck raising the kids. Marian had a relatively good job, but she had to have someone watch her kids while she was at her workplace. Viola didn’t have a job, and she had to feed her kids. As Marian says “We needed each other.”
When they met, Marian was making about $200 a month as a mid-level accountant with a large cotton mill. Out of that small wage, she was able to pay Viola $40 a month. It was evidently meager means for both. While their arrangement started as a working relationship, it grew into something so much more. These days Marian is quick to add “She was the best friend I had!” Together they survived, and together they grew.
Five days a week, Viola would walk approximately three miles to get to our house. Like a modern day wrestling tandem, she and Marian would briefly make contact….exchanging directions and directives….and then separately set forth to attack the day. With Viola’s help, Marian could now focus on her career. Marian was (and still is) a very smart woman, and it didn’t take long for her career to blossom.
One of the officers from her firm split off to create a small financial institution, and Marian was asked to come along. She quickly rose through the ranks and became a corporate officer. As Marian’s fortunes changed, so did Viola’s.
Viola was (and still is) a fiercely proud woman, and she approached her career as aggressively as Marian approached hers. Marian was now able to provide Viola with uniforms……crisp white ones with white hose and that distinctive tri-corner white hat. The contrast of that sparkling white uniform to her dark skin was like a beacon to me.
Being the youngest of Marian’s kids, I was often an appendage to Viola. With me in tow, she would walk to the downtown area and board the bus for a nearby city. In the back of the bus, there was always a sea of black women with often an equal number of little white kids. But I always knew where my mother was because, like a baby bird forever attached to its mother, I had behaviorally imprinted Viola’s crisp white outfit. I was always safe with Viola. As Viola used to chide Marian, “The kids never got hurt when I had them!”
While I cannot possibly begin to answer Skeeter’s question from Viola’s standpoint, I can relate to you the viewpoint of the white child. She was (and is) my mom…..just like Marian. While I was raised at a time when they were given unequal status, they were equal to me. I did (and do) love them both, and I did (and do) owe them equally for everything that I am, and for everything that I have become.
[Robert D. Keller, PHD, a current Jasper resident, was raised in Mt. Holly, North Carolina. He currently serves as President and Director of the Atlantic Coast Conservancy.]