Today I heard a re-broadcast of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the radio, a speech that was written when I was eight years old, and one that I hope will always cause me to take a look at my own relationship with equality.
My mind has run this course before. It begins by floating through the placid waters of my childhood in Kentucky where I was raised in a privileged, white household on the white side of Louisville. This house contains a mother, a sister, a brother, for a brief time a father, and most important to this story, an African-American woman somewhere in her middle to late years, hired by my family to cook, clean, iron, and watch the children when my mother is too busy. Her name is Carrie, and she is with us five and a half days a week, often sleeping in a room off the back of our house when her services are required into the evening, which they most often are. On Carrie’s days off, we drive her to a bus stop where she catches a bus to the other side of town, a place where I understand people her own color live. I have never been there, but I imagine it must be a very dull spot much of the week, because all of the people that I know who are Carrie’s color work for white families in the same capacity with the same schedule. This mysterious place, I conclude, must only come alive when its residents show up on their busses on Saturday night. This is all conjecture on my part because I know nothing about Carrie’s home life and I don’t recall her ever speaking of it.
While in our house, Carrie wears a simple uniform (a dress and apron) identifying her as an employee. She is always addressed by her first name and in turn always addresses the adults by their last. She serves and clears the table in the dining room when the family eats together, responding to an electronic bell that lies under the carpet at the foot of my mother’s chair. Carrie takes her own meals in the kitchen, alone. This household structure is repeated in hundreds of white homes throughout Louisville in the mid-fifties.
As I paddle around in the calm waters of my earliest years, I can see that my very first memory is one of Carrie and me walking down our driveway on the way to pick up the mail. My hand is in Carrie’s, and I feel a sweet connection between the day and Carrie and myself.
We were very close, Carrie and I, in those initial years. She had a slow and peaceful spirit that never asserted itself beyond the simple tasks of the day. I cannot now bring to mind a single thing that she ever said, just a presence, which I would describe as gentle and uncomplicated. She had an easy way of teaching me useful things without effort: showing me how to tie my shoes in ten minutes after the rest of the family had given up, curing a curious rash of bed-wetting with a simple suggestion. I see now that this ease had to do with a rare faith in the child’s innate ability to learn, an attitude that inevitably met with success.
Carrie never intentionally gave me cause to worry about her, but I often did. I sensed something about her that I could not have expressed at the time but that caused me some concern. It was out of this suspicion of something amiss that I often projected sensitivity where, in retrospect, there may have been none. I was careful to finish my dinner, for instance, even when I had no interest in doing so, because I was convinced that Carrie would be hurt if I didn’t appear to like the food that she had spent so much time cooking. I grew quite round in the effort to spare her feelings, but her feelings were very precious to me in those early years and well worth the concern, however mistaken. I detected an emptiness in Carrie that I felt obliged to fill, and, at the same time, I was haunted by a suspicion that this cavity was far deeper than my own efforts could satisfy.
In 1960, when I was five years old, I was a flower girl at my uncle’s wedding. As I stood in our all-white church facing the guests, there appeared in the balcony a wonderfully dolled-up version of Carrie, well out of uniform and sparkling in a lovely hat. She was accompanied by a handful of familiar servants, also in handsome civilian attire. Marveling at the novelty of this vision and wishing them all, but especially Carrie, to feel welcome, I spent the rest of the wedding waving furiously at the balcony and occasionally screaming out Carrie’s name. I have learned since that the balcony was the understood rule of seating for people of Carrie’s color in our church, but at the time I was only interested in the fact that a line appeared to have been crossed, a rule broken. It was as if I were hearing her last name spoken for the first time. Carrie had moved from servant to wedding guest; perhaps now this emptiness that I had been sensing could be satiated. But the picture fades after this initial shock of repositioning, and the family returns to its familiar architecture.
As I say, I have run this course before and now I am seven, and the river becomes a bit narrower, the waters a little bumpier. My parents divorce and we move to a house farther from Louisville. Carrie accompanies us even though it will be a more difficult commute to the other side of town. She is still a constant but not quite so much a central figure in my life. I worry about her less as I move into a broader circle of acquaintances and concerns. At age nine, too old for the request but suddenly feeling the need, I ask Carrie to sit in my room while I fall asleep. She does so without question, and I wake up after an hour or so to discover her still there, sitting, watching. I am deeply moved and a bit ashamed of myself for asking her to do this for me, and I feel that familiar void inside of her that had haunted me when I was younger. I begin to suspect that it might have something to do with loneliness.
At age eleven the course shifts dramatically. My mother marries again, and we move away from my beautiful Kentucky to Washington DC, where my stepfather (an Episcopal minister) has a parish in South West on the edge of the projects, and where all is cement and, in my mind, horribly dreary. I do still manage to raise my head above my own despair briefly to wonder why Carrie has decided to follow us and not remain in Louisville with her friends. But there she is, across the concrete playground in an apartment by herself. I am told that she has joined a church and is bound to meet new friends. Not our church, which does have people her color in it (this is Washington DC, and the rules are different) but her own church, where she can meet people like herself.
After some time, it is implied that Carrie is drinking. I raise my prepubescent head for a moment to wonder why, and that familiar feeling returns. This time it feels an awful lot like loneliness. But, we’re in the rapids now and it’s each man for himself, with all of us struggling to understand this new life, new marriage, new schools, new colorless surroundings.
A year later the family decides to build a house on the other, nicer side of town. We leave Carrie to commute from the less nice side, promising to build her a room off the back of our new house. This is a familiar arrangement and we settle into our well-worn patterns.
I was in the treacherous churnings of puberty, so self-occupied that I was barely aware of Carrie. In fact, I couldn’t recall the last time I had looked beyond my own cares to concern myself with her, when I was delivered a blow that nearly drowned me. One day, without any notice, Carrie disappeared. But before she did, she took a pencil and paper and wrote the only words she had ever or would ever express to our family about her life. She wrote that she was sorry, but that she had decided to go home, and she apologized for being a burden to us.
Had this been all she had written, it would certainly have been sufficient to break my heart in a thousand pieces. Not, please understand, because she had decided to go home—for this I was happy for her. But because she had been so miserable and I had been too self-absorbed to have felt it; because she had viewed herself as a burden to our family, who had done so little to alleviate her own burden of isolation. All of the years of suspected loneliness came crashing in on me, not only the years she had lived in Washington but all of the years she had lived in a room off the back of our house. All of the years spent with our family without being part of our family. All the days and nights of invisibility. That I had ever let her slip from such a beloved central figure to such a distant and sporadic concern. I knew better. I was born knowing better. I knew better in my younger years. I had grown a callus, that when suddenly exposed, was horrible to me.
As I say, this was enough to break my heart and cause me to loathe my newfound self-centeredness, but it was the message on the bottom of the note, under her signature, that shook me most deeply. With the same pencil she wrote the words, I love you, and then, for reasons I will never be sure of, but are all so sorrowful to imagine, erased them.
I was fourteen at the time and wept openly for days, for weeks, in fact. I can still weep whenever I think of this. That she could have shared our family’s life for over fourteen years and not have felt she shared our love. That she should ever have felt unworthy to express her own love for us. That we could have created such an empty place for her to live. All the years of accumulated isolation, for which, even if I had been merely partially responsible, were more than I could bear. I have never felt so utterly sorry.
I’ve run this course before. This is where I beg myself never to allow another person in my life to become invisible. Where I beg myself never to allow position to dictate level of dignity. Where I beg myself never to fall into the blind acceptance of service without attention to the one serving. In short, where I beg for equality.
There will always be the servants and the served. Most of us will at some time in our lives have the opportunity to view life from both positions. It isn’t the position that needs reform, it is the attitude of position. A patron to a waiter, a driver of a car to the man who pumps his gas, a rider to a taxi driver, an invalid to a nurse. The opportunity presents itself daily to discount life, to view each other as invisible, to numb our sensitivity to our brotherly concern. The excuses to support this attitude will always be hollow: skin color, place of worship, level of education, current amount of pocket money. Privilege is an insupportable illusion.
“I have a dream” says Dr. King, “that one day the nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.’”
I never saw my beloved Carrie again. I heard that she moved back to Louisville and worked for another white family with children. I hope they loved her.
© Margaret Dulaney