The noble black woman servant who saves the dysfunctional white family is an iconic figure in American culture. It often brings to mind the 1988 movie Clara’s Heart, starring Whoopi Goldberg, with Kathleen Quinlan as the affluent but neglectful mother and Neil Patrick Harris as the emotionally needy son. What I really love about this movie is that it delves into Clara’s life in a way that these kinds of movies generally don’t. In the others, the woman’s life is mostly hinted at, the children neglected, the distances traveled, the difference between her own family life and that of her employers.
Which is why I particularly enjoyed Jenniemae & James by Brooke Newman. She recalls a similar dynamic in her family as she gew up in the 1940s and 1950s with the loving guidance of a black housekeeper. But in this case, Jenniemae’s intelligence and math ability are appreciated — as much as her cooking and cleaning — by Newman’s father James, a math genius himself and author of The World of Mathematics.
I appreciate that Newman and her father so clearly appreciated Jenniemae’s talents. I cannot help but wonder what Jenniemae might have done with that talent — other than masterfully play the numbers — had she not been limited by sexism and racism. It’s a perennial question of the wasted opportunities of racism, what economists call the opportunity cost — whatever benefit that came of free and low-cost labor of slavery and discrimination versus the creativity stifled and unused.
Last year, I worked with a friend, a white woman, on a project to try to document that iconic relationship — the black housekeeper and the white family — and found that while there were plenty of now middle-aged whites with loving memories they were willing to share on film, that wasn’t the case with the black women. Now old, many of the women were unwilling to document the experience though they too had loving memories of real and true affection. Maybe they were unwilling to talk about a time when they were servants. Maybe they worried that their children or grandchildren would be ashamed of their former status. Maybe they remembered too many birthdays and special days of their own children’s lives that they missed. So far, the project is at a standstill. I’m sorry that the woman are reluctant to document the experience from their perspective. They have such stories to tell, but only person to person. Reading Jenniemae & James made me wonder how Jenniemae would have told the story.