It has taken me a long time to realize how little I knew about the women who raised me.
They lived in our house, full time, on the top floor, where we children knew instinctively not to go: small rooms I saw many years later, suffocatingly hot, reached by long flights of stairs or a creaking elevator put in a generation earlier for a daughter dying of tuberculosis. One of those rooms had a beautiful view of the Ohio, the boundary between the slave states and the free.
I knew these African American women loved me, and that love, which they could not express in words, but in the small essential gestures of care, saved my life. I remember my sorrow when they began to call me “Miss Sallie” after I turned twelve, the beginning, I knew, of the end of our wordless intimacy.
My father shocked me once by referring casually to Lizzie Baker, who had been his caretaker ever since he graduated from Harvard, as one of the best because her slave ancestors (probably her grandparents) came from the old African Gold Coast. He said, “They were always the best.”
Lizzie didn’t know about the Gold Coast, or if she did, she never mentioned it, for obvious reasons. What black woman in those days would have raised the issue of slavery? Although Kentucky was a border state, and due to Lincoln’s strenuous efforts never seceded, it had a slave population, and had supported a large slave market. I read the historical marker every time we went in town.
But that was the past, obscure and obscured.
Neither Lizzie nor I knew the rich artistic tradition from which she had come. She would have stared in amazement at the delicate clay masks in the new African exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, masks superior in refinement to the images produced by Picasso or the other twentieth century European artists who saw some of this work and were deeply influenced by it.
The benign, meditative expressions on the abstracted clay faces that topped jar stoppers spoke of spiritual illumination; for Lizzie, the only remains of that tradition were the old spirituals she hummed, under her breath, as she went about her duties. She did not try to teach me those songs.
The queens with their elaborate headdresses left a faint reminder in Lizzie’s white cloth turbans, which a later generation would abhor.
Did it matter?
I knew her as a woman of great dignity, silent strength, and palpable mystery. Perhaps that was enough. But if we had known that she descended from great artists whose anonymity can never diminish their worth, we would both have realized that she was created for another life beyond lighting coal fires and folding sheets.
I wish she could have rocked, on her small, swollen feet, through the august chambers of the Met, recognizing her ancestors and a heritage of which she could never be deprived, even by the ignorance of her white “family”.