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[Chalice] Keeping One's Place [Chalice]

Presented February 22, 2009, by Ridgely Pierson

Listen to a recording of "Keeping One's Place"
34:04 minutes - 13.6 MB - Keeping One's Place .mp3 file.

A couple of weeks ago, Melissa Holden gave a talk here which devoted much of its substance to something called White Privilege. I was, God knows, brought up in surroundings where White Privilege prospered. What I have to say this morning is a kind of personal narrative, something which makes me nervous. I hope, however, it will tell you something about what it was like for me growing up in Quincy and trying to puzzle out the complications of race relations here.

Early in the Second World War, my mother was asked to head a Red Cross volunteer group which made surgical dressings to be used in medical facilities in military hospitals abroad. At the time, we had minimal help in our house - a high-school girl came in from Camp Point every weekend to clean for us. My mother's volunteer job kept her away from home nearly every afternoon of the week, and she and my father believed that my brother and I should not come home each afternoon to an empty house. Besides, my mother hated to cook and did so only when absolute necessity required that she do so. Therefore, she and my father hired a short, fat, funny, black woman to come to our house every mid-afternoon and to stay to cook the family dinner. Lizzie Barry was the woman's name, and when I arrived home from school each day (I was seven or eight at the time), I rushed to the kitchen. Lizzie asked me about everything I had done in school, and I chattered out questions about everything she had done. The routine never varied: eventually, Lizzie would say with a firm laugh and an arched left-eye, "Go do your homework," which was another way of saying, "Would you get out of here so I can fix supper?" (Interesting aside: white privilege said that I should call Lizzie by her first name, whereas elderly white people, or even white people my parents' age, should be called "Mr." or "Mrs." with their family name.)

At that young age, I knew that Lizzie was not exactly a member of the family, but I saw very little difference between members of the family and Lizzie. I was crazy about her. I must have known that she was colored, as we said back then, but that didn't get in the way of my loving her; after all, a number of the neighborhood women spent much of their time in the summers lying under the sun to darken the color of their skin.

After she had worked for us three or four years, and probably shortly after the War had ended, Lizzie told my mother that her nephew, from Louisiana, I think, was coming to pay a very short visit to her. The nephew had just earned a doctor's degree from a southern university, and Lizzie was very, very proud of him - as well she should have been. Mother asked Lizzie to invite the nephew over to our house for a cup of coffee or a glass of iced-tea and a snack.

When my father came home that night, my mother told him of Lizzie's nephew and of the invitation. My ordinarily gentle father hit the ceiling. What ensued was a lengthy fight - one of two I ever witnessed between my parents - the upshot of which was that Lizzie's nephew could come over, but, if my mother insisted on entertaining him in the living room, my father would not be present.

This troubled me. I knew that Lizzie was a loving, funny, utterly sympathetic woman. And I was puzzled by the fact that my father was always good to her. However, he kept mumbling loudly something to the effect that, "Those people should know their place, and they should keep their place, and their place is not in my living room."

On the appointed day, Lizzie's nephew arrived, and Lizzie and mother and my brother and I sat in the living room having a happy time of it for an hour or so. My father was not present. Lizzie's nephew was cheerful and intelligent and certainly worthy of the interested conversation my mother carried on with him. What was wrong with this; why did my father refuse to be present, and what was this muttering about "those people" knowing their place?

The neighborhood in which I grew up was safe and friendly. All the kids in the block (in fact, in several blocks) played happily and fairly freely together; our rules had mainly to do with being home on time for meals. For the most part, in the summertime, only rain took us inside. Across the alley behind our house lived the Winters family, and Charlotte Winters was a "second" mother to all the kids in the neighborhood who were not themselves Winterses. Charlotte believed that children should mainly be left to their own imaginary devices, but on rainy days she would gather children around her in the little library room in the front of her house and read to us books, mainly from the Oz series.

Charlotte was a member of this church, and like many Unitarians, she had an acute social conscience. The Indian Mounds pool was Quincy's only public outdoor swimming pool in those years, and blacks were not allowed into the pool. Charlotte and some of her friends, rightly believing that all citizens should have access to all of the local parks' facilities, created a brave system whereby, every day during the months when the pool was open, one or two of them sat at a small table at the gate to the pool and insisted that blacks be allowed in. I knew that a woman I admired and loved, who encouraged children's imaginations and happy use of freedom, could not be doing something wrong. I have no idea what my father thought of all this; I suspect that he did not approve of Charlotte's Indian Mounds endeavor, and I also suspect that he didn't know that Charlotte occasionally took her daughter, Emily, and me along to "help" her and even to take an inter-racial swim. I am sure that I never came home to our dinner table giving a full account of my visits to Indian Mounds. Then, more than now, perhaps, I knew I should sometimes shut my mouth. From childhood on, however, I began to build an understanding, in part because of women like Lizzie Barry and Charlotte Winters, that even though I could not understand my father's attitude, racism just isn't right.

Exit, for our purposes, Charlotte Winters.

Exit Lizzie Barry.

And Enter a second black woman, Grace Ball.

I don't suppose Grace was tall, but she looked tall. She stood straight and skinny as a telephone pole, and there was no fat on her frame. She had a forbidding expression on her seldom-smiling face, and deep-set eye-sockets from which clear, almost expressionless eyes could stare down anyone or anything. She had enormous dignity. Grace had worked for various families in Quincy's East End, but she came to work for my grandmother full time sometime in the 1940s. I was at my grandparents' house quite a lot - it was right next door to ours - and for several years Grace absolutely terrified me. Lizzie Barry had loved talking with me; Grace seemed to have no interest in that sort of thing. She much preferred to turn on an ancient but very loud radio in my grandmother's kitchen rather than pay attention to my prattle. She had a ferocious gift for taking a live chicken into Grandmother's back yard and swinging it about until its neck was broken. She was not outgoing. Had anyone told me in, say 1950, that Grace would be an important part of my life for forty more years, I wouldn't have believed it, and I certainly wouldn't have welcomed it. I would like to think that my unease had nothing to do with Grace's race, but I was perhaps beginning to learn and even to accept some of the racial bigotry which existed - and still sadly exists -- in Quincy.

When my grandmother died in 1952 (I was by this time sixteen years old), my mother and father asked Grace if she would work for us, and, one way or another, for the next thirty-eight years, she did. (She was about sixty years old at this point.) I still thought Grace ought to like me. Lizzie Barry had loved me; Grace might at least try. I discovered eventually that maybe she did like me. Sometimes when she needed help with something she'd ask me for help - the carrying of a table, the moving of something heavy, taking something upstairs, going down to the corner grocery for some necessary item. She at least accepted me as a human being, and she always thanked me. She also let me see, eventually, that she had an acute sense of humor, and even, very occasionally, told me funny little stories about the people who went to the Bethel AME Church with her. I began to like her. We even had some kitchen conversations. When my father died at a relatively young age, Grace was wonderful to my mother. She said to me one day, "Ridge, you've got to show your mother more love. You and your brother both." "I do love my mother," said I, "and so does Ira." "Hug her sometimes," Grace said. "Take her hand. All you do is look sad at her. Looks aren't enough." The thought of stern, skin-and-bones Grace hugging anyone seemed preposterous, and the very fact that she made this suggestion amazed me. But she was right. During the eight years between my father's and my mother's deaths, Grace did everything she could to help my mother. She never hesitated giving suggestions (or were they orders?) to my brother and me, but the bond between Grace and us became stronger and stronger. We needed her, and not just as a housekeeper, and it slowly became clear that, emotionally, she needed us. Despite all sorts of racial restrictions, we were family.

After my mother's death in 1964, Grace continued to work half days for my brother. (I had moved out of our family house, but I frequently stopped in to see my brother, who was a founding member of Quincy's first Human Rights Commission, although his being so seemed to have no effect on Grace.) On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, and my brother, by happenstance in Memphis that horrible night, called me in tears. I was then teaching at Quincy College, and the students quickly organized a march from the College campus to Washington Park downtown. Like many faculty members and a good many white and African-American Quincians, I joined them. Since I no longer lived at home, I didn't see Grace the next morning. But my phone rang. It was Grace.

With long-surviving naiveté, I assumed she wanted to thank me for marching in the memorial for Dr. King. I clearly did not have the world of race relations, much less Grace relations, figured out.

"Ridge, I understand you took part in that march last night." Gossip spread fast.

"I did, Grace."

"What did you do that for?"

"I thought it the right thing to do."

"Well, it wasn't. - You shouldn't have marched with those colored folk. And none of those colored folk should have marched, period. -- They should know their place."

I was astonished. Out of the mouth of Grace came the words of my father. "They should know their place."

I was bewildered. What should have been clear and easy - the getting along together of two people of different races - was anything but clear and easy.

I didn't hear from Grace for a while after that, and I'll admit that I avoided seeing her, but when I did, she made no reference to the march or my part in it. The old racial wall was up again. To the best of my memory she never again referred to my taking part in that march. Nonetheless, her words had stung me.

After my brother moved to Cleveland in 1972, Grace was retired, but we continued to give her a regular check. I went down to her little house near 9th and Elm every couple of weeks to visit with her. Her memories were clear, and what's more they were always kind - kind to my mother and father and my brother and me, and kind to the old East End neighbors with whom she had had contact and who had, like it or not, become part of her world. I realized, I guess, that the sternness I had sensed in Grace when I was a child had nothing to do with like or dislike but was, rather, evidence of a sad code about habitual racial boundaries. Perhaps only when my mother was suffering from my father's death and then from her own disease did Grace automatically relax that code.

In 1988, I moved back to Quincy after a ten-year stay in New Jersey, and Grace called right away to say she wanted to see my new house. I told her I wanted her to see it, but she should wait until things were in better order. And when the inside of the house was cleaned and painted, and the family furniture which Grace knew so well was in its place, I invited her to come out for some iced-tea. "I'll bring the tea," she said; "you don't know how to make it," and, at the appointed time she appeared all dressed up, flower-bedecked hat on her head, on my front porch, with a thermos jug in one hand. By this time, she was well into her nineties. I provided tea-glasses of some sort, and sugar, and lemons, and we visited for an hour or so -- in my living room.

Grace and I continued to be in touch with one another, sometimes in person, sometimes over the telephone, for the few remaining years of her life. Because of her arthritis, she moved fairly soon to Saint Vincent's Home, where, ironically, she politely shared a room with a demented white lady who occasionally shrieked that she had been unfairly locked up in a black-people's prison. Grace was able, without even looking across the room at the woman, to stare her down. As far as I could tell, the Home treated her well, but she was never happy there.

The last afternoon I saw Grace, she didn't or couldn't speak, but she looked at me some of the time with amazingly kind eyes, and she gripped my hand for a long time with a firmness which indicated that there was still strength coming from within her. The next day, I left for a two-month trip to India, where the caste system make notions of "place" even more complicated than here. I was pretty sure that I would never see Grace again.

That was on October 8, 1990. I learned from far, far away that Grace had died on October 27, just a day before her ninety-ninth birthday.

In 2002 or thereabouts, the Human Rights Commission tried to convince our aldermen to rename 8th Street after Martin Luther King, Jr. Merely out of curiosity, I attended a City Council meeting where the renaming was to be discussed. To my amazement and enormous sadness, there was no discussion, just fierce volleys of ugly shouts and insults, mainly of whites shouting down blacks. I expected better of my townsfolk - and I should, God knows, have paid more attention to the state of things in my town. Why hadn't I noticed the hostility all around me? What would Grace think of all this? (I suppose she might have announced to me that, "If those people had all kept their place, none of this would have happened.")

When the first Study Circles were organized, I took part in them. I felt it a duty. It has become more than a duty: it has become something very important to me. Not surprisingly, I think often of Grace, and my small work with the Study Circles has brought her into my mind more often and from more angles than ever before. I keep going back to that question of "keeping one's place," back to my father's and to Grace's notions that we must all keep "our places," and if I am being honest with myself I have to admit that I can not understand at all how any honest theory can validate the notion that race requires a special, isolated place. Without knowing I was doing it, and certainly without wanting to do it, I had been exercising White Privilege or White Thoughtlessness.

Even in old age one finds things to work on.

I have no idea whether or not there is a heaven, but if there is one I assume that Grace is up there, still straight as a telephone pole, looking down on us with a stern expression on her face. But, no, wait. There may be, deep inside those intense eye-sockets, just a smidgeon of a tentative happy twinkle. She may be asking herself, seeing that this troubled country of ours has actually elected an African-American president, "What is my place now?" I can almost hear her giggling (and I never knew Grace to giggle), unable to hide the fact that she had it wrong about place. And my father's beliefs? I don't think he'd be angry. I suspect that, at most, he would be scratching his head. He might even question his rightness in making Lizzie and her nephew do without his presence in our living room. The minute we begin to worry about "keeping our place," whether it be in reference to races, to nations or religions, to sexuality or genders, to whatever generic divisions we allow among us, we are in trouble, the kind of trouble that is not easy to get out of.

On Inauguration Day in January, I wakened very early, before sunrise, and something made me want to drive down to the river. I wanted to see what our bald eagles were up to.

I was alone in the parking place just below the lock and dam, and, as the sun rose in the cloudless sky, our amazing national birds swarmed about, in honor, I imagined somewhat sentimentally, of the new President. Then, utterly without having planned to do so, I drove up to Greenmount Cemetery to visit Grace Ball's grave. That, of course is her place now, not much different from the place we'll all end up in. Oh, Grace, I thought. When you were alive, try though you might, you could not keep your place, for you shared your place without thinking it right to do so - with your neighbors, your friends, the members of your church, and the white family of which, like it or not, you were a member. You loved us, and we very much loved you, but that sad sense of "keeping one's place" was always there on both sides, always trying to negate that untroubled love we should all have had for one another.

President Obama's extraordinary election has not cured the race problem any more than it has the financial one. Still, something amazing happened on that clear January noon which none of the "place keepers," neither my father nor Grace nor any of us, could have imagined ten or twenty or thirty years ago. Someday . . .

How do you finish a sentence beginning with the word "Someday?"

You keep working. You keep trying. And you refuse to let go.

©2009 Ridgely Pierson

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Pierson, Ridgely. 2009. Keeping One's Place, /talks/20090222.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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