I grew up white in the 60s in the South, and my grandparents had a full time maid. Her name was Ruth. I was the youngest of five children and we lived within walking distance, so I got to know Ruth pretty well.
There were cotton sheets to be ironed and ladies luncheons to be served, but even with that lifestyle, I’m not sure how my grandmother found enough to keep Ruth busy five days a week. Typically, Ruth got the preliminaries of dinner started and then went home in the late afternoon, but on Christmas Eve, she served my family dinner.
We ate in a formal dining room with china and silver. Ruth, in a uniform, prepared and served, cleared and cleaned. One year my brother David, who couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 at the time, queried the obvious. When did Ruth get to go home and be with her family? My grandmother brushed him off and said Ruth would go home soon, when she’d finished cleaning up.
Shortly after that, David disappeared from the table. My grandmother found him in the kitchen helping Ruth clean up. My mother came in and picked up a dishtowel. Ruth began to cry. My grandmother told her to go on home, and Ruth never worked another holiday.
I witnessed many small metamorphoses like this one, not infrequently brought on by children. My family wasn’t cruel to African Americans, but we certainly benefited from the status quo. Was this an act of Congress or the sacrifice of life in Memphis? Of course not, but when I think of monumental change, I think of stories, layers of stories that chisel away at injustice one truth at a time.
Small changes matter. Make some.