I grew up with two strong black women who worked for our family, one from the time I was born until I was 8 and the other from when I was 8 until I was 19. Their names were Louise Love and Lorene Massey and they washed our clothes, cleaned our house, cooked our food, hung out our laundry, ironed, swept, mopped and got down on their hands and knees and cleaned our bathrooms. They also sat with me when I was sick, listened when I was sad, upset or confused and showed me through their actions how good, decent, honest and generous people behaved even when they went home to homes that were not nearly as nice as mine after earning a wage that was not enough to give them any real sense of financial security. And I loved them deeply and felt a sense of connection to them that went far beyond our nanny/child relationship. I knew on some deep level that they had a strength that was beyond anything I saw anywhere else in my life and a sense of kindness that ran as deep as deep could go.
Lorene, in particular, “raised” me in many senses of the word. She didn’t hesitate to give me a strong look if I was mean to my brother, sit me down for a good talking if I was disrespectful to my parents and even send me back upstairs to put on my girdle whenever I had the audacity as a teenager to come downstairs with my bottom “jingling.” She loved me and I loved her and we both knew it though I only saw her once after my father died and my mother moved to another town when I was 19. That time was in front of a grocery store in my hometown when she called out my name and I went over to her car and talked with her for a while. She told me she was working for another family that had little kids. I could hardly believe that she wasn’t going to be in my life anymore. I felt sad and confused that our relationship was over and didn’t know quite how to deal with those emotions. Deep down I feared she didn’t love me anymore since she had her “new” family, which was much more a reflection of how insecure I felt at the time rather than anything she said or did.
Over the years, I have come to realize that I feel very connected to both Louise Love and Lorene. I love baking just like Louise did and nothing makes me happier than cooking with my daughters, something I saw her do when I went to her house when my parents were gone. As for Lorene, she is never far from me anytime I am cleaning or ironing or tending to my house. It’s as if her spirit is still very much a part of me, though she died many years ago of breast cancer. Only a few years after I saw her for the last time.
A few years back, I did the 23 and Me test to learn more about my ancestry. I had always been told that my ancestors came almost exclusively from the British Isles except for a marriage of one of my grandfathers to an “Indian princess,” which accounted for my dark complexion. What I learned instead is that, yes, I am European for the most part, mainly from the British Isles, but that I also have a small percentage of Sub-Saharan African blood, mainly from West Africa. I also discovered I had virtually zero Native American blood, which shoots a rather large hole in that family story that’s been told for several generations now.
I like to think that my deep connection to both Louise Love and Lorene had at least a little to do with my unconscious awareness that we were indeed connected by more than our close proximity over a span of years. We were connected by blood on a fundamental level and by tragic circumstances that affected our ancestors when they were taken as slaves in Africa. I realize that my white experience is completely different than what they went through in their lives and the percentage of my African heritage is tiny in comparison to theirs, but something about that discovery helped me understand at least a little bit better my instant love and affection for any big-breasted/big-hearted black woman. Of course, that could be simply because of my love for Louise and Lorene, but there’s a part of me that hopes my affection arises from deep within my DNA.
I am not in any way equating my tiny bit of African blood with the pain and suffering of African Americans for the past 400 years. Not even for a second. I am very aware of my white privilege and would never minimize the pain of the Black experience by throwing myself into the picture. I guess I just want to say that I am proud that I have that little bit of African heritage, primarily because anything that could in any way connect me on a genetic level with those two wonderful black women would only serve to make me happy.
I am aware that I know almost nothing about the real suffering of Black Americans. I am also aware that I carry unconscious racism within me that I need to learn to identify and eradicate. I am also clear that I need help being a more sensitive human being related to the Black Experience. I am open to learning and growing and I’m very happy that we are in a moment in our nation’s history where we might have the chance to shift to an awareness that will bring changes for real equality.
As for me, I’ll continue to carry Louise Love and Lorene in my heart. I see them as two dignified women with hearts big enough to include a little girl who needed their love. I am very fortunate that I had them in my life. I am very much a reflection of both of them in my day-to-day life and for that, I am most grateful.
This post was first published by Len Leatherwood on her blog, 20 Minutes a Day.