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new internationalist
issue 235 - September 1992

Maids and spirituals
Nina Silver on growing up with black women - and Jewish racism.

Nina Silver: 'The 'maids' were expendable because they were black - my feelings were expendable because I was a child...' Over a dozen years ago, I received a valuable education in race relations when, unable to work due to a temporary diabetic condition, I applied for welfare. I was living in Harlem, New York City, which not only seemed to be the welfare capital of the United States but also contained one of the highest concentrations of blacks.

Being on public assistance was wretched. Welfare, I had learned from my white Jewish parents, was only for black people. At the time, the word 'black' to designate race was just beginning to emerge in America's vocabulary - although to my parents, black people were still 'Negroes'. They knew enough not to say 'coloured', which would have revealed a most unenlightened racial prejudice. But privately my parents always referred to black people as 'shvartzes'.

Although they explained to me that 'shvartze' in Yiddish literally means 'black', the disparaging context was unmistakably clear. When Mom and Dad whispered 'shvartze' in annoyed tones, referring to the black women they'd hired to help with the housework and babysit their children, I knew that what they really meant was 'nigger'. It would take me years to recognize that the racism in my family did not indict all Jews.

How ironic that, given my parents' racist attitudes, years later their youngest daughter would find herself showing up with 'shvartzes' at the welfare centre. It was quite an experience to be not only on the other side of the colour line but subject to the same curiosity and indignantly derisive stares from black people that I knew black people had received from my parents when I was younger.

Being on welfare meant periodic investigations by the staff to make sure you couldn't work, that you had a legitimate excuse for taking all that public assistance money (less than $400 a month plus food stamps). It wasn't obvious that I was ill - my disability was not physically glaring - and it wasn't as if my children's father had just walked out on me; in fact, I had no children. So from the predominantly Third World staff's perspective, I had no right to be there on two counts: because of my skin colour and my life circumstances. I was a privileged honky invading their space.

And the fact that most of the welfare recipients were women did not seem to make it any easier for them to relate to me. From my perspective, they considered themselves black first, women second. The potential for meaningful communication was thus aborted.

I vividly remember the reaction of both my parents to my being on welfare: they were horrified. It challenged every cultural prejudice they had ever assumed: black people were not fit to mix with whites, except when in subservient positions; and I, as a white woman, should especially never mingle with black men because it was sexually suggestive and therefore dangerous. I fought these attitudes, often getting into verbal fights with my family as I grew older, and was sneeringly accused of being a white liberal.

When I grew into an accomplished musician my parents couldn't understand my affinity for the Negro spirituals that had originally been sung by the slaves. As a singer and composer, I could easily appreciate this richly textured, gently rhythmical form of music. I loved the brilliant work of black musicologist Hall Johnson - not well-known even by well-trained musicians - who arranged infrequently-sung spirituals that he learned from his great-great-grandmother, a former slave. The poignant, sometimes sorrowful, sometimes joyful, but always beautiful spirituals touched something deep inside me. The act of validating suffering by giving it a voice (or song) - in fact validating all those feelings which culturally white folks don't admit are there - has given me an affinity for the spiritual aspect of American black culture as illuminated in its gospel hymns.

But there was another, deeper reason for my relating to it. I had been brought up by 'shvartzes' from childhood. Black women often took care of me instead of Mommy, and in doing so became a part of my cultural heritage that my natural mother would never understand. These women had names like Treasie and Lavinia, spoke in accented drawls, and cooked strange foods because they were from the South. Although their relationship with me was often emotionally distant, they filled a great need, because even when t was five or six my working mother was rarely around. These women would tell me about their arduous lives and the many children and grandchildren they hardly ever got to see because they were too busy being somebody else's maid.

The most difficult thing about being dependent on these women was that, after a time, they would leave. All through my childhood I watched them come and go without receiving any explanation from my parents. When Treasie left - probably because she was ill - I would have wanted to say goodbye. After a few years, Lavinia, whom I liked a lot, left too. I was never given a chance to say goodbye to her, either.

It never occurred to my parents that I might have been attached to these 'maids'. They were expendable because they were black, and my feelings were expendable because I was a child.

I thus learned to identify with certain aspects of black experience. Bonding crosses the colour line.

As a little girl, the gift I received from these older black women was how courage and dignity can survive in the face of immense hardship. Now, at 40, I have a crystalline recollection of these women who hired themselves out as maids to my family, living in a dimly-lit room in our attic and trying their best, only to overhear my parents call them shvartzes.

Nina Silver is a therapist, Reichian bodyworker, singer, and composer who writes on feminism, sexuality, the natural sciences, and metaphysics.

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New Internationalist issue 235 magazine cover This article is from the September 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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