I had an interesting encounter with racism when I stayed at a "bed & breakfast" recently. It became one of those moments in which I now wish that I'd said more than I did at the time.
I've never stayed at a B & B before, and one thing I liked about this one was that the sole owner, a middle-aged white woman, was friendly and talkative. She lets her guests wander freely about the house, including the kitchen, where she prepares the breakfasts that are part of the lodging deal.
One morning I was in there with her, chatting about what to do in and around her small town, when I noticed a small statue of a woman, about eight inches tall, standing at the base of a door. I saw that it was shaped to look like Aunt Jemima, that old racist stereotype of sturdy, domestic, maternal black comfort. Comfort for whites, that is. Some whites, and less and less of them, I hope.
As I bent over to pick it up, I asked the B & B owner -- I'll call her Jenny -- if it was an antique. She said she wasn't actually sure if it was or not, and then I wondered what else to say about it. It certainly wasn't something I would display anywhere in my own home.
As I've been writing this post, I Googled Aunt Jemima, and I quickly found the exact same item (I guess I'd rather not identify with a link just where it's available for sale online . . .).
"Wow, this thing is heavy!" I said, surprised at its weight.
"Yes," said Jenny. "Makes a perfect doorstop."
"Um, perfect?" I said.
Jenny paused in mid egg-scramble to raise an eyebrow at me.
"Have you had any black guests stay here?" I asked.
"Yes, one. Once. He was a man. Why do you ask?"
"Well, I wonder what a black person would think of such a thing. In a white person's house."
"I don't know," Jenny said. "That one didn't say anything. But then, I'm not sure he saw it."
As I weighed Aunt Jemima back and forth in my hands, Jenny went back to her eggs as she added, "And you know, I hear black people actually collect those things. If they can afford to."
I had noticed before a lot of antique-y things in Jenny's place; I figured she was trying to match that decor with this old-timey item. Even if it wasn't an antique (and I now know that it wasn't), it certainly looked like a relic from another time. A more racist time. A time when many white people who couldn't afford the extensive, daily assistance of a black maid envied those who could. A time when few white people thought or cared about the costs to the lives, and to the family lives, of those countless black maids, who usually exhausted themselves with running the houses of very demanding white people. People who often paid such women a pittance.
All of which is why, I think, that for a white person to display such an item in her home, as if it's just another part of the pleasant, intriguing decor, is itself a racist act. No matter who ends up seeing it.
But something held me back from saying that to Jenny. Everything else about her, and about her B & B/home, had been perfectly accommodating and charming. Still, as I placed Aunt Jemima back on the floor, although I'd already said something, I felt I had to say something more.
"It's kind of appropriate," I said, "that you've got her holding open the back door, isn't it?"
By this point, Jenny was frowning a bit. I think she'd begun to wonder just why I found that simple doorstop thing that interesting.
"Why?" she asked. "Because black servants and such used to have to come to the back door instead of the front?"
"Hmm. Yeah, I guess that is appropriate, in a way. Anyway. These eggs are done. Are you ready?"
"Sure," I said, and turned toward the dining room, where other guests were already eating, drinking coffee, chatting and laughing. "But, you know . . . "
This had all become awkward.
"I really do wonder what a black guest of yours would think if they saw that thing. Don't you?"
"Well," Jenny said, looking down at her Aunt Jemima. "I don't know what they'd think. Maybe something bad, eh? Who knows!"
I smiled, because she was smiling.
"Yes," I said, "who really knows?"
And I for one did not really know.
But I did have at least some doubt now that Aunt Jemima would be holding back that door much longer.
KatinPhilly wrote in with a description of her own amplified experience:
I had your experience magnified by literally 1000 times.
The B&B I stayed at in 1991 outside of Richmond was lovely. The owner invited me and the ex into the kitchen where we were surrounded by over 1000 racist salt and pepper shakers, cookie jars, "dolls", etc. I had never seen such a collection in my life. And they were antiques and museum quality pieces. The only thing missing was a loop of "Oh, Susannah" on the stereo.
We were absolutely speechless, our mouths agape in horror. And we found ourselves staring at two unsmiling, silent black employees sitting amongst this lovingly assembled paean to White Virginia's idealized racist past. They immediately read our reaction; one put their finger up to their lips to shush us before we said anything and maybe cause trouble for them. I kid you not.
It was almost midnight, and we decided to stay (I wish we didn't, but the ex pointed out that could have caused problems for the workers too). We cut our visit short and left the next morning, without breakfast.
See the comments to this post for other stories involving these objects, from both sides of the color line.