The Topsy Costume
I'm a retired Diplomate in Clinical Social Work which, in part, is what compelled me to publicly confess on Ebay to having naively worn a Topsy costume as a child and what compelled me to attend to the nagging concern I had that I may have (again naively) sold it to racist who might be wearing it to the next KKK meeting for laughs. Granted, I should have done the search on your name BEFORE I shipped it, but better late than never, so I checked it out today. What a delight. The rest of the story, I'm sure, now, you will appreciate as I sigh an enormous sigh of relief and elaborate on the confession, as well as affirm for both of us the unexpected way in which a simple, kindly interaction between strangers can be transformative:
My mother's best friend as a child was a black girl named Eva. I would venture that their friendship was the deepest relationship my mother had with someone other than my father in her lifetime. I grew up hearing many stories about how my mother would bring Eva home where their bond with one another was the brunt of jokes my mother did not understand until she was older and parted ways from the "nigger" (as my grandmother continued to call black people until she died two years ago at the age of 96).
In learning to be a racist, my mother also suffered abuse through the violation of her personal attachment to Eva. By the time I was born, she was teaching me not to touch the hands of "negroes" and to wash my hands whenever we rode the bus in case a "negro" had touched the seat before me. In the same breath, she could recount playful adventures spent with her black girlfriend-- a confusing set of values, for sure. And then, beyond the whispered warnings on the bus, there was the public display of racism the year that she dressed me in the Topsy costume that she made and went out costumed, herself, as Aunt Jemima. While not a constant theme, racism remained a repeated part of my upbringing.
As a teenager, I dutifully rebelled with age-appropriate self-righteousness. By then it was the mid-sixties and I was seeing the Civil Rights Movement unfold on television. While scared, I was also stubborn enough to want to get over it and stop being like my parents and grandparents who had made little movement in their discrimination other than to convert their hostility into pity-- the mantra having shifted from "the damned niggers" to "the poor niggers." Which I immediately caught like a virus.
I started out by convincing my Sunday School teacher that instead of sitting around talking goody-goody Christianity, we should make ourselves useful by going down to Vine St. in Philadelphia to hand out soup on Sunday mornings to the poor black people. He bought it, so we dished out soup for awhile as a youth group project. Encouraged, I decided that I could do more, so took a job as a day-camp counselor in the ghetto. In the best expression of all things complex, the second week on the job found me (the only white person at the camp) circled by a group of very large teenage boys with knives who did not take kindly to me chasing down a runaway youngster and nabbing him by the collar (the only part of him I could reach) to prevent him from taking off into the woods, getting lost while on the picnic and missing the bus back home. There was no explaining to them an action on my part that I had seen their mothers and sisters rotely perform a dozen times. I was not the right color to be a forcible authority in their neighborhood (no matter how well-intended and/or ignorant) and so ended that job, right there, on the spot as I took a cab home from the picnic and had my father drive back to the camp later on to retrieve my car.
Next there was the epiphany that came some years later while directing a professional theatre company at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia: when asked in a radio interview about the racial make-up of the ensemble, I couldn't answer the question. I had no idea who was black-- my relationship with each actor was so personal and intense, skin color had (finally) become truly irrelevant. I was thrilled. It was, clearly, the moment that opened the door on being able to talk more honestly about my experience as a racist and ongoing struggle to chase down and question remnants of that skewed thinking.
Jumping ahead, now, thirty years, my mother grew horribly disabled in her old age, beyond the point where I could continue to care for her at home. Having been a whistle-blower against abuse in nursing homes, being forced to place my own mother in one was a cruel twist. After two years of research and constant struggle to obtain a bed in one of Pennsylvania's best (a posh lily white suburban facility with only 60 beds), I did finally get her placed there. She lived there two years when one day I found her with a black-and-blue face that she (being of sound mind) told me was the result of being slapped by a black aide (who my mother had routinely been calling loudly "the damned nigger"). More or less as a result of my insistence that the police be called to investigate (which I would have demanded no matter what color the suspect), my mother later got evicted from the facility while being hospitalized for phlebitis, leaving her (and I) totally stranded for care.
Having been labeled "a difficult patient" (with, more significantly, I'm sure, a "difficult" daughter) none of the similarly posh (read: white) nursing homes would take her. Worse yet, not even the mediocre ones would take her. The ONLY nursing home that would accept my mother (and where I had no choice but to put her since the hospital refused to keep her any longer) was the one with 300+ beds in the ghetto, a few blocks from the day camp, with a population of residents and staff that was 99% black.
I had two fears related to this: 1) She would get herself killed with her vile name-calling and 2) I would get killed walking from my car to the front door of the place when visiting.
While people did get shot routinely within a two block radius of the home, I was not one of them during the seven weeks that my mother lived there. As for fear #1, my mother (incredibly, miraculously, profoundly) was guided home full-circle. I had met with the staff ahead of time and warned them about the racism. They (having lived their whole lives in the face of it) were neither surprised, offended nor concerned. Ironically, what was exposed in the exchange was my concern that they, as black caregivers, would fail to perform professionally when confronted by my mother's anger.
To make the long and painful story of her final decline short, the all-pervasive spirituality (derived from a living Christian history of the home), the matriarchal values, the genuine tenderness and compassion of ALL the staff members combined to envelope my mother in love -- there is no other word for it. They gave without reserve to that woman and, in their persistence to reach her heart, they did. In her third week there, she told me that she liked being there and that the staff was wonderful to her. She said that she could not ask for a better place to be, it was SO much better than where she had been before. She said that she felt as if they really cared about her. And then, on Christmas Eve of 2003 and in the arms of the angel Eva, I'm sure, she died.
And that, is the longer version of the Topsy story, save for one other detail:
In the 1980's (while actively exposing abuse in long term care and getting fired, and having to file a federal lawsuit, and fending off people who would show up at my house in the middle of the night to threaten me, a bugged phone, you get the picture)...during that period of distress while trying to protect a different class of underdogs from discrimination, I began working on my genealogy with the hope of finding out how I had gotten myself into such a necessary mess.
Turns out that, on the paternal side, I'm a Benezet, an ancestor of eight generations ago being Anthony Benezet, the Quaker Saint, who founded the first school for blacks (in Philadelphia during the 1700's), played a vital role in the Underground Railroad, wrote and published numerous tracts demanding the liberation of slaves and who, when taken to his grave by horse-drawn cortege, was escorted by "hundreds of negroes," a spectacle never before seen in colonial America.
I was thinking about that when I went back to my mother's place of death in the ghetto (a couple of blocks from Benezet Street in Philadelphia) for a memorial service and wept, and wept, and wept. How ironic, that "her" truly loving people in the end (and "mine", being constantly and gently comforted through the deepest pain we can ever, as the child within, feel... by the same) are the people descended from those who might have been comforted by my ancestor for whom the street is named. And we are still walking on it, amid drug dealings, shootings and rapes.
Feel free, if you wish, to share this story along with the costume. My mother (Ruth Griffith), and I would be proud to have our names associated with the Jim Crow Museum. Our road home is also a long one. Bumpy as it may be, we would prefer to walk it hand-in-hand with those we shamefully ridiculed who have been so patient with us and our evolution beyond the racism we inherited.
I should be such a spiritually together being-- to similarly empower myself someday through forgiveness. Perhaps to publicly express regret for having added to the oppression of black people is a first step.
Best wishes and thanks for preserving an expression of hatred to which my mother and I, both, became parties and by which I might, still, measure my personal progress in overcoming it.
-- Linda Griffith
Jan. 19, 2005
David Pilgrim, the Curator of the Jim Crow Museum, bought the Topsy costume from Linda Griffith via an eBay auction.