Sigma Tau Delta Convention,
St. Louis 1999
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JoAnn Marshall - The Roles of Southern Women,
Black and White, in Society




        Lillian Smith provides a description of the typical black woman and the typical white woman "of the pre-1960's American South" (Gladney 1) in her autobiographical critique of southern culture, Killers of the Dream. The typical black woman in the South is a cook, housekeeper, nursemaid, or all three wrapped up in one for at least one white family. Therefore, she is the double matriarch of the South, raising her own family and the families of her white employers: "It was not a rare sight in my generation to see a black woman with a dark baby at one breast and a white one at the other, rocking them both in her wide lap" (Smith 130). The southern black woman's duties extend far beyond rearing children, as she also serves as a family counselor, confidant, and nurse for the entire white family (Smith 129) and her own if time permits. She can do all this and more because she is strong, wise, and insightful in all areas of life (Smith 119). In short, the southern black woman is the cornerstone of the southern, domestic life. The white woman in the South has an equally important role. The southern white woman is responsible for maintaining southern social order, better known as Southern Tradition. She establishes "the 'do' and the 'don't' of behavior" (Smith 132) in her children and believes, "If you could just keep from them all the things that must never be mentioned, all would be well!" (Smith 142). At the same time, the southern white woman sits atop the pedestal of Sacred Womanhood that her husband and his ancestors built for her (Smith 141). She meekly sits there, a symbol of southern society used to benefit men's ideals, feeling empty and powerless against everything going on around her (Smith 141-2). The whispers in her children's ears and her presence on that pedestal fulfill the white woman's role as protectress of Southern Tradition, but does not fulfill the southern white woman. In fact, the roles of the southern black woman and the southern white woman are equally important and equally oppressive: "In a culture where marriage and motherhood were women's primary roles, neither black nor white women were free to be fully wives or mothers, and neither were able to shield their children from the physical and psychic destruction of the racist society in which they lived" (Gladney 6). The black woman has to neglect her own husband and children in the interest of her white employers' families. The white woman can never be true to herself, her husband, or her children because she has to be true to Southern Tradition, which does not value the emotions or differing opinions of women. Powerful, white men create this society and the roles for the women within. Southern women, black and white, have little choice but to play the roles they are given and experience life as those men intend. Although Smith's views of the roles of southern women are based on observations from her own childhood at the turn of the century and experiences from her adulthood pre-1960, they remain accurate well into the mid- and late 1900's. The persistence of these roles for southern women, black and white, as defined by Smith is evident in Susan Tucker's Telling Memories Among Southern Women, a collection of oral histories of domestic workers and their employers in the segregated South. The memories and experiences of individual women two to three generations removed from Smith's own generation found in Tucker's collection reinforce Smith's views in Killers of the Dream.

        The duties and abilities Smith attributes to the southern black nurse in Killers of the Dream are comparable to Ellen Owens' memories of her black housekeeper in Telling Memories Among Southern Women. The nurse in Smith's novel "counseled them when they were unhappy, took the problem child at least out of earshot, and in crises her biologically rooted humor had a magic way of sweeping white clouds away" (129). Ellen Owens, born in 1952, gives this typical nurse a name in her memories of childhood -- Mama Lou. Mama Lou is the Owens' housekeeper and Ellen's personal counselor: "Whenever my parents would get mad at me or there was a conflict, it's like she would admit there were problems. It was, 'Don't worry, baby'; -she called me baby- 'You won't be little always. You'll have a family of your own, and you won't have to worry with all this.' Her response kind of relieved me" (Tucker 141). Mama Lou takes Ellen, the problem child, out of earshot and sweeps the white clouds away. She is a real person enacting the role of Smith's typical black nurse decades later.

        The black nurse or housekeeper represents comfort and ease not only to a child in conflict, but also to children who view their white mothers as overbearing or unavailable. The contrast and preference of the black housekeeper to the white mother can be attributed to Smith's definition of the roles of southern white women and southern black women in Killers of the Dream. Smith posits that the white mother is responsible for setting up right and wrong for her children (132). Issues like sex are "pushed out through the back door as a shameful thing never to be mentioned" (Smith 141). On the other hand, the black nurse or housekeeper "is easy, permissive, and less afraid of simple earthy biological needs and manifestations" (Smith 132). She is better trained for a domestic and nurturing role than the white mother, who is busy protecting Southern Tradition. Therefore, the children are more comfortable and relaxed around a domestic, non-authoritative figure in the home like a housekeeper than their own mother, associated with propriety and discipline. Smith's theory continues to hold true for Cynthia Berg and Sarah Kingsley in Tucker's Telling Memories Among Southern Women. Cynthia Berg, born 1947, reports that she enjoys her housekeeper Ruth's company because she "didn't feel that [Ruth] was bearing down on [her] with any 'Do this, do that'" (Tucker 245). When Berg's mother is home, she feels that her mother's presence is "kind of an impediment or a restriction" (Tucker 245). Sarah Kingsley, born 1942, further supports this theory by admitting that she can ask her housekeeper Margaret "questions about anything- sex or anything" (Tucker 58). Margaret and the other black housekeeper Ruth are, in essence, mothering the two white girls as required by their domestic role in southern society, while the girls' mothers are alienated from their children by their social roles in southern society.

        There are topics other than sex that are avoided by most white women in the South because discussion of such topics may disrupt Southern Tradition. Because white women are to uphold Southern Tradition, they are not to question it or to try to change it. Moreover, any efforts by white women to question or to change the southern tradition created by white men is futile and half-hearted, as seen in both Smith's Killers of the Dream and Eugenia Bowden's experience in Tucker's Telling Memories Among Southern Women. According to Smith, southern white women know there is something evil in their society, "And because they did not believe things could change or that they should (though they could not have told you why) they had to shut their minds against knowledge of what existed" (142-3). After a magnificent insurrection by a few women of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching of 1930 who do not shut their minds against the knowledge of the evil (Smith 146), little is done to actually change things. The white women clean up a "dirty spot here and there but with no real attempt to change this way of life which they dimly realized had injured themselves and their children as much as it had injured Negroes, but which they nonetheless clung to" (Smith 146-7). In Tucker's book, Eugenia Bowden, born in 1960, shares her experience of being a white woman who sees the evil, but does little to change it: "And I never understood why white people would talk at the dinner table about black people, about race relations, and then there would be black people serving you mashed potatoes right beside you. I do complain about that. But I sort of compromised and accepted those things when I could and changed them when I could" (67). Bowden is disturbed by the conversational topic because the discussion may hurt the feelings of the black servants. However, she feels powerless to deter the conversation or to change the habits of the other people. Therefore, Bowden, like the women Smith describes, accepts this evil in southern society for the most part, because that is the way things are. In this instance, Bowden feels oppressed and cannot adequately express herself or make changes within her society, for she is a southern white woman.

        The specific memories and experiences of Ellen Owens, Cynthia Berg, Sarah Kingsley, and Eugenia Bowden recorded in Tucker's Telling Memories Among Southern Women affirm Lillian Smith's definition of the roles of southern black women and white women. They also prove that Smith's definition from pre-1960 has endured into the 1950's, 60's, and 70's. To an extent, some southern women, black and white, play an expanded version of these roles today. The fact that southern women still adhere to roles created for them by men nearly one hundred years ago is unfortunate. Southern women of all races must create roles for themselves in which they are fulfilled and respected rather than remaining loyal to their white, male ancestors' ideals.


Works Cited

Gladney, Margaret Rose. "Introduction to the 1994 Edition." Killers of the Dream. New York: Norton, 1994.

Smith, Lillian. Killers of the Dream. New York: Norton, 1994.

Tucker, Susan. Telling Memories Among Southern Women. New York: Schocken, 1988.


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