I remember, in 1969, in New Orleans, as a 25 year old, getting hired off the street as ship's storekeeper on the Delta Queen riverboat--last stern-wheeler to ply the Mississippi and Ohio rivers as a passenger carrying vessel--as the only white face to hold a job other than the officers and two engineers. Porters, deck hands, bartenders, waiters, the kitchen crew and maids were all black, and were the backbone of the majestic queen of the river.
The maids all seemed in their forties and when I ran into one of them in my comings and goings they always smiled and said, “Hi, mistah sto'keepah, how y'all doing today?” And I always answered, “Just fine, ma'am. How are you?” As time went on, they seemed to find humor in my bearded sloppy appearance, giggling in a fond, motherly way, nodding, making eye contact, and I found them sensuous and earthy and felt a natural nurturing from them, a comfort that put me at ease and allowed me to actually like myself at such a discontented time in my life. They looked at me like I was somebody of value, and counted.
There were five of them, all from Memphis, and when we docked in Memphis for a layover their grown sons and daughters picked them up and toted their suitcases, and the ship's chef, who was also from Memphis, told me just about all the maids who came onto the Queen had grown up down in Mississippi sharecropping cotton and later moved to Memphis to do domestic work while at the same time raising their children. Some times as single mothers.
At night the crew dining room became the place to listen to music and visit, and the maids always sat at a table together and endured the wise cracks from cocky porters, and once, a lady named Dolores slapped one in the face so hard the sound reverberated throughout the cramped dining room. And that was that. These same church going ladies, who sent most of their paychecks home but dressed up to go to lunch when we hit New Orleans, were nobody to mess with.
A waiter named Davis, a former Pullman porter who'd played baseball in the negro leagues and was still spry as a 25 year old in his fifties and knew how to dress, put me under his wing as a sort of mentor, properly dressed me, and took me to a blues club in Memphis where he promised to show me the “real blues,” something I knew nothing about, being the typical whitey raised on pablum rock 'n roll in Los Angeles.
Three of the maids and three of the waiters came along and we brought in our own bottles and sat at a long table in a dim packed blues club and listened to the grating shiver of guitars, the groaning of a harmonica, the constant beat of drums, the deep rasp of a singer, the melding of down home blues from the Delta, the saddest music I've ever listened to, and I'd never seen people so happy partying to it. Dolores forced me to get out on the floor and dance with all these black folks who made me feel lame and awkward as they moved about so easily to the music.
“Don't y'all be shy now, mistah sto'keepah, jes' follow mah lead, chile.”
She got me to dance. She got me moving and into the swing of things, forgetting about my self-consciousness, without saying a word, but merely nodding and smiling and encouraging me, and at one point I asked her, “Dolores, I've never seen people have so much fun dancing to such sad music, it's all about heartbreak and betrayal and suffering and misery,” and she lifted her face and looked me in the eye and said, “Baby, us black folks jes' got to celebrate our bad times or they kill us.”
This statement could be an anthem to most of all black women in this country, and now, in the year 2019, they have emerged, to me, as the bedrock of the democratic party, and the single last hope for this country. The bad times that have nearly killed all of them have also made them ten times tougher than the old pasty-faced-saggy jowled white republicans disgracing themselves and the country in the senate and house of representatives.
Bad times that nearly killed them have made them ten times tougher than a droopy billionaire like the vacant cipher who owns Starbucks, or the young techie nerds and super macho blowhards coming up out of the white suburbs and those icky prep schools and Ivy League colleges that have produced smug stooges like our latest entry onto the Supreme Court.
Out of this ongoing morass came the likes of Oprah, Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, Stacey Abrams, Maxine Waters, to name a few; and only a fool would want to tangle with any of them on an intellectual level, or a common sense level. These spirited women are spawn of a world where black mothers, in many cases, were saddled with men humiliated by the system that offered them little compared to the white man and beat them down further when they were rejected for the color of their skin and only the color of their skin. Crappy schools that offered them little but crappy jobs, crappy wages, or no jobs, especially during the worst of times.
In most cases, the women held everything together. They raised their children in blighted projects and gave them the only thing that enabled them to survive, food, clothing, love, warmth, encouragement, and hope. They were treated as chattels destined to drudge work for the lowest of wages and as distilleries of reproduction. In movies they were doting nannies or servile maids humored by wealthy white people. They were seen as background objects, never in the forefront, always in support, and surely never groomed for greatness, unless they were entertainers or athletes.
Not now. Now there is burgeoning pride among these gals, led by the likes of powerful black women who have been through it all, are tougher than anybody in this country, know how to talk to people eloquently on a human level, literally shimmer with pride at who they are and what they've accomplished; and behind them, in a massive show of genuine black pride are all the black women in this country who have come so far and have these dynamic leaders to look up to and follow.
Give me Kamala Harris on this ticket any day, and she'll carry whomever else is on it. It's time.