Andrew L. Pincus: Debt owed Katie couldn't be repaid

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LENOX — Katie was cook, housekeeper and assistant mother. Katie taught me blackjack. Katie read the Bible in her room, slowly rocking in her chair and mouthing the words as she went. Katie was "help," as in the novel and movie "The Help."

This was not unusual for a middle-class white family in the Jim Crow South. Help — especially live-in help, as Katie was — cost little, and there wasn't a lot besides domestic service that a black woman could do. It wasn't slavery but it was surely a hangover from the time of slavery.

In a show of conscience, the country has been memorializing the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship from Africa to the colonies. All whites, as has often been said, are complicit in racial injustice, whether they have benefited directly from discrimination or servants, or simply from white privilege. Katie's is a common story for its time but it has a Berkshire ending and a timeless relevance.


Katie came to the family in Atlanta, probably about the time I, the first-born, did. She came with us when my father made a business move to New Orleans. She left behind an adult daughter and other family in Atlanta and brought her husband or boyfriend — we never did know which — with her. He became a handyman in my father's store. A teenager then, I thought it strange but took it for granted that she would give up her family for ours. Although my friends and I talked among ourselves about the wrongs of segregation, I was "white folks."

As far as I know, my mother treated Katie well. She paid decent wages (by the standards of the day), gave Katie maid's day off on Thursdays and never, to my knowledge, complained about Katie's cooking, cleaning, attitude or anything else. (No reason to complain about the cooking. It was better than Antoine's, we said, especially her Southern friend chicken.) Meanwhile, I was banging around in a rattletrap Ford convertible in New Orleans. And all this was normal for the family's status.

Katie became my confidante. As my father went to work and my mother played canasta with her friends — that, too, was normal for the times — I began to go to the "maid's room" for talks about girls, God, my arguments with my sister, and other adolescent concerns. Katie listened, counseled and took me out behind the garage for my first cigarette. It was also my last as I choked and gagged. In her room, over her Bible or sewing, she sang spirituals under her breath. I admired her song, her gold-capped teeth.

Katie was "family," we said. The affection was real on both sides but what did Katie, deep down, feel? We never knew.

Katie wasn't family when I went off to college and the army and my father lost his job. After several abortive moves, he and my mother wound up in Memphis. Katie, who had loyally followed the family to New Orleans, refused to go to Memphis. There was some kind of misunderstanding with my mother but, being grown and far away by then, neither I nor my sister or brother ever discovered what it was about. Katie remained in New Orleans and became a practical nurse. Out of appreciation, or guilt, or both, we children began sending her checks.

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For my 50th birthday, my wife and I threw a family party at our house in Lenox. By then, civil rights demonstrations had peaked in Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and schools in the South were being integrated, haltingly.


My sister and brother came, some cousins and nephews came (a couple of them uninvited) and Katie came up from New Orleans. Before leaving, she baked one of her famous birthday cakes. When she was changing planes in Atlanta, she forgot the cake on the plane from New Orleans. The airline held the northbound plane for her while, arthritic now, she limped back to the terminal to retrieve the masterpiece.

For three days, Katie stayed with us — we were the servants now — and we celebrated. The last day was a sun-filled Berkshire Sunday and, to finish up, we wanted to take Katie to that afternoon's Tanglewood concert.

Katie wouldn't go. There wouldn't be any other "colored" there, she said. We assured her there would be and, if she was uncomfortable, we would take her home.

Well, she went, saw black people easily mingling with the crowd and enjoying the music, and had one of the grandest days of her life.

Though we continued to exchange Christmas cards and notes, I never saw Katie again. She died a few years after that visit. Many more years later, Barack Obama was elected and it seemed the country was on the road to equality at last. Then came 2016 and the relapse into the hatreds of the past.

I owe Katie more than I could ever repay. We white folks owe African Americans more than we can repay. Money can't expiate the debt or guilt. Only respect for the truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bible can. And that respect seems in short supply in important places 400 years after a boat from Africa started our shame and sorrow.

Andrew L. Pincus writes about classical music for The Eagle and is an occasional op-ed page contributor.


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