An Oral History Forerunner
Reviewed by Jane Maguire Abrams
Vol. 13, No. 3, 1991, pp. 28-30
Willie Mae, by Elizabeth Kytle. Foreword by Joyce A. Ladner. (McLean, Virginia: EPM Publications, 1991. 244 pages, $19.95).
Times have changed and with that the reception of Elizabeth Kytle’s book Willie Mae. Published originally in 1958 and named one of the best books of that year by the New York Times, publicity was aimed at the general white reader.
Some must have found it painful that most black women could only reach their jobs by riding at the back of the bus, that the lady of the house might say “use the toilet but lift up the seat first”; and if work necessitated sleeping on the premises, “make up a pallet.” Otherwise a mattress would have to be cleaned or re-covered.
This is a story of a black domestic’s progress from one white household to another. There were employers who threw pots and pans at each other, and one who preferred throwing beef hash and rice all over the kitchen.
When a seven-year-old tried to avoid a beating from his step-mother for blowing his nose on a sheet, “I got beat my own self because he’d run to me. Him and her be wrassling around me, him trying to get away and her striking out. I cried harder than he did.”
One joyous summer day in Washington, D.C, where he went to take a month-long job as a cook, Willie Mae Wright met President and Mrs. Roosevelt “Before I found a place in the housing project,” she told him, “the house we was living in I could layin the bed … and in bad weather just as much rain came in on my face as would be outdoors. Now we got a nice place to live. I’m living better now than I ever lived in my life.” Wright told Miss. Roosevelt she was making “twenty-five dollars a week and a round-trip ticket on the Streamliner.”
When the book was first published one white reader asked the author, “Do you know what Willie Mae did for me?”
“Well, until I read about her I never thought about Peggy [her maid] as part of the family group.”
C’mon. Not even as having a mother and father? Such total lack of imagination, common sense and humanity probably would not happen now.
Today such organizations as the American Library Association and the National Education Association are
advised by black caucuses. These have recommended Willa Mae to teachers of sociology and history, particularly black history. So Willa Mae, with a telling foreword by Joyce Ladner, is born again to a new life, perhaps even classic status, with new readers.
Elizabeth Kytle welcomes them. For in the new introduction to the revised 1990 edition she regrets that “some modem blacks during a certain period, distanced and even seemed to want to ignore the contributions of unlettered … blacks of the generations immediately preceding them . . . This was to deny their debt to the very blacks on whose shoulders they were standing, who by doggedly surviving in devastating circumstances, had scratched out a toehold for descendants.”
You do not have to be either black or young to learn a lot from this book about race relations in our country before 1960. Willie Mae’s cousin went to the voting place and was told “yes,” he could vote, but if he was smart he would not. He did. That night two young white men went to his home and shot him in the presence of his wife and children. Her brother lost his life because he persisted in courting a black lady desired by a white man.
I confess to a small disagreement. Kytle says, “Willie Mae’s language is idiom, common to blacks and whites in the rural South. Dialect,” Kytle contends, is a “gross impropriety,” which she feels “pollutes material with condescension and ridicule.” But is not dialect (like any speech) a vehicle? It is what it transports to the human eye and ear and mind that counts. Joel Chandler Harris, most famous user of dialect, saw Uncle Remus as having “nothing but pleasant memories for the discipline of slavery.” So Harris had a kindly regard for slavery and portrays Uncle Remus as a man with a slave mentality. That is what pollutes, not the dialect.
Zora Neale Hurston conveyed with dialect her respect and affection for the characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Margaret Walker uses dialect convincingly in Jubilee. And Kytle’s use of idiom works well. But there is no one way to convey speech. Authors, black and white, have met the challenge in different ways.
Elizabeth Kytle listened and produced an early and brilliant example of what is now called “oral history.”
Jane Maguire Abrams reviews Elizabeth Kytle’s Willie Mae, reissued after more than thirty years. It was a forerunner of what has become a good and valuable stream of such books, re-capturing the life experiences of black Southerners who survived and in their own ways bested the years of enforced segregation. Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw may be the best known. Another of great distinction is He Included Me, The Autobiography of Sarah Rice, transcribed and edited by Louise Westling (University of Georgia Press, 1989). And one of the best has been Jane Maguire’s own On Shares, Ed Brown’s Story (W. W. Norton, 1975).–LD.