Her name was Minnie. At least that’s what we called her. When I read Kathryn Stockett’s novel, “The Help,” I was surprised that Stockett named one of her household maids Minny. Perhaps Minnie is a mid-century modern name for black women who cared for white children, similar to Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”, one of the most iconic racist caricatures of black women ever created.
White families wouldn’t have consciously known how demeaning it was to replace a black woman’s given name with a generic. Nor would they have cared.
My family’s long-gone photo collection had a picture of Minnie surrounded by my toddler sisters and me. We were all born a year apart beginning in 1945 in post-war Annapolis. All the Navy officers had black help to clean, cook and iron for their families. When we moved to Washington, D.C. Minnie came with us. I don’t know if she ever lived with us but I do know she had her own family.
Her dark skin captivated me. I desperately wanted to touch her face, but feared her blackness would rub off, as if it were like the watercolors in my little tin paintbox. I’ve coveted curly hair my whole life, a direct result of knowing and wanting to be like Minnie. She smelled as fresh as her starched dresses and aprons. In contrast, my parents and their friends had an unrelenting stench of cigarettes and beer.
Minnie was older than my mother. She may have been a grandmother, though I only knew the notion of age from my parents. My grandmothers were dead and I have no early memory of my grandfathers, nor any other old person.
My mother, Agnes, allowed my sisters and me to spend our own separate weekends at Minnie’s house. I don’t know whose idea this was. Surely no black woman would have volunteered to be responsible for the welfare and safety of a white child for a weekend. I like the idea of my mother introducing us to life in a black household, to expand our horizons, as it were. An unconventional mother, Agnes could have sent us off to the projects in southeast Washington just to shock the neighborhood swells. Then again, maybe all white parents foisted their youngsters onto the family lives of their maids.
Minnie had a white two-story new house full of people, food and laughs. The little girls around her home taught me to hopscotch. I played that game the rest of my childhood on the sidewalks of all the myriad towns my family moved in and out of. For years after, the words “projects” and “southeast Washington” evoked a neighborly feeling full of kindness and fun. I was safe there. Even now, with all the negative information packed inside my head about “the projects”, my thoughts are pierced by a loving instant, Minnie.
I never heard Minnie’s name again after we’d been evicted from our house in Washington. I hope she missed me.