We’re in the middle of weeks of protests to end the entrenched racism in America and I can’t stop thinking about Sula. I march and I scream that Black Lives Matter and I never add anything about how the black laundress I grew up with was not someone I could hug — because she was black.
Sula’s grandma was enslaved. And when slavery was outlawed, the grandma’s relationship to her former owner didn’t change. Then when the grandma had a daughter about 30 years later, she basically raised her daughter there at the plantation, as her former owner’s property.
When the daughter was an adult, she finally left the former owner’s plantation. She went north to Chicago and she got a job as a laundress with my great-grandparents. In the 1920s, my great-grandma had a baby girl, who was my grandma, and around the same time, the laundress had a baby girl, Sula.
My grandma and Sula were playmates for six years. Then my grandma went to a private school for girls and Sula learned to do laundry. Eventually, my grandma got married and she took Sula with her to her new home. Then when my grandma’s kids grew up to have their own houses and their own families, I guess it was just assumed that Sula would do their laundry, too.
My parents were an early experiment in dual-income parenting. Which we now know translates to no parenting. My parents left before breakfast and got home after dinner. If I got sick, I waited until Wednesdays to stay home from school because Wednesday was when Sula came to do our laundry. She told me not to get out of bed without socks on, to keep myself warm. She changed my bedsheets if they were sweaty from a fever. She made me chicken soup.
Some days I wasn’t really sick. I was just lonely. Sula taught me how to iron a tablecloth and how to starch a dress shirt. Some days she ironed and I folded, and then she re-folded if my work wasn’t up to her standard.
But there are only so many years a kid can be without parenting before things go to hell. So my grandma raised me at her house. This is why as a teenager I looked like I belonged in the 1950s even though it was the 1970s. We also lived like we were in the 1950s, with metal kitchen cabinets and a dinner bell to call us for chicken kiev. And so did Sula: she always wore a uniform in the house, she didn’t sit at a table to eat, she used white gloves or a white napkin to touch anything we would be touching right after her.
I asked my grandma why Sula wears a uniform and the white housekeeper does not. My grandma said, “Because she’s a negro.” I was pretty sure that wasn’t right but I didn’t have words to say what was wrong.
I learned a lot of the words I was missing when I went to college. In my English classes, I didn’t talk when we read black authors because I was scared I’d say something racist. I was embarrassed that the only black person I knew was Sula. I was scared to be stupid. Or offensive. I wasn’t sure what was racist. I didn’t know what was okay to say.
Back home from college, I said to Sula, “Just go in the front door. Please. Sula, the back door thing is absurd.”
Sula looked at me and shook her head no. I could tell she was hurt.
I said, “Why not? I don’t get it.”
She said, “I’m just not like that. That’s not my way.”
I think my grandma genuinely loved Sula. My grandma had no patience for me telling her she treated black people poorly. She could not understand the idea of loving Sula and still being racist towards Sula. But my grandma could tell me why I hurt Sula’s feelings: Only servants of poor families went in the front door. Sula identified with a better class of household servants than that.
Someone always had to drive Sula to the train so she could go back to an area where black people lived. One of the last times I saw Sula was in the 1990s. She was too old to take the train home late at night, so her grandson Derek would come to pick her up. Our doorbell was a real chime, echoing throughout the downstairs hallways.
I answered the door. Derek was my age. How did I never notice that before? I invited him inside.
He came inside, just like that, through the front door. A few family members asked him how he’s doing. He said fine.
I wanted to ask him so many questions about his family. About Sula. About what it’s like to come into our house in the front door.
Sula died shortly after that. She saved up a lot of money and she donated it all to a church that is still standing. I always wonder about Derek. What his life is like.
It’s thirty years later. I thought I was writing Sula’s story. But I’m only writing my story, of how deep racism runs through me. My kids were folding laundry with me and they were so slow. They were folding badly and I was folding perfectly and my son said, “Mom, how are you so good at folding? Where did you learn to do this?”
I didn’t tell them I learned from Sula. How many women are still alive who learned to fold laundry from their laundress? I am scared to say anything about my life with Sula. But I’m scared also to not tell the stories of Sula. I think it is really messed up to hear that my grandma believed she loved Sula. So I am so scared to tell you that I loved Sula, too.