Somebody Named Willie

One of the themes explored in Ms. Dee Ann is that of race relations in the South at the end of the 1970s.  The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin had been the law of the land for fifteen years when the novel takes place, but as Dee Ann witnesses in Chapter 2, it’s hard to legislate attitudes.

Here’s the scene where Dee Ann and her husband Joe meet Floyd and Josephine (Miss Josie) Vaughan, their sixty-something landlords, on moving day. Dee Ann, Joe, and baby Heather will be living in a modest apartment built just a stone’s throw behind the Vaughans’ stately brick Colonial.  After sending Floyd to find “somebody named Willie” (Dee Ann’s words) to help Joe unload, Miss Josie is gushing over baby Heather.

“Heather. What a precious name for such a precious baby.”   Suddenly she straightened up from leaning over Heather, and her expression, which had been all soft and sweet when she was cooing over Heather, soured.

“Where is Willie? I declare, that colored man gets lost every time I turn my back.”

Joe and I both flinched a little. Who in the world said “colored” anymore?

“It’s Floyd’s idea to keep him around the house all day to do odd jobs. But of course all he ever does is eat me out of house and home.  Floyd ought to be the one taking out the trash and working in the yard anyway. But no, he says.  He has to have his free time. 

He goes to eat breakfast at Ernie’s Grill every morning with a bunch of his cronies and then sits there and gabs away half the day.   I tell everybody we don’t need Jimmy Carter in Washington when we got Floyd and his crowd in the corner booth at Ernie’s.  But while Floyd’s putting in his two cents’ worth about inflation, I’m left here trying to think up work for Willie.”

About this time, Mr. Vaughan ambled around the far corner of the big house followed by an old stooped black man wearing overalls and a ball cap.

 

Image result for segregation signs

Miss Josie’s outdated labeling of Willie as “colored” and her accusation that he tries to avoid work while wolfing down her food show that old racial stereotypes are still alive in Narrow Creek, North Carolina, in 1979.

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