Menu Close

Willie Mae

Author Shelley Fraser Mickle
Air Date 2/1/2000

Willie Mae Transcript

When I was growing up in Arkansas in the early fifties, my grandmother had a woman who came to work at her house several times a week. She was black, and her name was Willie Mae. You see, my grandmother had been in a buggy accident in 1910. She’d been sitting in the buggy alone when a pig ran up under the horse, and it spooked, took off, and the buggy crashed against a tree. My grandmother was severely handicapped, and really did need a lot of daily help. But it was when my grandmother tried to teach me how I should act around Willie Mae that I decided my grandmother had a screw loose. For I was taught that Willie Mae was never to come to the front door. She was never to sit town in the kitchen and eat with me. In fact, she was never to sit down in any room with me at any time. And if she was to be the one to take me to the Saturday afternoon movie at the Ritz, she was to sit in the balcony while I sat downstairs with the other white people.

None of this made sense to me, and I let my grandmother know about it. “Oh, but it was the way things were supposed to be,” she told me. She read me the Bible story about Noah’s son, Ham, trying to convince me that the whole African race was descended from Ham and they were intended to live in slavery forever. That’s when I decided that words lifted off the page could be made to mean anything. Eventually, I turned this experience into fiction while I was writing my first novel, The Queen of October. But the whole time I was living it, it became the root of a great confusion that took me a long while to sort out. For it is never easy to come to know that you can still love someone while at the same time you detest their beliefs.

Once when I was sick and in the hospital, Willie Mae wrote me a long letter, all of it backwards. She included instructions about how to hold it up to a mirror to read it. And it took me most of a delightful afternoon to unravel, like magic, what she was writing to me. She gave me gifts at Christmas and for my high school graduation. Yes, Willie Mae became more to me than the woman who worked for my grandmother. She became part of my own personal history.

She is in her sixties now. She has served on the town council in that same little cotton town where I grew up. She is prominent in state politics and she is a grandmother now, herself. She is living proof of how we have all changed.

Black history month is more than a month of histories. All of our stories should be rewritten to include how we have existed together truthfully, and less than truthfully for all of this time. Knowing how we never want to be again is as valuable as seeing how we never like to admit we were.

Posted in Holidays, Stories