I was looking at myself in a tarnished mirror taped to a crooked wall. I leaned my head left of the crack that split the glass and squinted my eyes to get a better view. Made me dizzy. My shift was about to start, and I was rushing to put on lipstick. The light in the room was so dim I could barely make out my mouth. The shade was too pale, but I made do and blotted on a piece of toilet paper. The door opened just as I was imagining my face with thinner lips. I turned around, and thats when I saw her, not big as a banty hen. Mr. Weinstock was right behind. "Hosanna," he said to me, "this is Gilda Rosenstein, and shell be working with you. I want you to train her."
There were five of us women cleaning at the Braddock Hotel, all colored. It was right after Labor Day, and wed finished having our get-started cup of coffee (as compared to our keep-going cup in the afternoon and our hold-on cup toward the end of our day) in a small dark room in the basement. The manager called it the Maids Room because we were the only ones who used it. We called it Our Room; we did everything in there: change our clothes; drink coffee; eat lunch; smoke cigarettes; steal a quick nap or a drink. Every once in a while somebody would sneak in a man. It was a gray room with peeling paint and furniture that looked as though it needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Our lifeline was a little secondhand phonograph and a few old seventy-eights. Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and Louis Jordan resurrected us around the clock. Its been more than fifty years, and Ill bet that all of us, the living and the dead, can recall just what we were doing when we looked at Gilda dressed in that uniform. It wasnt every day we saw a white woman wearing what we wore, doing what we did. Gilda was the first, and I remember her in this life Im living and the one I left behind.
Death isnt like I thought it would be. The Baptist church stamped me early, and I was halfway expecting pearly gates, winged angels playing on their harps, St. Peter at the door, the works. Turned out that heaven aint nothing but a space in my mind, no more permanent than a sunshiny day; I go in and out. The background music is whatever song Im humming. Me, Im partial to Tina Turner. Whites not the only color people wear. Heaven is a great big be-in, where everybody comes as they are. Pajamas. Wild-looking hair. Mink coats. No makeup. Blond wigs. The be-in is right inside you. I think of it as the Land of Calm, a place to reflect, without alarms going off, telling me its time to do this or that. The only thing that moves me here is spirit.
Im in heaven now observing my baby girl, Matriece. I say baby, but my child is thirty-eight years old. She cant see me hovering in her bathroom, watching her comb her hair and get ready to go to work. She smiles at herself in the mirror as she gives her hair a final pat. The smile is the good part. My child liking what she sees reflected back at her is the good part. I fought for that, not just for her and her big sister, Vonette, but for all the sisters with hair that didnt ride their shoulders, with flaring nostrils that welcomed air, and lips that came with a pucker. I helped convince them that they were beautiful, unchained their minds every bit as much as Malcolm X did. Now a pretty black girl can do a Mona Lisa on a billboard and sell America a beer or a lawn mower. Pick up a magazine, and there we are, smiling our cover girl smiles. Wasnt always that way. "Because were already beautiful"--that was my motto back in the fifties when all colored women had were Red Fox stockings and face powder so light it made us disappear. All right, maybe I shouldnt compare myself with Malcolm X, but I made a contribution. I saw a need, and I filled it. I got rewards for that while I was on earth, but somebody owes me still. Im not talking about a debt of gratitude; Im talking about money.
Reprinted from What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell by permission of G. P. Putnams Sons. Copyright © 2001 by Bebe Moore Campbell. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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