The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don't even know they're doing it.
James Baldwin, The Paris Review, Interview, Spring, Issue 91, 1984
I taught Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy at least once. I seem to recall reading Kincaid's work in the late 1990s while teaching at my alma mater in Chicago . I had just completed my doctorate and was free to explore the experiences of blacks throughout the diaspora. Of all of Kincaid's works, Lucy captured my attention .
The protagonist lands in the US from Antigua to begin work in the home of an upper-middle-class white couple with two children. Lucy has been hired to be a nanny. I've never had such an experience, but what black isn't familiar with the way some whites carry on as a result of absorbing misguided knowledge about a pedigree, and the unfortunate deficit of this pedigree in others, particularly when those others come from elsewhere .
I recall a young woman, working in the career center, informed me that the director thought it best not to waste time on me. "I was too far down to help," he told her. I was in my forties, had a cat and books, had already been published, had been an instructor for the City Colleges of Chicago for years , and, for years, had been an activist. Yet, I didn't have the goods that informed those in academia at least that for me money really mattered. I'll do anything, then. Or rather, better, nothing.
I could relate to Lucy in the opening paragraph, after the plane has landed and in the night, the airport to her is lit with so much artificial light that she can barely see "clearly." Temporarily. The "fantasy" of something "new," as Lucy realizes, fades to reveal a reality that is "ordinary, dirty, worn down," a reality Lucy knew existed before temporarily blinded. It's what happens when our experiences have been that of one among a historically oppressed and exploited class.
At "home," the white couple, Lewis and Mariah, don't demand to be call, Lord and Lady. In neither this home nor the summer home does Lucy look out back and see a field of enslaved blacks. A black woman is in the kitchen, however. And there's the nanny, Lucy, to care for the children when Lewis and Mariah are busy being free people in the world.
It's the order of things all too familiar to us.
One evening at dinner, Lucy, while observing the couple eat, is called a "'visitor,'" by Lewis. Mariah laughs, as she laughs, Lucy says, at everything Lewis says. He calls her a "'Poor Visitor,'" over and over again. And Mariah laughs and laughs. Lewis speaks in a "sympathetic" voice. He's charming. "They said I seemed not to be part of things, as if I didn't live in their house with them." For Lewis and Mariah, something familiar was beginning to feel strange. And it seems harmless, except the labeling of Lucy as a "visitor," therefore foreign, moves and situates people in the household. Lewis as its head, moves Lucy to a place just above the maid but below the other woman at the table. Thereby situating Mariah as his surrogate master-in-charge in his absence.
Lucy has no words openly spoken to Lewis or Mariah. Lewis's (re-)construction of the social order doesn't escape Lucy's analysis of this home or its occupants.
"How does a person get to be that way?" In posing this question to herself, Lucy will situate herself as someone who asks questions and thinks critically on a social structuring of humanity that is antithetical to humanity's progress. What prohibits the superiority of Lewis and Mariah from posing the same question? What is it they fear if they do so?
Is she one of us or not? And this is the only question the American couple seems capable of generating.
"Dr. Freud for Visitor."
Could either Lewis or Mariah point to Antigua on a map? Or does it not matter at all?
Let's Lewis to his "romantic" affair with Mariah's best friend, an affair that only Lucy seems to notice because Mariah, busy teaching the newly arrived to appreciate what is valued in the "civilized" world, is keen to make sure Lucy adjusts to her place as the one, unfortunately ever so unfortunately exploited! All for good cause, of course!
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