Her name was Karine. From the outside looking in she was simply my family’s African American nanny or maid. To me, however, she was much more than that. Karine was and still is the most significant person in my life and her kindness, graciousness, and total devotion to me still resonates to this day, almost sixty years later. After all, one cannot segregate unconditional love.
I was a child of privilege while growing up in Memphis, Tennessee during the tumultuous race-troubled era of the 1960s. I came from a lily-white and very upscale neighborhood where my home was 10,000 square feet and an architectural award-winner. My family was very prominent and well- respected and it was hoped and expected that I would carry on the tradition of being a Southern Belle as I grew into adulthood.
So how does the dynamic of a wealthy white girl and an African American maid come to a relationship that only included love and devotion between us, and a total absence of any type of racism from either one of us?
I was very fortunate during my early years of receiving the proper moral fiber from my dad. I will never forget the evening during which our family was dining at one of our favorite restaurants and a black man walked in to the silence of all the patrons who happened to be white. Diffusing a situation that could have become ugly and unfortunate, my dad walked over to the man, shook his hand, and introduced himself.
Among the lessons he and my mother taught me, that night was confirmation that there was to be no discrimination tolerated towards another human being regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of their religious beliefs, or regardless of their sexual orientation. We are all people born of God, we are all human, and each one of us is special.
Watching Karine on a daily basis continued to reinforce these beliefs in me. If she were ever bothered by the racism that was surely thrown her way, she never showed it. All she showed was strength, courage, and she always treated me with unquestioned love. Her life seemingly was one of joy, no matter what the circumstances.
Karine taught me so many life lessons, but while doing so she always made sure that I felt protected. On Saturdays I would often accompany her downtown. A trip downtown meant a bus ride and Karine, as was the custom, was required to sit in the back of the bus or “The Colored Section.” She always asked me if I wanted to sit up front where the “proper” white folks sat. I always refused, much preferring to sit in the back of the bus with her. Karine always instructed me to mind my manners and I would of course. But I also would stare right back at the people who did not hide their disapproval of the “white daughter of the wealthy car dealer spending time riding on a bus with a colored maid.”
I always felt a complete sense of calm being with Karine. It did not matter what other people were both thinking and whispering. I knew that I was with the most compassionate and giving person that ever lived no matter what her skin color was. They were the ones to feel sorry for. Where was their sense of decency and acceptance? It was nowhere to be found, replaced by arrogance, elitism, ignorance, and prejudice.
Each Sunday Karine would go to church and on occasion I would accompany her. It never bothered me that I was the only white face among a sea of black faces. I loved being with Karine no matter where we were and I loved going to her church. Indeed it was Karine who was primarily responsible for installing a deep devotion to the Christian faith in me, a devotion that has stayed with me through all of these years.
While at church we would get the same stares, curious looks, and I am sure downright disapproval, from the congregants, but this time they were all African American. When one of these women made a point of asking Karine why she would bring this white child to an all-black church, she quickly replied that “I love this child as if she were my own.”
I last saw Karine in 1985 when I drove to her home in a most dilapidated section of Memphis. She was well into her eighties by then and I wanted my three-year-old daughter Savannah and my son Steven who was a baby at the time to meet her. Even though I knew that they would be too young to remember, it was so important to me for them to at least have one chance to see the most wonderful, amazing, and beautiful person that I had ever known.
Now, nearly sixty years after I met Karine for the first time, all of the life lessons I learned from her are still with me each and every day. In these troubled times fueled by tension, mistrust, and even downright hatred for others, her teachings have taken on a new and even more important meaning. We all have the capacity to love instead of hate. We all have the capacity to accept instead of reject. We all have the capacity to look past the color of a person’s skin, rather than have our judgments based solely on the color of a person’s skin.
Karine taught me all of these lessons and hopefully all of us can learn something from this most wonderful and blessed person who graced me with her warmth, kindness, and love of her fellow man.
There will never be another Karine.