the GENDER issue / FICTON
Losing Miss V'ola
from Black Girl in Triptych
by Dána-Ain Davis
Ma and Pa pose for a picture, November 2017 © abwilliams; background illustrations, 2020 © Troy A. Lambert
Frankie Mae used to love Choward’s Violet Candies. She associated them with Miss Viola who took care of her while her mama, Ida, went to work. After a year of working and organizing child care Ida found Miss Viola to watch the girls. Every morning at 7:30 Miss V’ola, as Frankie Mae called her because she didn’t always pronounce her “i’s” when they were followed by another vowel, picked up Frankie Mae, and her older sister Gilda-girl, to take them school. You’d have thought Pookie, their cousin, could take them since Ida first dropped them off at her apartment when she left for work at 6:45. But Pookie finally found a part time job at Sydenham Hospital over on 123rd Street, in housekeeping and walked to work because she had to be there by 8:00 am, the same time Gilda-girl had to be at school.
Instead, it was Miss Viola who took Gilda-girl to her second-grade class and then brought Frankie Mae to her kindergarten class at a school near her house. In the afternoons Pookie fetched Gilda-girl on her way home. Miss Viola picked up Frankie Mae.
It was all like clockwork.
After picking her up at school, Miss Viola and Frankie Mae would stroll or take the bus to Miss Viola’s house until Ida finished working. Sometimes Miss Viola brought violet candies for Frankie Mae as an after-school treat. In Frankie’s little-girl mind, Miss Viola and violet candies were the same thing. Sometimes she dreamed Miss Viola made them for just for Frankie. Sometimes she thought, they were made for Miss Viola.
The truth was that the funny little candy was created by a white man named Charles Howard who made the confectionary mint in a loft in Manhattan in the 1930s. Howard named it “Choward’s Violet,” which he first sold on street corners in Manhattan.
Was it possible that Miss Viola had met him years before? After all it was 1965 and Miss Viola was in her 40s. She could have worked for him in his loft making the candies. Lots of Negroes had migrated from the South to the city, just as Frankie Mae, her sister, and her mama had done. Miss Viola was no different. She had come up north like all those South Carolina ladies—maybe she had gotten a job in a candy factory, not as a domestic, like Frankie Mae’s mama, Ida.
Even though confectioners specifically cultivated the interests of white middle class people to increase candy sales in the 1960s, they also courted Black people. While the presumption was that the confectionary industry had a segregated candy hierarchy, maybe Miss Viola had taken a job at the C. Howard Company, Inc., improved his formula for the violet candies and then left when she was good and ready— having determined she would be better off self-employed babysitting so she could get home to her own children or that man she lived with, when she saw fit.
Or maybe she had been laid off.
However, it happened, Miss Viola had started babysitting for Frankie Mae in January 1964 when her mama found a job, and gave Frankie Mae her first little violet to make a good impression. A year later she was still giving Frankie those violet mints.
It probably was not necessary to do all that to win Frankie Mae over because Miss Viola gave out the best hugs with her arms and her huge bosom into which Frankie Mae nestled when she got a “Miss V’ola hug,” as she called it. Frankie Mae became a hug-seeking five-year-old. While her mama gave her the best kisses, it was Miss Viola who gave the best hugs. Miss Viola was as soft as the loose powder that lightly coated your fingers when you opened up the Violet candy wrapper. And just like that square candy that fit so perfectly in your mouth and dissolved slow enough that your tongue felt tingly from the math of time plus saliva; that was how Miss Viola’s hugs made Frankie Mae feel, tingly.
Frankie Mae would get stuck to Miss Viola whenever they hugged. Miss Viola was always just a little bit damp with miniscule beads of perspiration forming in her cleavage. Her perspiration, the scent of Miss Viola’s rose water perfume and the metallic sweet candy breath formed the scent that floated to Frankie Mae’s nose. Those hugs always came after Miss Viola did Frankie Mae’s hair so it would be neat for the next day. And, she always referred to Frankie Mae as “Sugah.”
At least three times a week, Miss Viola, said, Come here, Sugah, and called Frankie Mae over the get her hair plaited. Frankie would sit between Miss Viola’s legs, who proceeded to part Frankie’s hair into perfect square boxes, just like the ones on graph paper, only bigger. Every once in a while, she made a bun on top of Frankie’s head with a few rings of curls near her ears; but that was only for special occasions. When she was done, Miss Viola would turn Frankie around to admire her handiwork. And then came the hug.
One Tuesday, January 26th, 1965 to be exact, it was really cold and Frankie Mae had left her scarf at home. She was so glad when they reached the warmth of Miss Viola’s house. Plus, Frankie Mae had to go to the bathroom baaaad. Miss Viola’s husband or boyfriend—or whatever he was, Mister Joe—was hardly ever at home when they arrived back at Miss Viola’s house every afternoon. He worked at the same hospital as Pookie, Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, as a janitor on the afternoon shift. For some reason on this Tuesday, Mister Joe was home. Maybe it was because Winston Churchill had died the day before, although Negro people didn’t usually get days off for anything. Or, maybe he just took the day off after hearing that Annie Lee Cooper had punched that white sheriff, Jim Clark, in Alabama for preventing her from registering to vote. Or maybe he was sick because when Frankie Mae went to open the bathroom door, a foot stopped her. Mister Joe was in the bathroom.
For a long time.
Finally, Mister Joe came out of the bathroom and made his way to the kitchen. Frankie Mae rushed past Mister Joe as fast as that new car, the AC Cobra Mk III 427. When she finally sat down on the toilet, with her legs dangling, Frankie peed like a race horse. Her eyes were closed savoring the joy of relief. Afterwards, Frankie Mae opened her eyes, and looked to her left for toilet paper. She pulled off four sheets like mama had taught her. But something caught the corner of her eye. Laying on the white and black penny-shaped tile floor, and leaning between the toilet and the wall, was a magazine with a bunch of white women on the front and rabbit dressed like a man. Frankie picked up the Playboy magazine and began turning the pages.
Then there it was.
In the center of the magazine was a naked white lady with the best hairdo ever.
Frankie Mae could not read, so she did not know that in addition to the naked white lady with the best hairdo she had ever seen, was an interview with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, that had been written by Alex Haley. All she knew was she wanted hair like the white lady.
Frankie Mae wiped herself dry from front to back and held open the page with the lady, at the same time. She flushed the toilet; opened the bathroom door, and shot down the hallway to the living room. With the magazine wide open she squealed, Miss V’ola, uhhhmmm, can you do my hair like this? Pleeeeeeeease?
Frankie Mae held the magazine out, for what seemed like hours. Miss Viola’s breath was short at the sight of the picture and she was perspiring quite a bit more than usual. The armpits of her light blue dress with the white collar—similar to the one Hazel, the white maid on television who worked for the Baxter family wore— were soaked by two very large circles of sweat, surely produced by the extreme discomfort of the situation.
Now Miss Viola was a Church-going woman. Everybody knew because she always had a fan from Convent Avenue Baptist Church, which had one of the best choirs in all of Manhattan. The fan had an image on one side that looked the sun had been molded by God into the shape of a cross. The name Convent Avenue Baptist Church was printed in Black letters. On the other side was printed “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” – Philippians 4:13. The church fan was both functional and inspirational: In the summer, it kept Miss Viola cool. But all year long it was a reminder of Christ’s love. Miss Viola believed in Him. On that Tuesday, the church fan laying on the table in the living room served both purposes. When Frankie Mae held up the picture of the naked white woman, Miss Viola started sweating; she grabbed the wooden handle of the fan and began fanning herself despite the 37- degree temperature outside and called Joe!!!!!!!!!!! Mister Joe stepped out of the kitchen, and saw Frankie Mae holding his magazine. His mouth fell open. Miss Viola stared at him like she was going to personally escort him to Hades. Joe looked at Vi, as he called her, like that might be the best thing that could happen to him at that moment.
Embarrassment will make you ‘disremember’ who you are in the world. Your body will float and your mind will replay the scene that caused your shame a thousand times. Miss Viola had Frankie Mae’s request for the hairdo on a loop in her mind while at the same time she hoped Christ would come save her from the hell she was in.
Looking back, there really was not much could be done about any of it, but to actually do Frankie Mae’s hair. Sit down, Sugah, Miss Viola said as if she were about to cry. Frankie Mae sat down between Miss Viola’s legs and held up that picture of the naked white lady like she had just found a ladybug. Miss Viola tried to imagine how she was going to tell Ida that her daughter had seen a picture of a naked white woman in Playboy.
Frankie Mae had no idea that Tuesday, January 26th would be would one of the last times she would see Miss Viola. Frankie Mae’s mama did not want her daughter at Miss Viola’s house, after the confession. What kinda house you livin’ in, Miss Viola? That’s a chil’. I can’t have her ‘round none of that. And that was that.
Losing her Miss V’ola, whose hugs made Frankie Mae feel safe in a world ravaged by demonstrations and chemical warfare in South Vietnam, by breathing sweet violet breath over her, was devastating. Frankie Mae never ate those Choward’s mints again. But she always searched for a hug just as good as Miss V’ola’s.
Dána-Ain Davis is an anthropologist who is the director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her research is focused on Black women's experiences, particularly on domestic violence and reproduction. Davis is also a doula.