Off-White: A Memoir
By Laurie Gunst
Soho Press, 288 pages, $25.
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Rhoda Cobin Lloyd died in October 1986. Her funeral was a small, open-casket affair that ended with a eulogy by Laurie Gunst, Southern Jew and historian. The eulogy was short: All Gunst could say was that Lloyd’s parents, Sam and Julie, had been born as slaves and that Rhoda had been “like a mother” to her.
Words like “nanny,” “housekeeper” or that poison-dart from another era, “mammy,” can’t describe the work done by Lloyd and so many other women of color who each week are paid to raise families that are not their own. And while the years since Lloyd’s death have seen a flood of memoirs dealing with race, none has yet to fully chart that tricky relationship between the white family and its nonwhite keeper.
In “Off-White: A Memoir,” Gunst, a Harvard doctorate who has taught courses in Southern race relations and in New World history, charges herself with the formidable task of reconstructing the several intertwined multigenerational histories that brought her to the funeral lectern on that sad, hushed fall day in 1986. Lloyd was born in a small South Carolina town at a time when hospitals did not register black infants. According to Gunst, the only sure details on Lloyd’s family tree are her parents’ names, Sam and Julia. When a preteen Gunst discovered that the parents of the woman her own parents employed to take care of her were born into slavery, “loneliness took up residence inside [Gunst] like some great dark bird settling its wings.”
By the end of “Off-White,” this great, dark bird has had its wings ruffled and resettled a few times. As an adult, Gunst learns secrets of her family’s past: One of her great-grandfathers fought for the South in the Civil War, and during Reconstruction her mother’s grandfather cooperated with the Ku Klux Klan in fomenting a racial massacre. Yet, resolving guilt or feelings of racial privilege is not Gunst’s goal. Old memories and even older microfiche records instead allow her to dispatch a troubled origin story in which one generation’s intimacy with African Americans descended directly out of the wealth of a previous generation established at the cost of the group’s freedom.
The Gunsts were Germans Jews whose fortune in the South began with a family whiskey business founded in 1879. Evelyn Einstein and Richard Gunst, the author’s parents, met as children playing jacks on Richmond, Va.’s prestigious Monument Avenue, a shady boulevard studded with granite likenesses of Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Laurie, the couple’s fourth and final child, was a teenager in 1964 when the family ascended to debutante-class wealth after their dog-care company patented the country’s first insecticide-laced anti-flea collar.
In the summer of 1921, Evelyn’s mother hired Rhoda Lloyd to take care of Evelyn. A generation later Lloyd was still in Richmond, this time taking care of Evelyn’s own young children. Laurie is no more than a month old when the sturdy woman pictured in the book’s photo illustrations with broad cheekbones, round glasses and copper skin anoints her bald baby head with oil and, as Gunst writes, casts “a spell so that I would never leave her. So that I would be hers for life.”
Later the intimacy between the two leads Gunst toward an interest in black culture. Eventually she pursues colonial and post-colonial history of Jamaica, writing a doctoral thesis on its underworld drug trade and living there for several years as a professor at Kingston, Jamaica’s University of the West Indies.
The section of the book dedicated to her time in Jamaica is perhaps the point at which readers see best the frankness with which Gunst eyes her own experience. Thankfully she admits to the hokey naiveté of the ganja circles and “rent-a-dread” romances between white touristy women and long-locked black Jamaicans without editing out all the juicy details of her own island rendezvous. Her description of Rasta-hippie culture reads as dated but honest, a mild critique of the cultural appropriation that comes when white people become infatuated with black culture.
Like Gunst’s eulogy for Lloyd, “Off-White” cuts to the heart of Gunst’s affections for the woman responsible for so much of her worldview. It is an engrossing, tightly written history of a Jewish 20th century in the South. Yet sadly, as in the eulogy, the memories, photos and sketchy Jim Crow-era records of Rhoda Cobin Lloyd are just not enough to properly illuminate her life. Again the audience is left in its chairs, wanting more.
Ariella Cohen is a reporter for the Brooklyn Papers.