I imagine Miss Emily as a thin, stately, beautiful woman who carries herself with pride. Trapped in the system of Jim Crow segregation, she is forced into the role acceptable for Black American women. She is a domestic servant. However, Miss Emily preserves her dignity by making her own rules. Refusing to be obligated to one family, she is a part-time maid at several homes. The decision gives this one black woman control in an environment that strips freedom of choice from her racial group. The other domestics were forced to yield to the expectations of the white ruling class to always be available. Emily rejected the system and celebrated each holiday with her family.
By example of her integrity, she stood against the practice of systemized cultural degradation. The attitude that Black Americans were dishonest, immoral, uneducated, and uncouth perpetuated a caste system that blocked opportunities that could change their lives. In writing about Emily I purposely portrayed her as someone the white women in the community trusted, respected, and valued so much that they were willing to acquiesce to her demands. She approached her clients with professionalism and equality. Her services were not something to be taken for granted, but appreciated.
We see strength, kindness, and commitment to family. Over and over we read about Missy’s daddy clearing new fields to meet the growing needs of his children, but he doesn’t recognize that James faces the same challenges. When her husband is restricted by his own brother in caring for his family, Emily meets the increasing demands. By taking on new clients over the years, she willingly responds to the burden. We witness her kindness in caring for her children, Miss Ada, Missy, and even James. A testament to her strength is the moment she hears her son is dead, but she refuses to let that community see her crumble. She, like Miss Ada, demonstrate courage, grit, and a spirit that commands respect.
Emily is a private woman, but her feelings toward her father reveal inner turmoil. There is anger that Mr. Jefferson was denied his identity and heritage as the only son of a successful white businessman. How does she feel about Grandma Em passing for white, or refusing to acknowledge her father? Her life decisions were not based on happiness for herself, but on achieving justice for Mr. Jefferson. The fear she instilled in the Tucker’s provided her father with a forced level of dignity from the family, and as a result, within the community. Seeking recognition for him gave her more purpose than the role of wife and mother. When she lost her father, her reason to live no longer existed.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana