Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


When the Seams Show

Valerie Babb

My Bajan grandfather was a carpenter. He worked on the Panama Canal Zone where there were gold and silver payrolls (white employees were paid with a gold standard, blacks with a silver), gold and silver water fountains, all designed to replicate the white/colored segregationist divide of United States. Canal Zone practices forbade a black man from using his carpentry tools; their jobs were to haul and dig. About 5000 died from a malaria outbreak, and daily he saw bodies being carted away. On weekends, however, my grandfather was allowed to use his tools to build boats and furniture for the same whites that did not allow him to ply his trade. His weekend gigs helped him to feed his eight children, and took his mind off the daily death toll. He became known for his skill, and as he executed dovetail, mitered, or biscuit joints, one of his favorite sayings was that the seams must never show.

My grandfather luckily was spared during the Canal Zone’s malaria outbreak and lived to see his children migrate to New York to begin new lives. My own life has taken me from New York to Atlanta, and now, while I’m sheltering in place amid the COVID-19 outbreak, I think a lot about my grandfather’s favorite phrase because both my cities’ seams are showing—the seams of our patchwork health care and insurance systems that make some more vulnerable to disease than others; the seams of our educational systems’ ingrained economic, digital, and language divides that prevent students from equal access to remote learning; the seams that view servers, delivery people, health aides, and day care providers as essential heroes in a crisis, but in more ordinary times refuse to pay them a living wage.

When the seams show, as they do now amid the COVID challenge, so do the opportunities to fix them. This time, once and for all, let’s seal the cracks in an uneven healthcare system; once and for all, let’s seal the cracks so that all have equal access to good education; once and for all, let’s seal the cracks that stop us from putting humane public policies in place. Like Langston Hughes, “I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”

I am still eating on a dining table solidly built by my grandfather. Its dark wood and graining are still beautiful. It has withstood moves, homework, bill paying, poker games, and many, many meals, and not a seam shows.

A History of the African American Novel by Valerie Babb
A History of the African American Novel by Valerie Babb

About The Author

Valerie Babb

Valerie Babb is Franklin Professor of English and Director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Georgia. She has been a professor at Georgetown Univer...

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