“Mother, there’s a Black person on the sofa.” Those were the first words I ever heard spoken by the Danish collage artist Anne Misfeldt.
It was the mid-1970s and Anne was then five-years-old. Age 22, I’d arrived in her hometown of Aarhus, Denmark to work on the lighting design staff at a local theatre. Determined to “integrate” as quickly as possible in a country with few people who looked like me, I enrolled in a Danish language course shortly after I’d gotten settled. Anne’s mother, Kirsten, was my teacher.
To help familiarize her students with Danish traditions — real lighted candles on Christmas trees, elaborate open face sandwiches, rowdy drinking songs — Kirsten routinely hosted social gatherings at her home. Thus, instead of returning to my attic room, I accepted her offer to crash on the couch after an especially festive night of food and libations.
“I got really startled when you opened your eyes and looked at me,” Anne later said, recalling the beer-sodden gaze I’d trained on her. “Meeting people from all over the world at such a young age was so unusual. None of my friends at the time had similar experiences.”
As we mark African Heritage Month, I’m mindful that I’ve now known Anne for nearly half a century. And like the collage work of the pioneering artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988), our relationship has been coloured, over time and space, by a mutual desire to celebrate diversity.
Indeed, Anne and her brother Tom (then age seven) were the first white children to enter my world. Growing up, I’d learned about the enslaved Black women who’d been forced to proffer their breasts (among other indignities) as wet nurses for white infants.
As the white children grew older, enslaved Black women served as stabilizing forces in their lives, often at the expense of their own children (many of them the fair-skinned progeny of plantation masters).
Loathe to find myself relegated to a Gone With the Wind Mammy-type figure, I steered clear of white kids. In this, I was fully affirmed by my parents who were among the millions of Blacks who’d fled the brutal Jim Crow South for better opportunities in the North (see Bearden’s “Watching the Good Train Go By”).
Damned if their daughter would toil at tasks that might prepare me for work as a domestic, I got a “pass” on household chores such as cooking and cleaning. My parents even spared me the responsibility of babysitting my younger siblings. Tend a white child? Never.
However, in contrast to the breakneck pace of mounting stage productions, I soon found comfort in the company of Anne and Tom. Having just learned to speak Danish, I had a limited vocabulary in their native tongue. Thus, it was easier for me to interact with them than it was to converse with my theatre colleagues about, say, dimmer boards.
Welcomed on Misfeldt family outings, I delighted in banter with Tom about biler and pølser (cars and hot dogs); he had strong opinions about both. As for Anne, I taught her how to count in English during a drive with her dad and explained to her the meaning of the word “please” when we were in urgent need of a pit stop.
“We both had to go so bad,” she recalled. “You used the word ‘please,’ which I didn’t understand because it doesn’t exist in Danish.”
My language proficiency improved, I happily accepted an invitation to speak, in Danish, at the school that Tom and Anne attended. I’ve forgotten the specifics of my presentation. But decades later, the forlorn faces of the students remain burnished in my memory. “What did I say wrong?” I wondered.
As it happened, the television miniseries Roots — adapted from the Alex Haley book about slavery — had then captivated a worldwide audience. I later learned that many of the youngsters feared for my “safety” if I left Denmark.
This brings me to my recent (pre-COVID) visit to Aarhus. Shortly after my arrival, Anne left a message at my hotel that read: “Did you bring your dukke?” By that, she meant my Black Raggedy Ann doll, a cherished keepsake that I’d taken with me when I began work at the theatre in the 1970s. Of course, I’d again brought her along.
“Meeting an adult who travelled with a doll was a little strange but exciting,” Anne said, recalling our past. “You were so funny, entertaining and caring of me, which I probably needed at the time.”
I’d also brought with me a bright green toy car that I later placed on Tom’s gravestone. For he’d fallen ill with a then undiagnosed ailment toward the end of my first stay in Denmark. Back at my then home of Seattle, I was stunned to receive news that he’d died of a rare condition, aplastic anemia, at age nine.
Set against the myriad sorrows wrought by COVID-19, I’ve found myself reflecting on a friendship with the most unlikely companions I could have ever imagined. Spurred by poignant memories, I mailed Anne a Black Raggedy Ann doll.
“I wanted to post a picture of my doll in my workspace but got afraid because I’m a white, Scandinavian woman,” Anne confided to me. “But one day I might do it. She is a special gift and has a special story to tell. So why shouldn’t that be possible to share?”
My sentiments, exactly.
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.