Autobiographies of people who have struggled with life’s adversities have long been among my favorite kinds of reading. This is especially true of those with a religious dimension that underscores the author’s reliance on God. One such account I recently re-read was the autobiography of the gifted singer and actress Ethel Waters (1896-1977), His Eye Is on the Sparrow, originally published in 1951 and reprinted in 1992. My own cherished copy is a Bantam paperback edition from the early 50’s, held together by a rubber band.
The two great struggles in Ethel Waters’s life were poverty and racism. But matching these were her two great strengths: an iron will and deep faith. Hers was the God who watches over the vulnerable of the earthhence the book’s title. It comes from a gospel hymn, which in turn is based on psalm passages like Even the sparrow finds a home...at your altars, O God (Ps. 84). Her birth was a result of the rape of her mother at age 13. Then, shuttled about by relatives in Philadelphia and nearby Chester, Ethel grew up in what she describes as a series of rat-infested, bedbug-plagued shanties among alcoholic relatives and drug-addicted neighborhood habitués. Sheer hunger drove her to steal milk and bread from doorsteps. Hungry themselves, her relatives praised her for what she brought home.
When she was 6, Ethel almost died from typhoid fever and pneumonia. By then working in a local hospital, her mother asked the priest at St. Peter Claver Church to come there and baptize her. Although she always considered herself a Catholic, Ethel Waters felt at home in other denominations too. I started to go to church every Sunday, she writes, adding: Any church to me has always been the home of God. It was during a children’s revival at a Protestant church, in fact, that she discovered in God an ally, a friend close by to strengthen me.
She needed that strength when, as a young vaudeville singer, she was involved in a near-fatal car crash in Alabama. The virulent racism she encountered therewhich she had already known in Philadelphiamight easily have led to a hatred of all white people. I’d been learning about that [racist] side of humanity almost from the day I was born, she comments. But it was also in the Alabama hospital that she met a white nurse named Rose who brought her to her own home.
The loving care given her by Rose and an African American doctor, who saved her leg, led to a kind of epiphany. She discovered that human kindness was depthless...and broke across all color lines. For the rest of her life, she was unable to appraise people...because of their skin color. Her view is reminiscent of the experience of Malcolm X during his life-altering pilgrimage to Mecca, where the sight of thousands of people of different colors and races led him to see that all are sisters and brothers.
Ethel Waters went on to become a distinguished performer in films and on the stage. Older readers may recall that she co-starred with Julie Harris in Carson McCullers’s Member of the Wedding, a role that won her the 1952 New York Drama Critics award for best actress. Even then she still encountered racism in hotels, which often refused to accommodate her; and because of unwise relationships, poverty was never far off. But she held on to a burning conviction...about there being a living God who was good and all-powerful and was...watching over me and forgiving my trespasses.
Now, half a century after her autobiography appeared, poverty for many remains entrenched, and so does racism. In April 2001 Cardinal Francis George of Chicago issued a pastoral letter to confront the reality that racism is still found in our churches and schools, just as it haunts our city and suburbs. Whether in Chicago or elsewhere in the nation, the goal of what might be called color blindness continues to lie in the future.