The Fall of the House of the Other
by Emeline Edgewood
Note: During research on early twentieth-century minstrel shows in the North I came across the above image through the Digital Public Library of America. The image is dated 1910, and reads: “Lorraine Miller and Grace Porter dressed for a party, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota”
They are role-playing. It was never supposed to be like this. Like what? Like this, full blown. The sort of play-acting that moves you into that fantasy place not temporarily, as you thought it would, but permanently. Their names are Lorraine and Grace. Lorraine is on the left and the man she will marry in two years will die in March 1918 in the Palace Green Hospital in London by infection from a pea-sized shell fragment in his left calf, just above the Achilles tendon. And Grace, it’s not an accident that Grace’s eyes are closed, for in conjuring herself as the plantation mistress she finds that something inside her is moving, moving around, and she can feel it better with her eyes shut. They are juniors at Macalester College and they are going to become teachers.
Grace fears she really doesn’t have a name or a place in the world. She leans away from Lorraine because Lorraine’s elbow deactivates the feeling of aloneness that she likes. She knows that Lorraine has been practicing her pose–her head tilted, her eyes gazing skyward, the palm of her left hand on the back of her head–for days. It’s strange, but it’s Lorraine, in blackface, not Grace, who feels power. The power of the powerless. This is a contradiction that putting on the blackface has forced Lorraine to confront because, since she was a little girl, she has assumed that power was an imaginary, shapeless thing but now that she feels it, really feels it by wielding the face of the Other, she feels a sort of power–almost supernatural–that she will never feel again.
They will go to the campus costume ball, play their roles as the plantation mistress and the house slave, and about midway through the night as the jazz begins to grow heavy and sag Grace will shut her eyes again, like she is doing in the picture. She will shut her eyes while sitting at their table with the wilted pink tulip favor, sweaty from dancing, thoughts of kissing in her head, and no one will really notice that her eyes are closed, because it’s dark in the gymnasium. But behind her eyes it’s not dark at all. Behind her eyes is where is the life is.
Her black silk fan seems to be attracting moths.
Someone has opened the doors to let in fresh air.
She pictures a plantation where she herself is the northern bride brought south and at the same time she feels more separated from the world than ever before. She smells lemons, or limes, or mint. She thinks harder upon the plantation and gives it detail drawn from the short film by D.W. Griffith she saw at the Nickelodeon in Duluth.
Lorraine joins her at the table, fresh and hot from the dance floor. Her burnt cork blackface has begun to run and streak.
“Come out back with me,” Grace says, standing up abruptly and gathering her purse as if grabbing the back of the neck of a rabbit about to be slaughtered.
Lorraine follows her through the passageway beneath the bleachers and through the double doors and out into the night.
In the distance there is a fire, what Lorraine will later recall as a constructed fire, as if put together very carefully. They make their way along the pea-gravel path through the heavy night until they arrive at the music building, strangled by vines.
“Come on,” Grace says, as if Lorraine is a pet.
The night swells and falls and swells and falls like a living, breathing thing. Grace produces a silver key to the building and unlocks the black back door. In the moonlight, taking off her costume gloves, Lorraine notices that her hands are now streaked with black, either stained from the fabric or her running face paint. There is a whoosh of warm air as Grace pulls open the door, which opens into a dimly lit storage era, with rows of music stands and chairs and backgrounded by what appear to be black or purple velvet curtains. Lorraine wonders what the meaning behind this is, these curtains.
“Keep close,” Grace says.
She leads them into the room, through a narrow corridor, past a door marked BOILER and finally into another, smaller room where, on a large table, there is what Lorraine first sees as an elaborate doll house. But it’s not a doll house, at least not in the familiar sense. In fact, Lorraine–who after all has only known Grace since freshman year and who has never before spent this much time with her, let alone time with her costumed as her black slave–understands immediately that what she is seeing is a plantation, a plantation shrunk down to doll house size.
(Years later, after she has tried and failed to destroy all memory of what happened that night, Lorraine will recall the sensation of enormous jaws closing slowly upon her body, and she will imagine a invisible bear trap of the size that could only exist in nightmares, closing in her in slow motion.)
But for now, it is all just happening, unfolding in the real time of the present.
“There you are, your very own self, scuttling about” Grace says, pointing to what appears to be the cooking area of the plantation, whose rooms you can look right into for lack of a roof. Lorraine peers but sees no movement. She understands that Grace is trying to trick her somehow, or is hallucinating, or has lost her mind.
“I’m not there,” Lorraine says back to her.
“Yes you are, and the Master is coming to punish you.”
Lorraine looks into the house, more for Grace’s sake than her own she tells herself. She is startled to see that shadows are cast by the overly familiar Angel Oak trees until she realizes that—of course—they are painted on the painted grass.
“I don’t get it,” Lorraine says, facing Grace, who seems to have assumed a rigid formality in a way that Lorraine can’t be sure is still play-acting or has crossed into something else.
“Any of it.”
“But that’s you down there,” Grace says.
Although Lorraine knows that of course there’s nobody in the plantation-model house, she feels that something has shifted. A wave of sympathy overtakes her, an openness, a tenderness, the sort of feeling that, if she were a flower, would make her too sensitive to survive the direct rays of the sun. And for one moment she sees herself from the vantage point of the plantation model, looming there next to Grace in her giantness, her ridiculous blackface melting away so that she is neither black nor white nor anything other than a soul clothed in flesh.
As for Grace, she has been reading the Transcendentalists, and Margaret Fuller especially, in her American Literature class with Dr. Flint, and there is a line from one of Fuller’s essays that goes something like We must have units before we can have union. But Grace has also been reading H. G. Wells’s latest novel Ann Veronica and identifies so closely with Ann that she sometimes wonders who is who.
Years later, when she tells the story (or a version of the story) Grace will sometimes say that it was Lorraine who destroyed the doll house plantation, and that the two of them left it in splinters. And in some versions of the story Grace herself claims responsibility for destroying it, going so far as to describe the needle-like splinter that lodged itself in the soft part of her index finger.
And yet there is a third version, one where it is neither Grace nor Lorraine who destroys the plantation, but something else that does the destroying, some formless thing that for one instant in time takes physical shape—a blurred black mass with spider legs—to flatten and lay to ruin the dollhouse.