Though her family sometimes received food stamps and occasionally had their utilities cut off, Marcie Alvis Walker’s parents led her to believe that they were an average middle-class Black family. They encouraged her to pursue her dreams and told her that if she worked hard enough, she’d achieve them. The small catch was that Walker’s dream was an elusive one for any cash-strapped and undereducated Black woman: being a New York Times–bestselling author. Now, as a published non-bestselling author, she wishes she’d had a backup plan.

- - -

Though we were often neglected and mistreated, my siblings and I were spoiled rotten, festering with toys and candy and gum and money for the ice cream truck. We often ate the government cheese and drank its powdered milk, but there was always a Cadillac in our driveway or a detailed, tricked-out leisure van with gleaming wheels. And our mother may not have had college savings for us or even life insurance for herself or any of her numerous husbands, but she did own two rabbit fur coats and hung the most gorgeous gold-inlaid wallpaper on every wall of her living room.

Every household on our block of Black working-class families had similar glitz and glamour with similar nickels in their bank accounts (if there was a bank account). The outside world would exclaim, Look! Look how they spend their money—our tax dollars. Look! Look!—never understanding that tax dollars can’t buy a college education or a term insurance policy. If Christmases had been less boastful, our Easter baskets the size of thimbles, our wardrobes threadbare, if we’d skipped the ice cream truck and saved every penny, if my mother had given up cigarettes and pocketed the money instead, our bottom line would’ve remained the same: poor. But instead of poor and happy, poor and miserable.

My mother’s neighborhood lived as if the cynics and killjoys—the bootstrap voters who were born with boots that reached their elbows—didn’t exist. My mother and other women like her put on layaway their velvet sectionals from Value City or fur-trimmed hats from JCPenney because life was too short to wait for times to get better. As far as they were concerned, their people had been waiting for times to get better since before the Antebellum. They’d watched their grandparents and parents die waiting.

In a 1998 interview, Toni Morrison told Charlie Rose:

I have had reviews in the past that have accused me of not writing about white people. I remember a review of Sula in which the reviewer said one day she, meaning me, will have to face up to the responsibilities and get mature and write about the real confrontation for Black people, which is white people… as though our lives have no meaning, no depths without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.

Though my mother wouldn’t have said it quite how Toni Morrison put it, she, too, was determined to make sure the white gaze was not the dominant one in her life. She would live well, sometimes feeding us government cheese and sometimes feeding us steaks she’d purchased at the first of the month when her food stamps were plentiful. My mother felt no need to apologize. Besides, she couldn’t apologize to critics she refused to see.

The truth is, you really don’t know how poor you are until you are among riches. I sure didn’t.

When I moved to Chicago, I worked in Zagat-reviewed restaurants because my mother taught me how to be fancy. She did her job well. Never let the white gaze see you sweat was a lesson we often revisited. Never let the white gaze see you at all was a constant one.

  • Just act like you’re supposed to be here was her advice whenever we entered a government building or doctor’s office above our station.
  • Act like you’ve been somewhere before, she’d admonish us before we entered a Red Lobster or a Brown Derby on Easter Sunday.
  • Act like we come here every Sunday, she’d remind us before we sat down for pancakes at a Howard Johnson’s or Perkins on occasional Sundays after church.
  • Act like we own everything in here, she’d tell us as we entered the famous downtown Cleveland Higbees department store to visit Santa every December.

In my mid-thirties, I was sloughing away all my dreams and potential working as an events manager in a fancy restaurant that would’ve made my mother proud. One day, a coworker, one of six other managers, burst into our tiny office tucked behind the row of walk-in freezers to tell me that Maya Angelou was in the restaurant. He wanted me to go and talk to her.

“You’re good-looking, well-spoken, and African-American. You really should go out there and talk to her.”

“And say what?”

“I thought you, of all people, would want to meet her. Isn’t she a civil rights icon? Doesn’t she know Oprah? You’re an African American, hardworking single mom. I don’t know…” he said, waiting for me to follow him into the dining room so he could facilitate my meeting with Maya Angelou as if I were the restaurant’s Black ambassador.

This particular coworker was one of the heirs of the wealthy restaurant group that owned the restaurant. He was white, single, in his early twenties, tall with dark hair—more handsome than he deserved to be—and made of riches he hadn’t earned. He didn’t know anything about my college education. He had no idea I’d studied writing and hoped to be a writer someday. He didn’t even know if I knew who Maya Angelou was. He assumed, and it pissed me off that it was a fair assumption.

All he knew was that I was Black like Maya Angelou was Black, and he wanted more than anything at that moment to own a sentimental moment between us. This didn’t make him a bad guy, only oblivious, as Charlie Rose was when he asked Toni Morrison, “Can you imagine writing a novel not centered around race?”

I was hired as a hostess to work at the restaurant before it officially opened its doors to the public. With the rest of the staff, I trained with the sommelier and both chefs until I knew the wine list and every ingredient in every dish as well as I knew my social security number. I was trained on how to spot a restaurant critic and how to spot a dine-and-dasher. I was also given protocol on how to deal with celebrities when they dined with us or booked a party:

  • Don’t draw attention to them.
  • Don’t act like a fan; act like part of their service team.
  • Don’t ask for autographs.

I followed that protocol when Maggie Gyllenhaal dined with us, when the singing duo from that movie Once dined with us, when I booked a launch party for Emeril Lagasse, and when I booked a wrap party for Tommy Tune. There were other celebrities who found their way to one of our tables and never once had I been asked to break these service standards. It wasn’t that we ignored celebrities—far from it. Once they were spotted, the buzz spread to the chef, the sommelier, and the head manager. Free food, free booze, and a brief table check by whoever was the highest in command lavished the moment-of-the-hour table.

I, a lowly, hourly-paid middle manager and service worker, had never been in the chain of command to approach a celebrity without cause. There was always someone more important to stop by the table and show appreciation for their presence, someone like my coworker. But here he was asking me to schmooze and glad-hand the only Black celebrity who’d ever come dine with us. He longed to gaze upon such a rare occasion and tell all his friends and families about how he’d not only spotted a literary celebrity (let’s face it, most folks don’t recognize authors, especially Black ones) but also how he’d witnessed the one Black woman on his payroll reach out and touch her. “It was truly moving,” I imagined him saying with a far-off wonder in his eyes as he shared the story.

If two Black women have a deep and meaningful moment without a white person to bear witness, is it like a tree falling in the forest when no one’s around? Did it really happen?

I stayed at my desk and kept working, brushing the white gaze from my shoulder.

Later, he told me that Angelou loved her dining experience. “I wish you’d been there to meet her. I’m sure it would’ve been an inspiring, once-in-a-lifetime moment! Shame you missed out on that.”

A few days later, on a rainy afternoon, I was manning the host desk just after the lunch rush died down. Suddenly, like the subtle glint of a ray of sun parting a cloud, Maya Angelou came through the revolving door with Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson of the singing husband-and-wife duo Ashford & Simpson.

Without blinking, I followed the protocol as I’d done with Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Boy George, Billy Joel, Harrison Ford, and countless other celebrities I’d served throughout my restaurant career.

Once I seated them at her table, Maya Angelou—the Maya Angelou—thanked me. Then she reached into her purse and handed me a tiny printed and signed copy of her poem “Phenomenal Woman,” and I couldn’t appreciate such a sweet moment as fully as I wanted.

I couldn’t tell her all I wanted to tell her about how hard I was trying to be phenomenal—a phenomenal woman who was a phenomenal mother who was a phenomenal writer. I couldn’t keep hold of her hand and weep. I couldn’t. Weeping, and most surely hand-holding, wasn’t part of our celebrity protocol.

I thought maybe I could just tell her, “It’s an honor to meet you.” Maybe I could just whisper it, and maybe such a subtle and perfectly reticent declaration could open up a conversation. Maybe she’d ask me my name, and I’d tell her everything. And who knows, maybe she would’ve encouraged me or offered to read my work. For that briefest of moments—briefer than a thought—I dreamt yards and yards of possible scenarios, each spilling over, so full of potential.

From the corner of my eye across the room, I caught my white coworker bouncing on the balls of his feet. With a wide grin and a “you-go-girl” head bob, he flashed me a thumbs up.

This moment was the first and only time I’d ever seen a Black woman enter that restaurant. Maya Angelou would be the only Black woman I’d ever seated in that restaurant, and the moment was being edited and reviewed because the white gaze is a greedy little gob-hole that eats and gorges and devours, even when it’s full. Like a cloud of locusts, it will strip the moment bare and leave you starving. No matter where it roams, it acts like it’s supposed to be here, because it’s been here before and comes here all the time because it owns the place.

Looking at my coworker’s stupid, handsome face, I realized I could let his white gaze do what it does: critique my performance as a Black woman. Let it pick my soul, read my deepest thoughts, and turn what would be a meaningful moment into his personal anecdote. Or I could follow protocol.

Following protocol, I turned back to Mother Maya, smiled, and thanked her. Then I walked back to the host stand with my head held high like I owned the place, just as my mother taught me.