Above: A 19th-century mahogany settee in writer Caroline Randall Williams’s Nashville living room.
In my first apartment, on Grand Boulevard in Greenwood, Mississippi, I slept in a 1920s bed my great-grandmother Goggy bought with her first paycheck as an elementary school teacher for Black children in Tuskegee, Alabama. The bed was full-size. I had wanted a queen. It came with an old-fashioned vanity, complete with a curved mirror and cushioned stool. I had wanted something contemporary and lightweight. I learned to be grateful that I’d given up on the things I thought I wanted. Now I can say with pride and certainty that developing one’s “taste” in furniture means something different when you are sitting on, sleeping in, and surrounded by pieces purchased with newly freed hands reaching for a new way of being in America.
When Goggy bought that bedroom set, she was a young woman surviving Jim Crow and fighting its horrors and strictures the best way she knew how—by teaching children. She slept in that bed and looked in that mirror every day.
Years later, when I moved back to the Deep South after college in the Northeast, I took her furniture with me because I needed the support of her story to help me live mine. The Mississippi Delta is a place lingering in another time, another chapter of American history. Grand Boulevard was quite literally the grandest street in a city divided into white neighborhoods and Black ones. Choosing to live where I did made me a wild thing in that place. But my backbone stood straighter for sleeping in Goggy’s bed. I saw myself more clearly when I looked in her mirror. They reminded me why I was there.
So much of how we talk about and cultivate an aesthetic sensibility is a matter of social class, a matter of manners. I am well aware that in many (read: white, upper-class) circles, it would be distasteful or ill-mannered for me to catalog, revel in, or advertise the value of my personal collection of furniture. But here’s the thing: It isn’t. It is an act of rebellion and reclamation. So here are my 19th-century slipper chairs. Here is the Vicksburg wardrobe in the front hall. Here is the bookcase that once stood in the office of Prince Albert Ewing, who was born into slavery and became the first Black lawyer in my native Tennessee.
The clawfoot loveseat, rocker, and armchair in my living room also tell my family’s deeply American story. They came from my Aunt Dorothy, Goggy’s sister-in-law. The daughter of a Harlem doctor whose grandfather had been the first—and for a long time only—Black member of Tammany Hall, then a seat of political power in New York, she lived for decades in a brownstone on 145th Street, a magnificent place with dark and heavy furniture. I call the living room set the Malcolm X suite because he had been a guest in her home. Those pieces held him during his visits. Then, they held me through grad school, when I was especially disposed to dramatic names for my furniture.
I don’t know what pieces I would have purchased if I’d left my taste to develop from out-in-the-world experiences alone. What I do know is that the pieces I have are not just artifacts; they are very much “me.” They are my look and my taste because I am of them. I am the grateful and reverent custodian of a sweet, defiant, and precious corner of Black history. I cherish the pieces that invite the ghost, the pieces that are a living memoir—to family and to Black lives that would otherwise be forgotten.
Honoring the dead is my taste. I have enjoyed the puzzle that is putting a room’s pieces together in a way that acknowledges the past and invites the future—in a way that, despite the age, feels new. Call it a mash-up, call it bricolage. I call it carrying the ancestors with me into whole new spaces and places.
Caroline Randall Williams is a poet and author based in Nashville.
This story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE
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