Gray Brooks was quick to call me back Wednesday morning.
Though Brooks is currently visiting Seattle, the city to which he moved for 15 years after growing up in Durham, he seemed eager to talk, even if a little let down by the topic. For the last week, the Durham restaurateur—or, specifically, the name of his forthcoming spot, Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain, on Parrish Street—has been at the center of some deal of public debate. For years, Williams was the nanny in the Brooks household, and she taught him several life lessons. “Captain” was the nickname she gave a young Brooks, and he intended the name to be a tribute to someone who helped shaped his life.
That’s nice enough, sure, but Williams, who had no children of her own, was a black housekeeper in the South during an era when the region still lived very much under the shadow of Jim Crow. For many, myself included, the restaurant’s name perpetuates and validates an exploitative system of income and racial inequality, where middle-class or wealthy whites pawn off dirty domestic duties to those who are willing to accept lower wages. At a moment when conversations and conflicts over equal treatment under the law and equal pay and opportunities in the workplace have sparked another necessary civil rights movement, the name—however sweet it may be to Brooks—feels tone-deaf and condescending, especially for a place that will most likely sell high-priced, high-end food. It is the result of the privileged not taking a moment of pause to consider how an action may make someone else feel, how it might grate against their own perceptions of the world.
This is particularly true in the Triangle, a region where development and gentrification have spotlighted obvious economic, social and geographic fissures in almost all our cities and towns. It’s not as simple as white folks moving in and black folks being forced out, but some days, it can certainly feel that way. Aside from being incredibly cumbersome to say or even type, the name Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain doesn’t really acknowledge the context of its community, or the crisis it seems to be approaching.
I spoke with Gray at length about these issues of name and place. It’s worth noting that, at first, he seemed unwilling to consider changing the name. But not long after our talk ended, he admitted that he might be willing to do exactly that if he had indeed hurt people in the city he’s long called home.
Funny what a little conversation—and, yes, a lot of social media ire—can do.
INDY: Are you surprised by the controversy surrounding the name “Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain”? Had you considered how it might be construed?
GRAY BROOKS: It’s a name I wanted to use for the restaurant for several years, at least five years. Everybody I talked about it with, I never had this reaction.
How many people do you think you mentioned the name to?
What was your reaction when you first saw the negative feedback?
Honestly, it just made me feel really sad. And misunderstood. There was a tweet about this, after the press release but before the INDY piece, and the tweet involved the hashtag #HattieMaeWilliamsCalledMeRacist. It was interesting because there was no photograph and no mention of anyone’s race at all, but right away, I was being called a racist. Ironically, you could look at that and say, well, actually that’s racist, assuming that the person is African-American. That’s the first time I thought, “Oh, this might not be good.”
I was really surprised at the vehemence of the reaction. I realize a name is a powerful thing. And the act of naming is powerful. What’s misunderstood is, “Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain” is essentially saying “Hattie Mae Williams Named Me Captain.” Someone on a thread took that to mean, “Yes sir, captain boss man, blah blah blah.” It wasn’t that at all. For her, the name had more to do with aspirations she had for me, as opposed to subservience.
If everything was the same except the color of this person’s skin, would it be a different story? I don’t mean that as a challenge; it’s an honest question. In my entire life, and not in a naïve way, I had never really considered the color of Hattie’s skin until the past four days. The friends and the people who I love, that’s just not how I connect.
Have these last four days made you think that the criticism may be valid, that maybe not considering it before was a privilege?
No. It’s funny: I think the photo the INDY ran is possibly what was most offensive to people. If the photo wasn’t there, this wouldn’t be an issue. Honestly, my wife and I have a house and we have a 4-year-old son, Cole. We had a nanny for the first two years of his life because we needed the help. We also have a house cleaner. Our nanny was white. Our house cleaner is Hispanic. My mom hired my nanny at the time, but she happened to be African-American. So, where does the difference lie? Is Cole going to be able to name a restaurant something like this when he’s my age, if he chooses to, and is he going to not get grief because we hired a white nanny? We hired a nanny the same way my mom did, which was we interviewed some people and came up with the person best qualified to spend time with our son.
Part of the problem, of course, stems from the issues of development, gentrification and displacement Durham now faces. The name seems to ignore that conversation.
I hear that, but is the name now a target for that frustration? I get that feeling. Gentrification is one word, but gentrification and revitalization—how do you separate those two words? To me, that’s the sad part of revitalization. When a town, at its core, evolves, things change. When we agreed to do the restaurant in the Jack Tar Hotel, the first people they approached were Blue Coffee, but Blue Coffee was not going to be able to operate their business model on the price per square foot that the lease was going to require after the building was updated. We were approached after that. To me, that’s the difficult thing when you revitalize a downtown area. I’m seeing it happening in Durham now, and I actually lived in Seattle when it happened. It’s tough, and it’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes. But for Jack Tar, that was gonna happen, or the building was gonna fall in on itself at some point. Striking that balance is a difficult and tricky thing.
I understand people’s frustration at some of the old places moving out, but I don’t know a way to breathe new life into an urban core without that happening, without some sort of displacement—not in terms of racial displacement but someone who had a business model that worked at a rent of $10 per square foot. These guys who do these buildings are businessmen, and they’re trying to get return on investment. They put money into a building, and they expect to get a return out of it. That return doesn’t happen at $10 per square foot, unless the City of Durham steps in and does all this with taxpayer money, and I can’t see how that would happen. With Durham, like every city, that’s the last thing they can afford to do.
Many assumptions have been made about your family’s relationship with Hattie Mae Williams, namely that she wasn’t paid or paid very little. Can you explain that dynamic?
Hattie worked for us. My parents both worked, so they needed someone to care for us at home when they were at work. She was hired for that purpose. In the early ’70s, my parents separated and divorced, as it seems like everyone’s parents were in the ’70s. My dad was actually out of work for a while. When he got a job, he didn’t make a lot of money, and my mom didn’t make a lot of money. They literally couldn’t afford to pay Hattie for a time. My mom said, “I’m gonna help you find someone else,” but Hattie wouldn’t leave. She said, “No, I love these kids,” and she stayed and worked for less money for a time. She was compensated for that later on when my mom could afford to pay her.
I think that’s what didn’t come through, and maybe that was a mistake on my part. I didn’t specify that because it didn’t seem relevant to me at the time, although now I think that does matter. I could see how someone could read this and go, “Oh, she worked for next to nothing and was happy.” My mom later compensated her for the period that she worked for less.
Do you think “Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain” reflects an antiquated relationship between the white family and the black hired help?
No, I don’t. We hired a nanny. We have a house cleaner. People still hire nannies, and people still hire house cleaners. Especially nannies, you spend eight hours a day with a kid from six months to age 2 or 3. You become attached to the kid. Our nanny no longer works for us because Cole got to the age where it was more fun for him to be around kids than adults. But he still goes over to her house once a month or so and spends the night, because he loves her and she loves him. They’re close. People mention the power dynamic, and yes, of course there’s a power dynamic. It’s an employee-employer relationship. I have 50 employees. There is a power dynamic there. For 35 years, I was an employee with a boss, and there was a power dynamic there, too.
A few people mentioned the movie The Help. That was not our household. If you look at the picture and the background, you can tell this was not a moneyed house. The whole maid-in-a-uniform kind of thing, that wasn’t us. The relationship that we had with her and our family is no different than the relationship that Cole and Karen and I and Nicola, the woman who worked or us for three years, have.
Are you concerned that people might boycott any or all of your restaurants?
I’m definitely concerned about it, for sure, but I’m also frustrated. There’s almost a rampant cycle of assumptions without any actual talk. I would love to talk with any of these people, but there hasn’t been a conversation. I hate feeling like, had there been no photograph, this all wouldn’t be an issue. That was a very personal thing.
It seemed, though, it was already a topic of discussion when Bull City Rising reported the news.
That’s the fascinating part. There was talk about it then, but those were all based on assumptions. There was no mention of race in that; there was no mention of race in the INDY’s post, either. But the fact that they were talking about it on Bull City Rising, I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming anybody, but there’s an assumption there that itself could be construed as racist. The main thing I feel bad about is that these are people with good intentions. They are liberal people; they are bent toward justice and equality. I’m frustrated with that. I’m one of you guys.
I love the name of the restaurant. I love what it means. And I love the fact that it’s this homage to this woman who meant a lot to me and was a big part of shaping who I became. She gave me a lot of great gifts, and those are gifts that someone had given to her, and those are gifts I hope to pass on to my own son. I hate that it’s being misconstrued as this whole other thing.
Will you at some point consider changing the name, or are you going to stick with it?
I’m going to stick with it. The name is too personal and important for me. Pizzeria Toro was named Pizzeria Toro because no one knew us. We were new in town. But our first choice for that restaurant was “Welcome Home, Peter Ligets,” which is the informal name for our bar. It’s etched over the door of our bar. Peter Ligets was my grandfather, who was Greek, and he operated four or five different restaurants in town in the ’50s and early ’60s. This is another person who was incredibly important to me.
Presumably, Hattie Mae Williams will be a pretty pricy place, and that’s a barrier to entry for a lot of folks, reflecting the belief that there are two or more Durhams. Is there a way to mitigate that?
It’s a restaurant in downtown Durham. With Pizzeria Toro, I guess you could say the same thing. It will likely be slightly pricier than Pizzeria Toro, but it won’t be as pricy as a lot of places downtown. And honestly, Pizzeria Toro is really busy, but it’s a restaurant. It doesn’t make a whole lot of money. Part of that is our own decision to pay our people really well and to keep prices as low as we possibly can and do really great things. You can’t open a downtown dinner restaurant anymore and not be in that price range. Everybody, including ourselves, wants to see locally sourced ingredients, organic ingredients, blah blah blah. When you factor in all those things … we will always keep our prices as low as possible, but you known, you have to pay the rent. We’re going to be as affordable as we possibly can, while keeping the doors open.
A quarter-hour after I spoke to Brooks, he responded to a set of follow-up questions by reconsidering one answer. He is willing, turns out, to consider changing the name of “Hattie Mae Williams Called Me Captain” if it runs the risk of hurting or damaging his neighbors in Durham.
“One last thing,” he wrote. “You asked if I’d be willing to change the name. As I thought about that—and this is all happening very quickly, so my thoughts are still forming—if there were a good number of people whom are honestly and seriously offended by the name, then yes, I would change it.
“The last thing I want is for people who are I believe honestly good people with good intentions to walk by our restaurant and feel bad, angry, hurt because of the name,” he continues. “It means a lot to me, and it would sadden me to do so, but it wouldn’t be worth causing people to feel real grief.”