Book Review: Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis (The Real Help Reading Project)
Clark-Lewis’ grandmother was part of the great migration of African-American women from the south to Washington, DC who then took on domestic work in the homes of the rich and powerful. Through her grandmother, Clark-Lewis was able to contact many of the elderly women who were part of this movement and assemble their oral histories. Utilizing their histories, she paints a picture of the typical life of the African-American women like her grandmother.
It’s hard to believe this is the final book in The Real Help Reading Project. I’ll be posting my wrap-up later this week, so be sure to check that out for reflections on the project overall. For right now, though, let’s talk about the last book.
In comparison to other pieces of nonfiction on the list, like Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, this one has an extremely narrow focus. Just this group of women from Clark-Lewis’ grandmother’s generation who specifically migrated from the south to DC for domestic labor jobs. But this type of intense focus can make for a greater understanding of an issue as a whole.
What I found most interesting was how these rural women were raised by their families specifically to do domestic labor.
Your people all trained you to do service work. It was what they all knew you had to learn—period. Now, maybe a teacher, aunt, or somebody would tell you that you could do other work, but you knew that you’d do service work. You knew, and sometimes you’d think about doing different work—but you knew it wasn’t to be. ‘Specially at home—service was all there was for you. They knew it. You knew it. (page 43-4)
I think if I hadn’t read and learned about the conditions in the south for African-Americans I would find this to be a very defeatist attitude, but really it was just practical. The girls’ families were just trying to give them the tools they needed to succeed as best they could in the culture they were in. Although the adult women look back on their hardworking childhoods with a bit of bitterness at the loss of the ability to be just a child, they also acknowledge that these tools helped them succeed in life.
Another interesting thing is that sending the women north had nothing to do with advancing their lives but everything to do with helping and saving the family and the family farm. The family unit was very strong for all of these women, even at a distance. They helped distant and close relatives in DC with childcare and other labor and sent all or the majority of their pay home to the family farm. This really fights the stereotype in American media about the weak or non-existent African-American family unit. I was, indeed, impressed at how these families managed to stick together across such a distance and among the different cultures of the north and south.
The other issue this book addresses that none of our other nonfiction reads really did was how dehumanizing it was for African-American women to “live in” aka to live within the house they were working as a servant for.
Living in you had nothing. They job was for them, not your life. [From the] time I could, I started to try to get something that let me have some rest. A rest at the end of the day. That’s why you try to live out. You’d be willing to take any chance to live out to just have some time that was yours. (page 124)
Personally I don’t find this surprising at all, since I feel a real need for personal space away from my job, and I think most, if not all, people do. However, the culture at the time seemed to think that African-Americans didn’t need that. I’m sure part of that thought process was due to racism.
If there is one thing that this book demonstrates above all else, though, as have many in this project, it’s that no matter what the family the domestic help labors for thinks, they themselves do not see themselves as “like one of the family.”
She [the domestic worker] was proud that they [the family she worked for] “didn’t even know where I lived.” She did not consider them nice people, friends, family, or even good employers. She worked for them strictly for the money. Period! Yet they insisted that she was “just like family. (page 188)
Things like this….they kind of give me the willies. What kind of a culture and society are we cultivating where this sort of disparity of perceptions of a working arrangement can exist? Employers shouldn’t be able to think an employee is “like one of the family” while that worker is simultaneously thinking the employers are bad people. I understand that we all fake it to survive, but it shouldn’t have to be that way. We should be able to do our jobs and be happy and have positive relationships with our employers. That, to me, is a basic human right, and I think one thing that this book demonstrates is that this is only possible in a job where the domestic help lives out. Where they come in, do the cleaning (in their own clothes, not a uniform), and leave. It is true that some people are frail and need help with those tasks or are so busy they can’t find the time to do it but can afford to pay someone else to. But it should be about getting the task done. Getting in and out. Not forcing uniforms and groveling upon people. That’s just evidence of classism at its worst.
Source: Public Library
Note, originally Amy was going to host the discussion, but since she lost her book during all of the traveling she has to do for work, I thought I’d go ahead and post some questions for everyone. I am sure she will get her hands on another copy eventually. Alas, this book isn’t as readily available in Canadian libraries.
- The women in the book point out that their families wanted them to stay working with one family for their whole lives as “live ins.” Why do you think their parents wanted that?
- Clark-Lewis points out the value in gathering oral histories from the elderly. Have you ever gathered any oral histories and what did you learn from them?
- The women specifically point out how being in a city and exposed to other ways of doing things led them to defy their families, sometimes with bad consequences. What do you think about this sort of impact city life has on migrants from the countryside?
- One woman who grew up with the domestic worker quoted from page 188 working in her home referred to her as like one of the family, but the worker did not see it that way. What do you think leads children with domestic help in the home to see them like family when even the help does not see themselves that way?
Blanche’s employers failed to pay her on time, and now she has some bad checks. She had no idea that bouncing a few checks would land her with a 30 day jail sentence, though, so when she gets the chance, Blanche goes on the lam. She decides to take a temporary job she had originally decided against as a way to hide out. She’s going to be the help for a family on a week-long vacation in the countryside. Naturally, things can never be simple, and Blanche starts to suspect one of the family members is a murderer.
It’s hard to believe Amy and I are on our penultimate book for the project, not to mention the final fiction book on the list. And what a book! If I had to pick one of the fiction books we read to hand to fans of The Help to get a much more real representation of black women in domestic service, this is definitely the book I would hand them.
Somehow this tiny mystery novel (called a Kriminalroman in German, which I think sounds much better) manages to cover pretty much every aspect of black female domestic workers’ lives that we’ve discussed throughout the project. Blanche faces: police and criminal justice prejudice, stinginess on the part of wealthy employers, rape at the hands of a white male employer, classism, employers’ racist attempts to control her body, non-traditional family structure, and much much more. Yet facing all of those odds, Blanche remains determined and strong. She is not someone who needs OR wants a white woman (or man) to come along and rescue her. I think Blanche’s personality is best summed-up here:
She always returned to domestic work. For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she was really her own boss, and her clients knew it. She was the expert. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around. She told them when they had to be out of the way, when she would work, and when she wouldn’t. (page 86)
That’s one of the wonderful things about this book. It turns the whole white woman saving the help thing from The Help on its head. Blanche is the one who saves the white family in this book, and then she refuses to accept help from them in return, beyond clearing up her ridiculously unfair legal troubles. Instead of taking a cushy job with them, she leaves, because she is her own woman.
Now, all of that said, I was personally a bit distracted from the race and class issues in this book due to the presence of the character Mumsfield. Mumsfield is the cousin of the sinister family members, and he has Down’s Syndrome. I don’t think all of my readers know this, but my niece has Down’s, so I certainly am a bit sensitive to the portrayal of it in literature. Knowing and loving a person with Down’s removes a lot of the misperceptions of it that exist in the world. At first, I was concerned that Neely had fallen for these things. Mumsfield at first seems too trusting, too caring, a real simpleton. But by the end of the book, Blanche realizes that she hadn’t really listened to what Mumsfield was actually saying earlier in the week. If she had, she would have realized that while Mumsfield is kind and giving, he’s not stupid. Knowing Mumsfield also helps Blanche see that her experiences as a black woman in America have made her racist against white people, when not all of them are bad. Thus, I am pleased to report that Mumsfield is actually an accurate and positive portrayal of people with Down’s.
Now, I will say, personally I’m not generally into the typical mystery novel. I like to get my genre reading from urban fantasy, pnr, and cozies. I am well aware, though, that a lot of people love this kind of book, and it is definitely well-done. It has all of the well-loved aspects of the genre, plus manages to address race, class, and even Down’s Syndrome. It is absolutely a worthwhile read.
Source: Public Library
- How do you feel about Blanche’s initial jail sentence and her decision to go on the lam?
- Blanche sees Mumsfield as an exception to the rule when it comes to white people, aka it’s unusual for them to be kind. Do you think this is an unfair assessment?
- Blanche assesses her caring for Mumsfield as a symptom of “Darkies Disease” aka when the help start acting like the idealized Mammies. What do you think of this assessment?
In 1944 Lutie Johnson believes that all it takes is hard work to succeed, so when she finds an apartment in Harlem that she can move into with her son, Bub, she sees it as a step up. Get him away from her dad’s gin-drinking girlfriend and all the roomers packed in the house. But it seems as though her hard work does nothing against the street and the walls that the white people build around the colored people brick by brick.
It’s hard to believe that Amy and I only have three books left after this in our project. Although we rather arbitrarily assigned the order of the books, I’m glad this one came toward the end. I doubt I would have understood the events in it or valued its perspective as much without the nonfiction reading we did prior.
The book is exquisite in the way it demonstrates how a racist society tears families apart. Hearing about black men being unable to find work in our nonfiction readings felt so cold and stark; I was left unable to understand why that would cause a man to leave his family. But through Lutie I came to understand. At first she doesn’t understand how her husband could cheat on her and be so fine with them breaking up, but eventually she does understand. He couldn’t find work in the city as a black man. She finds work as a maid in a white family’s house. She’s gone most of the time. He feels emasculated. Now, I know my feminist followers will object to this, but I remind you, this was not a choice on black families’ parts back then. It was forced upon them. Anything that is forced upon you can cause real self-esteem problems. As Lutie says, how can one manage a family in conditions like that?
Petry also clearly demonstrates how this break up of the home then leads to a generation of lost children. with Lutie working all day, her son, Bub, comes home to an empty, dank apartment. He takes up with the wrong crowds, because it’s scary to be in the apartment alone. He’s only eight. It’s easy to understand how he makes bad judgment calls, especially when his mother is constantly worrying about money around him. Seeing it spelled out with “real” people makes it all more understandable than the numbers and statistics found in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. In Lutie’s case, her family fell apart twice before she even really realized it was happening.
The other strong element in this book was the hopelessness of the capitalistic American Dream. Not just the hopelessness of it, but the harmfulness of it. Lutie herself realizes that she never thought of anything but keeping her family afloat until going to work for the wealthy white family in Connecticut where she “learned” that all it takes is hard work and perseverance to become wealthy. What a false lesson. What a horrible thing to believe at face value. Yet, Lutie does, and it influences almost every single decision she makes for herself and Bub that leads to their ultimate downfall. Yes, part of their downfall is absolutely brought about by racism, but part is brought about by her believing in the system and not rebelling against it.
For instance, instead of spending what little time she does have outside of work with Bub teaching him and helping him, Lutie spends it pursuing a singing career. After being gone working in civil services all day, she leaves Bub alone at night yet again. Similarly, she penny-pinches and yells at Bub so much that Bub starts to believe that they are desperate for money, when in fact his mother is just attempting to save up to move to a better neighborhood. I get the value of a better neighborhood, but I think Lutie underestimates the value of her own impact on her son. She studies angrily at night instead of making the studying a bonding thing. She tells him he can’t stay up and read because of the cost of the electricity, which just blew my mind because you would think she would want him to read. It all adds up until Bub is not only almost constantly alone but also worrying about money at the age of eight. I can’t help but think if Lutie had just focused on making their home the best she could and making Bub feel happy and safe that it might have come out better. I’m not judging Lutie. It’s so incredibly easy to get caught up in the capitalistic belief system, especially when you’ve been scrambling your whole life and see money as a way to combat racism. I found myself constantly wishing and hoping that Lutie would stumble across some sort of progressive society that would help her fight for justice. Of course, in the real world, that doesn’t often happen, and Petry does an amazing job depicting real life in the real Harlem of the 1940s.
Of course, Lutie and her family are not the only ones unhappy. Although she only works for them for a few chapters in the book, the white family from Connecticut is profoundly unhappy, and Lutie sees it. The husband and wife ignore each other. The husband is a raging alcoholic. The wife is so focused on affairs that she ignores her son. The son just wants attention and can only get it from the maid. The brother-in-law kills himself on Christmas morning.
Why do I bother pointing this out? Well, it’s just further evidence the constant theme throughout our reading project. Racism and inequality hurt everyone in the society. Some more than others, yes, but it hurts everyone. The true values of life–love, time, companionship, laughter–they’re lost amidst the fight to maintain inequality and acquire money. And that’s largely what slavery was all about, wasn’t it? Establishing a plantation to become filthy rich instead of a farm where you make ends meet. And the perceived need for a plantation leads to a desire for cheap labor which leads to slavery which leads to maintaining racism in your head to justify it. And after Emancipation, the desire to hold onto your filthy wealth leads you to judge others as below you when they’re not. And racism is an “easy” way to do that.
But where does that leave those caught in the system? For Lutie, it leaves her a truly lost cause and her son yet another black boy with a record. Revolution and change takes time, effort, bravery. Even in the simple day to day decision to choose quality time over money. To choose to go against the American, consumer grain and just try to make a quality life for yourself. It’s fascinating and appalling how deeply entrenched in our culture the perception of wealth equaling quality of life is, yet it’s there. I think, to me, that is what is most appalling in the idea of “The Help.” Most people do not need a maid. Unless you are in a wheelchair or missing limbs or blind or have some other physical limitation, you do not need a maid. And yet some classes of society view it as necessary to make someone else clean up after them in their own home. Nobody is above cleaning up the filth from themselves and their own family. Nobody. And in the meantime, those that they hire to clean it up must do double-duty and clean up two homes and are left without enough energy for quality time with their own family. It honestly disgusts me.
Source: Public Library
Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!
BAND is a monthly discussion group of book bloggers who love nonfiction! If you’d like to join us, check out our tumblr page.
This month Ash of English Major’s Junk Food asks us: What are your favorite nonfiction anthologies?
It’s funny; I haven’t read a nonfiction anthology in a while, but I immediately thought of one book that sits proudly on one of my livingroom bookshelves at home that I return to relatively frequently to read bits and pieces from—Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology.
Time to toot my own horn a bit here, I was the recipient of the Smith College Book Award in high school, and this was the book they chose to send me. As a young feminist growing up in a rural, traditional area, this book rocked my world. So many strong, intelligent women of all races and ethnicities from many time periods overcoming obstacles to achieve amazing things. Any time I had a rough day in high school or college, I would turn to this book and read a section of it. Um, plus it has a Smith College Book Award bookplate with my name on it, which is just bad-ass. Alas, they were unable to convince me to go to a women’s college. I wanted boys around. ;-) But hopefully the alumni association of Smith will still be pleased to know that this book helped one young girl become a stronger woman.
I’m glad Ash brought up this topic, because it made me think about one of my more unique favorite books, but also realize that it’s been a while since I read a nonfiction anthology. I’ll have to think on a topic that interests me and hunt one down at the library!
Check out the nonfiction books I’ve reviewed and discussed since the August discussion:
- The Last Manchu: The Autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China(review)
- A Stolen Life: A Memoir(review)
- Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (review)
- Coming of Age in Mississippi (review)
- Lean, Long & Strong: The 6-Week Strength-Training, Fat-Burning Program for Women(review)