Originally published as a serial in African-American papers in the 1950s this series of monologue-style short stories are all in the voice of Mildred–a daytime maid for white families in New York City. The monologues are all addressed to her best friend and downstairs neighbor, Marge, who is also a maid. The stories range from encounters with southern relatives of moderately minded employers to picnics threatened by the Ku Klux Klan to more everyday occurrences such as a dance that went bad and missing your boyfriend. Mildred’s spitfire personality comes through clearly throughout each entry.
With completion of this book, Amy and I are officially halfway through our The Real Help Reading Project! This book is our first piece of fiction to directly foray into the time era and relationships depicted in The Help, whereas the rest have shown the slave culture and racial issues leading up to that time period. I’m glad we got the historical context from our previous reads before tackling this one written during the Civil Rights era by an author who periodically worked as a maid herself.
The introduction by Trudier Harris is not to be missed. She provides excellent biographical details of Alice Childress, who was not only a black writer of fiction, but also wrote and performed in plays. I am very glad I took the time to read the introduction and get some context to the author. Harris points out that in real life some of the things the character Mildred says to her employers would at the very least have gotten her fired, so to a certain extent the situations are a bit of fantasy relief for black domestic workers. Mildred says what they wish they could say. Since we know Childress was a domestic worker herself, this certainly makes sense. I would hazard a guess that at least a few of the stories were real life situations that happened to her reworked so she got to actually say her mind without risking her livelihood. I love the concept of this for the basis of a series of short stories.
More than any other work we’ve read, Like One of the Family demonstrates the complexities of living in a forcibly segregated society. Mildred on the one hand works in close contact with white people and subway signs encourage everyone in New York City to respect everyone else, and yet her personal life is segregated. Mildred frequently points out how she can come into someone else’s home to work, but it wouldn’t be acceptable in society for that person to visit her as a friend or vice versa.
Another issue that Childress demonstrates with skill is how a segregated, racist society causes both black and white people to regard each other with undue suspicion. In one story Mildred’s employer asks her if it’s too hot for a dress Mildred already ironed for her and ponders another one. Mildred assumes that if she agrees with her employer that it’s too hot for the first dress, she’ll have to stay late to iron. Her employer instead of getting angry realizes that Mildred has been mistreated this way before and takes it upon herself to reassure Mildred that she herself is perfectly capable of ironing her own dresses and will not keep Mildred longer than their agreed upon quitting time. Of course, Mildred sometimes is the one who must hold her temper and calm irrational fears. In one particularly moving section she encounters a white maid in their respective employers’ shared washroom. The woman is afraid to touch Mildred, and it takes Mildred holding her temper and carefully explaining that they are more similar than different before the woman realizes how much more she has in common with Mildred than with her white employer. These types of scenes show that the Civil Rights movement required bravery in close, one-on-one settings in addition to the more obvious street demonstrations and sit-ins.
Of course the stories also highlight the active attempts at exploitation domestics often encountered. Mildred herself won’t put up for it, but Childress manages to also make it evident that some people might have to simply to get by. An example of this sort of exploitation is the woman who upon interviewing Mildred informs her that she will pay her the second and fourth week of every month for two weeks, regardless of whether that month had five weeks in it or not. What hits home reading these serials all at once that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise is how frequent such a slight was in a domestic’s life during this time period. Mildred does not just have one story like this. She has many.
Of course sometimes reading Mildred’s life all at once instead of periodically as it was intended was a bit desensitizing. Although Mildred had every right to be upset in each situation related, I found myself noticing more and more that Mildred was simply a character for Childress to espouse her views upon the world with. I quickly checked myself from getting bugged by that, though. Of course Childress had every right to be upset and did not originally intend this to be a book of Mildred’s life. Mildred was a vehicle through which to discuss current issues highly relevant to the readers of the paper. It is important in reading historic work to always keep context in mind.
Taking the stories as a whole, I believe they show what must have been one of the prime frustrations for those who cared about Civil Rights during that era, whether black or white. Mildred puts it perfectly:
I’m not upset about what anybody said or did but I’m hoppin’ mad about what they didn’t say or do either! (page 167)
Passivity in changing the system is nearly as bad as actively working to keep the system, and Mildred sees that. Of course what Mildred highlights is a key conundrum for the black domestic worker of the time–speak up and risk your job or stay silent at a cost to the overall condition of those stuck in the system? A very tough situation, and I, for one, am glad that many strong men and women of all races took the risk to stand up and change it.
Source: Copies graciously provided to both Amy and myself by the publisher in support of the project (Be sure to sign up for the giveaway. US only and International).
- How do you think domestics decided where to draw the line in what they would and would not put up with in employment in white people’s homes?
- Some of Mildred’s employers seem to be sensitive to the racial and inequality issues and are very kind to Mildred. Be that as it may, do you think it is/was possible to hire a maid for your home and not have a racist mind-set?
- Do you think the employers Childress depicts attempting to exploit Mildred were doing so out of racism, a power-trip, or greediness or some combination or all three?
- Mildred points out multiple times that she feels that the public ads encouraging people to accept each other “in spite of” their differences are still racist. Do you think this is true?
This is the story of Lilith. A mulatto with green eyes born on a plantation in Jamaica to a mama who was raped at 14 by the overseer as punishment to her brother. Raised by a whore and a crazy man, all Lilith has ever wanted was to improve her status on the plantation. And maybe to understand why her green eyes seem to freak out slave and master alike. Assigned to be a house slave, Lilith finds herself in direct contact with the most powerful slave on the plantation–Homer, who is in charge of the household. Homer brings her into a secret meeting of the night women in a cave on the grounds and attempts to bring Lilith into a rebellion plot, insisting upon the darkness innate in Lilith’s soul. But Lilith isn’t really sure what exactly will get her what she truly wants–to feel safe and be with the man she cares for.
This is the third book and second fictional work for The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy, and it totally blew me away. A reading experience like this is what makes reading projects/challenges such a pleasure to participate in. I never would have picked up this book off the shelf by myself, but having it on the list for the project had me seek it out and determined to read it within a set length of time. Reading the blurb, there’s no way I would imagine identifying with the protagonist so strongly, but I did, and that’s what made for such a powerful experience for me. The more I read literature set in a variety of times and places, the more I see what we as people have in common, instead of our differences.
There is so much subtle commentary within this book to ponder that I’m finding it difficult to unpack and lay out for you all. Part of me wants to just say, “Go read this book. Just trust me on this one,” but then I wouldn’t be doing my job as a book blogger, would I?
Depicted much more clearly here than in any of our reads so far is how detrimental a society based upon racism is for all involved. There is not a single happy story contained here. Everyone’s lives are ruined from the master all the way down to the smallest slave girl. It is a circle of misery begetting misery begetting misery.
Homer was the mistress’ personal slave and many of the evil things that happen to her was because the mistress was so miserable that she make it her mission to make everybody round her miserable as well. (page 415)
Nobody is happy. Everyone lives in misery and fear. The whites are afraid of a black revolt. The blacks are afraid of being whipped or hung. Everyone is afraid of Obeah (an evil witchcraft similar to voodoo). People start to lash out at each other in an attempt to better themselves. For instance, the Johnny-jumpers are male slaves who are pseudo-overseers given power over the other slaves to beat them. It is simply a system exploiting everyone and for what? From the book it appears to be to maintain Britain’s position of power in the world. The system is evil, and it does not simply beget misery, but despair as well. It brings out the worst in everyone.
A strong theme in this book is that of race being a construct rather than an innate true difference in people. Since Lilith is bi-racial, she has trouble simply aligning herself with one side or the other. Although at first she hates white people, she comes to deeply care for a white man. She comes to see people as individuals and not their race, but alas that thought process is far too advanced for the time she is living in, and she senses this.
She not black, she mulatto. Mulatto, mulatto, mulatto. Maybe she be family to both and to hurt white man just as bad as hurting black man…..Maybe if she start to think that she not black or white, then she won’t have to care about neither man’s affairs. Maybe if she don’t care what other people think she be and start think about what she think she be, maybe she can rise over backra and nigger business, since neither ever mean her any good. Since the blood that run through her both black and white, maybe she be her own thing. But what thing she be? (page 277-8)
It’s impossible not to have your heart break for Lilith, a woman whose whole life revolves around race when all she ever wants is to feel happy and safe, an impossible dream represented for her by a picture from a child’s book that her foster slave father let her take from him. The picture is of a sleeping princess with a prince near her, and Lilith’s obsession with this image follows her throughout her life, until she finally tells herself:
She not no fool, Lilith tell herself. She not a sleeping princess and Robert Quinn is not no king or prince. He just a man with broad shoulders and black hair who call her lovey and she like that more than her own name. She don’t want the man to deliver her, she just want to climb in the bed and feel he wrap himself around her. (page 335)
I found myself wishing I could scoop Lilith and Robert up and place them on an island where they could just be together and raise their mixed race babies and just be happy, but that’s not what happened then, and that’s the dream we must keep fighting for, isn’t it? A world where people can just love each other and be happy and not be forced into misery for economic gain of a person or a business or a nation.
I know it sounds like wishful thinking, but that’s really what I got out of this book. If we don’t want to live in a world that dark, we must embrace love in all its forms. Love begets love, but hate begets hate. Don’t like corporate greed or nationalism overtake your capacity to see the humanity in everyone–the capability for powerful good or powerful evil present in us all. Perhaps this is a bit off-topic for The Real Help Reading Project, but that is the old passion from a youthful me in undergraduate classes that this book reignited, and that is what makes me want everyone to read it.
Source: Public Library
Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!
Hello my lovely readers! It’s been a crazy week on the blog with everything from the Nigerian Lit Reading/Reviewing Project to white trash zombies to a smack-down with a rude author. Phew! And that was just one tiny part of my life, lol.
This was my first full week working my new part-time job at the restaurant. Due to the new schedule, I can only do the gym 3 days a week instead of 5. I was worried this would lead to me losing ground on my get fit challenge, but that is clearly not to be the case. My restaurant shifts involve running around like a chicken with my head cut off for anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, and if anything I’ve seen my metabolism increase from more expended energy. And that’s just the regular shifts! I’ve also had shifts involving “guerilla marketing” or what my co-worker calls “menu bombing.” If you live in a city, you know what this entails. Running around residential neighborhoods leaving menus in mailboxes, on porches, and on cars. I had no idea how many steps are on Boston porches until I climbed them for two hours. Holy shit, Batman! It was like getting paid to do the stairmaster. (If you can’t tell, I’m happy about this). I love my part-time job! Plus they feed me dinner most shifts. Since it’s a healthy restaurant, that means free healthy food, yay!
The classic fall New England weather is here, which means crisp air and frosty mornings. Halloween decorations are up all over the city, and I clearly need to start work on figuring out my Halloween costume. My co-worker last night suggested I could pull off being Lara Croft, and I absolutely LOVE the idea, so I’m thinking that may be it. But shhh, don’t tell!
I’m really hoping to finish up the first draft of Tova Gallagher 2 this weekend, so I can get to editing my zombie book! I can’t wait to get more of my writing out to you guys. Be sure to check in tomorrow for the discussion of the next book in The Real Help Reading Project (it’s my favorite that we’ve read so far).
Tonight I’m doing yoga and hopefully seeing some friends. Happy weekends all!
Professor Jacqueline Jones presents the extensively researched history of the dual working worlds of black American women–at home and in the workforce–from slavery to present. She highlights the ways in which the unique cultural history of slavery as well as being subject to both sexism and racism have impacted black American women’s lives.
This is the second book for the Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy. I specifically requested that she host the discussion for this book for a special reason. Jacqueline Jones was my professor for one of my classes required for my history major at Brandeis University (she now teaches at University of Texas), and suffice to say, she and I did not get along very well. I was concerned that this history might make it difficult for me to discuss this book, so I asked Amy to host. She obliged. I am going to do my best to discuss this book without bias, but my personal experiences with Jackie Jones (as the Brandeisians called her) definitely gave me my own perspective in reading the book.
I was completely engrossed in the slavery and Jim Crow sections of the book. They taught me a lot I was previously unaware of, as I always kind of avoided the Civil War in my American history classes. (I focused on colonization, Revolutionary War, westward expansion, and WWII). For instance, it was interesting to see how the matriarchy slave owners forced upon slaves affected and impacted black culture even to this day. It was also the first time I saw sharecropping explained and spelled out. It is easy to see how black women, particularly ones widowed or single mothers, would choose to move to a city and become domestic help to escape the back-breaking work of share-cropping.
The book also demonstrates how black American culture has come to depend upon the iconic image of the strong black woman to help them through horrible racism and working conditions. Yet, by the end of the book, we can see that this means a lack of support for black women that is reflected in long-term illnesses and mental illness. Although black women are to be respected and lauded for their role in helping their communities, it is time that less is laid upon them. One obvious thing? Less time spent serving whites.
Since this was read largely to combat The Help, which takes place specifically in a domestic environment during the Civil Rights movement, I want to take a moment to discuss what I learned about that specific era in this book, because the book as a whole obviously covers a very large period of time. The book clearly demonstrates that the Civil Rights movement was BLACK women fighting for BLACK people and sympathetic whites came down from the north to help with things like voter registration, and they were then housed by BLACK women who would literally sit on their porch with a gun to protect the workers. This is in stark contrast to the image laid out in The Help where a WHITE woman comes and convinces the black workers to talk to her for their rights.
Additionally, the book repeatedly demonstrates how black women constantly throughout American history have sought to get out of white homes for any other kind of labor (except in the case of sharecropping). The role of domestic simply rings too close to slavery, and can you blame them? It certainly is apparent that many, if not the majority, of white employers sought to use black domestics as as close an approximation to slave labor as possible. One issue I don’t think the book addressed well enough is that any situation where one is working as a servant in another person’s home serves to antagonize relationships between the two groups. There is no friendliness there. One person is doing a menial chore in the home of another that the other is wealthy enough to not have to do. How could that possibly bring about anything but negative feelings?
Now, ok, here’s my criticism of the book. I feel that in Prof Jones’ passion for the plight of minorities in the US, she can sometimes over-compensate the opposite direction. By that I mean, she sometimes presents minorities as super-human or at no fault for their own actions or she’ll ignore negatives entirely. For instance, we only got two paragraphs out of 480 pages on black women working in prostitution. Personally, I wanted to know more about this, as it is a type of work black women have engaged in (as have every color/race of women ever), and I wanted to know the specific roles sexism, racism, and a hostile culture played in that for them. Specifically, I was interested about how the idea of lighter colored black women being more desirable to white men that we saw in the first book of our challenge might have carried over to prostitution in the 1920s and 1930s. But Jones doesn’t talk about this, and from my own personal experience with her, I speculate this is partly a blinders on her eyes issue.
Similarly, one thing that really irritated me was every time Jones tells a story of a woman working herself to the bone trying to provide for her children only to have her husband abandon her, Jones excuses the man by saying….”Well…..racism,” and moves on. Certainly, I am sure that some of these men were simply stressed out and thus abandoned their families, but I’m also certain that some of them were just assholes and would have done so in a completely non-racist society. To wit, I believe Jones falls too hardly on the nurture side of nature/nurture, when psychiatry has repeatedly demonstrated that it actually is a combination of the two that determines an individual’s behavior. By this I mean, I am certain that a non-racist society would lead to a larger percentage of happy, healthy families, but it by no means would wipe out all questionable behavior by all members of that race. To suggest that all members of a race would be “good” minus racism is just as racist as to suggest that all members of a race are “bad.”
That said, while I enjoyed the earlier portions of the book, as well as the sections on domestic labor in the 1950s and 1960s, I do think the book tries to tackle a bit too much in one entry. The sweep is almost overwhelming at times when reading it. I’d recommend getting a print copy so you can skim for the chapters of most interest to you or so that you can read various sections as questions arise.
Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!
Reading Project: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context (Co-hosted With Amy of Amy Reads)
What’s a Reading Project?
I am really excited to be doing my first social justice themed reading project, which is different from a reading challenge. A reading challenge challenges you to broaden your reading horizons. A reading project takes a topic that matters to you (or that should matter to you) and creates a reading list about that topic by people who know to help you learn about it, as well as drive discussion on such an important topic. Now, allow me to explain the genesis of and reasons behind my first reading project.
What Led to the Project
I’ve grown to become good friends with Amy of Amy Reads over the past year, and when Kathryn Stockett’s The Help blew up in literary circles then became a movie, well, both of our ires got up. We discussed back and forth the issues via gchat, tumblr, and twitter, sending articles and mini-rants to each other and just generally being peeved that so much of the population got swept up into something so offensive to both black and white women in 2011 for goodness sake.
Let me explain to you in my own words my problem with The Help. Stockett is a white woman who grew up in the south with black maids. She claims that when her maid died she felt regret at never having gotten to know her as a real person, so she decided to write this fiction book about black maids in her home state in the 1960s. Right away, I was offended that her instinct was to write a fictional account instead of, oh I dunno, maybe making an effort to fight racism by befriending black people?
For those who don’t know, The Help is about a college educated white woman who comes home and interviews the black maids in her town and publishes their stories. I cannot really wrap my mind around the thought that Stockett thought of doing a project like this, but instead of being an editor of a collection of memoirs and real-life scenarios by black domestic workers she chose to fictionalize the whole process.
This leads me to one of my largest points. The Help is Stockett living in a fantasy land version of history. One of the first things you learn as a history major is to NOT romanticize the past. You have to get up close and personal with how ugly it truly was. Shows like Leave It To Beaver completely leave out real issues like racism, classism, sexism, etc… This is what Stockett is repeating. She regrets her relationship with her own black maid, so she writes a truly mary-sue style book wherein a college educated white woman gets to know the black female domestic workers and comes to their aid. This isn’t reality. This isn’t a harmless feel-good book/movie. It’s Stockett’s fantasy method of dealing with the racism she grew up with. Why not instead have written a book about a white woman who goes to college in the north and comes to regret the racism she was raised with? Who confronts the fact that she spent more time being cared for by a black woman than her own mother? That would have been real. That would have been something respectful to talk about. Instead, though, she chose to write a fantasy version of the 1960s American South where the racism really isn’t so bad and a white female activist isn’t put into any danger by her activism.
The whole thing is offensive. It’s offensive to black and white women. It’s offensive to black domestic workers of the past and present. It’s offensive to white women who faced real danger and estrangement from their families protesting racism. It’s offensive to the black people who stood up for themselves and fought racism without any white people coming along and telling them they should. And yet people are happily taking the blue pill and revising history.
Thankfully, not everyone is doing that. Slowly Amy and I started to see similar reactions to our own throughout the web. Here are just a few examples:
Indeed, with regard to the white children for whom they cared, black women often felt levels of “ambiguity and complexity” with which our “cowardly nation” is uncomfortable. Yes, my grandmother had a type of love for the children for whom she cared, but I knew it was not the same love she had for us. (Shakesville)
The Help is billed as inspirational, charming and heart warming. That’s true if your heart is warmed by narrow, condescending, mostly racist depictions of black people in 1960s Mississippi, overly sympathetic depictions of the white women who employed the help, the excessive, inaccurate use of dialect, and the glaring omissions with regards to the stirring Civil Rights Movement in which, as Martha Southgate points out, in Entertainment Weekly, “…white people were the help,” and where “the architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American.” The Help, I have decided, is science fiction, creating an alternate universe to the one we live in. (Roxanne Gay)
And indeed, the stories of black domestic workers during the Civil Rights Movement are compelling narratives that deserve to be told. But by telling them through the lens of the benevolent white onlooker (Emma Stone’s “Skeeter” in The Help, who records the stories of the maids), it dilutes the message and impact. The black women who struggled during that time are strong enough to stand on their own. They don’t need an interpreter to serve as a buffer between them and the audience, to make their experiences more palatable for today’s viewers. (Kimberley Engonmwan)
It’s frustrating because in these narratives—written by privileged Whites—Black people are always passive. Things are done to them or for them, but they are never the agents of their own liberation. (And sorry, but no, telling the Nice White Lady about your shitty boss isn’t being an agent of your own liberation—not when Black women were actually organizing against Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings and violence, and the intimidation of Black voters.) (Feministe)
What really pushed it over the edge for me, though, and got me going from stewing to activisting (that is a word because I say so) was when someone tweeted a link to the American Black Women Historian’s response to The Help that is not only eloquently put, but also includes a suggested reading list at the end. The reading list got my wheels turning and next thing I knew I was emailing Amy to suggest we do something with that list.
What the Project Is
There are 10 books on the suggested reading list, 5 fiction and 5 nonfiction. For the next five months we will be hosting a project to read one fiction and one nonfiction book and discuss the content and issues raised. One blogger will host each book. For the first month, Amy will be hosting the nonfiction book, and I will be hosting the fiction book. Other bloggers with an interest in the project are welcome to host! Just email me and (opinionsofawolf [at] gmail [dot] com) and Amy (amy.mckie [at] gmail [dot] com) to let us know your interest and what book you might like to host the discussion for.
The fiction book will be discussed on the second Saturday of the month, and the nonfiction book will be discussed on the fourth Saturday of the month. The first Saturday of the month will wrap-up the previous month’s discussions and announce the next two books.
So next Saturday I will be discussing A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight. Please come join in the discussion! You don’t have to read the book to engage in the discussion, but I highly encourage you to do so.
On the 24th, Amy will be discussing Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Presentby Jacqueline Jones.
We encourage you to join in with us on the project to stop letting people revise history. Get to know the facts behind the history of black domestic workers in the United States and read fictionalized accounts of the experiences written black writers, all recommended by educated historians.
Books of the Project
Like One of The Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley
The Street by Ann Petry
A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph
To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera Hunter
Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Presentby Jacqueline Jones
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody