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Book Review: Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow by Jacqueline Jones (The Real Help Reading Project)

September 24, 2011 11 comments

Black woman working in the fields.Summary:
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.

Discussion:
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.

Source: Amazon

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Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!