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Book Review: Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis (The Real Help Reading Project)

February 22, 2012 6 comments

Portrait of a black woman dressed up with a portrait of a black woman scrubbing stairs.Summary:
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.

Review:
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

Buy It

Discussion Questions:
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?

Book Review: To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter (The Real Help Reading Project)

January 14, 2012 9 comments

Mosaic-style art depicting three black women doing laundry.Summary:
Hunter examines the lives of southern black women, particularly southern domestic workers, by narrowing her focus in on the development of the city of Atlanta after the Civil War.  Since many ex-slaves moved to Atlanta and then migrated again north during the Great Migration decades later, this makes for an excellent focal point for the topic.  By examining black women’s lives in Atlanta both in and out of their employer’s homes, she is able to dissect the roles of race, class, and gender in the elite’s attempts to maintain dominance in America.

Review:
I’ve said throughout the project that the nonfiction books have come up a bit short for me.  Although they’ve contained valuable information, they haven’t been the most readable.  Nonfiction can tell a story too, and Hunter does exactly that.  She explores so much more than just the women’s lives in relation to their employers.  Atlanta truly comes to life as we see the women commute to work via bicycle so as to avoid racist trolley lines and kick up their heels on the interracial Decatur Street after dark.  We also get to see the empowering role of secret societies in black women’s lives, as well as reclamation of performing in black face and the terrifying resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.  It is impossible not to be moved and outraged by the tale of these women’s struggles.  The book addresses three issues: classism, racism, and sexism.

In spite of Americans being told repeatedly that the American Dream is available to all if you work hard enough, Hunter quickly shows how the poor are fighting a losing battle and on top of it are demonized by the wealthy.  For instance, the use of debt to keep the poor enslaved:

Poor women often borrowed money in meager amounts, less than one dollar at a time, amassed running accounts for several months or years, and repaid ever-accumulating interest in small installments. Many moneylenders were usurious. It was common for borrowers to pay 250 to 3500 percent interest on small sums, which exacerbated poverty with interminable debt. Fannie Holman, a washerwoman, borrowed between $60 and $90 over a two- or three-year period. Though she would repay over $1,000, the creditor applied it to defray the interest but not the principal of the loan. (page 134)

Similarly, upper class employers’ attempts to control every aspect of their employee’s lives, claiming a right over their bodies:

Dance halls were a menace, declared Proctor, because “the servant class tried to work all day and dance all night.” He warned employers that household laborers would not perform well if they used their leisure unproductively—dancing instead of resting in preparation for the next day of work.  (page 179)

Hunter via maps and clear explanations demonstrates how the wealthy acquired the highest land in Atlanta most conveniently near shopping and such, while the poor and blacks were forced into the lowest land that, in addition, sewage was dumped into.  These conditions combined with the poor housing provided by slumlords made a perfect scenario for disease, and yet the poor were blamed for the outbreak of tuberculosis in the city and even accused of exposing wealthy whites to it:

  Tuberculosis signified more than a purely physiological condition. The disease became a medium for “framing” tensions in labor and race relations, with the rhetoric cloaked in scientific and medical legitimacy. (page 187)

Of course, the fact that black workers were poor was no coincidence.  The entire city conspired since the Civil War to make black Americans poor and keep them that way.  The wealthy whites, and in a lot of cases the poor whites, wanted black people out of sight and out of mind unless they were actively in service to them

Jim Crow and domestic labor thus represented contradictory desires among urban whites striving to distance themselves from an “inferior race,” but dependent on the very same people they despised to perform the most intimate labor in their homes. (page 105)

Segregation was not a system imposed entirely from above; it also helped to advance the interests of white workers, who were able to gain status from their position in the social hierarchy above all blacks. (page 119)

Jim Crow parks were designed not simply to put white urbanites closer to nature, but also to give them moments of reprieve and distance from blacks in order to channel racial friction in “wholesome” directions. (page 147)

Of course, on top of having their fight for the right over their own bodies and lives depicted by the ruling white class as them being uppity servants and uppity blacks, women had the additional injustice of having their femininity and womanhood called into question.

Like the defiant women in Galveston, strikers in Atlanta showed little attachment to prevailing middle-class conventions of femininity. As they did on other occasions, working-class women used street fights to settle disputes that jeopardized their unity and engaged in militant resistance. (page 89)

The moral implications of women consuming intoxicating substances troubled many middle-class blacks and whites. Women not only evaded laws prohibiting them from entering saloons, they frequented bar room “annexes,” they drank alcohol in alleys and streets, and they sold beer from their homes. (page 165)

I usually don’t quote this much, but the whole book is just so good.  The three-way injustices faced by black working class women is palpable throughout.  Facing one alone would be daunting enough, but facing three feels terrifyingly insurmountable even just reading about it, let alone living it.  And yet some black domestic workers did pull through in spite of the odds and do great things.  Women like Carrie Steele.

Former slave Carrie Steele, a stewardess and cook at the train station, volunteered her time as a probation officer for children in trouble with the law. This experience and her childhood as an orphan inspired her to start an orphanage in 1890. She believed that many of the children she came in contact with had fallen on hard times because they had no families to take care of them. Steele raised money to purchase four acres of land and the orphans’ first home by selling her own house, writing and selling her autobiography, and soliciting funds from generous individuals, black and white. By 1898 the Steele orphanage consisted of a brick building, hospital, and schoolhouse, and more than two hundred children had passed through its portals since its founding. (page 142)

Inspirational. Humbling. Awe-inspiring.  Words that describe both Carrie Steele’s life and the book as a whole. Read it.

Source: Public Library

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • Why do you think Decatur Street was allowed to continue in spite of being the only known location in Atlanta where the races mingled?
  • Hunter values the dance halls for the role of letting off steam and embracing black culture they played in black Americans’ lives.  How do you feel about them?
  • In spite of viewing black Americans as “unclean,” white Atlantans persisted in sending their laundry out to black homes to be washed.  Why do you think people were able to hold onto such illogical dichotomies?
  • Given the depiction of of everything stacked against them, do you view drug dealers, bootleggers, prostitutes, etc… differently now than you did before?