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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?

Book Review: Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody (The Real Help Reading Project)

October 22, 2011 4 comments

Portrait suspended over a picture of a shanty.Summary:
Anne Moody in her memoir recounts growing up in the Jim Crow law south, as well as her involvement in the Civil Rights movement as a young adult.  She was one of the women at the famous Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in.  Here we get to see her first-hand thoughts and memories of the struggle growing up surrounded by institutionalized racism, as well as the difficulties in fighting it.

Discussion:
This project I am co-hosting with Amy truly seems to be flying by!  We are already on our fourth read.  I was excited that it was my turn to host the discussion, because memoirs are one of my favorite genres (as my followers know).  Plus this is a memoir set just before and during the Civil Rights era, which is a time period I must say I don’t know as much about as I should.  History classes in the US have a tendency to run out of time in the semester right around the end of WWII.

Throughout the book there is personal, anecdotal evidence of the statistics we read about in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow.  The harsh life as sharecroppers produces anxiety and stress in the family structure.  Anne is left alone all day with an uncle who is only eight years old to watch her and who treats her badly because he resents being stuck with this responsibility.  Similarly, early in her life, Anne’s father and mother divorce.  The strain on the family of poverty is abundantly clear.

Similarly what we read about black women taking nowhere near enough time off of work to recover after pregnancy and birth is evident in Anne’s observations of her own mother:

She didn’t stop workin until a week before the baby was born, and she was out of work only three weeks. She went right back to the cafe.  (page 26)

Although Anne’s mother tried to stay out of serving in white homes as a maid, before long she ended up taking on that kind of work.  She and her children would generally live in a two-room shanty out back.  At first Anne didn’t notice the difference in privilege, until her mother brought home food for her children:

Sometimes Mama would bring us the white family’s leftovers. It was the best food I had ever eaten. That was when I discovered that white folks ate different from us.  (page 29)

Anne was clearly an intelligent child and picked up on the subtle situations going on around her.  Early on she remembers wondering about race and what makes someone white versus black, when there were some “high yellow” black people she knew who could easily pass for white.

Now I was more confused than before. If it wasn’t the straight hair and the white skin that made you white, then what was it?  (page 35)

In fact, this issue of levels of color in black communities impacted Anne’s early life a great deal.  Her mother’s second significant relationship was with a man from a “high yellow” family who didn’t want him with her because she was “too dark.”  Anne’s mother put up with Raymond trying to decide between her and another “high yellow” woman that his family did approve of for years.  Later when he does choose her, she must put up with the snobbery of his family who refused to even speak to her.  Anne cannot understand how black people can be so cruel to each other when the white people in Mississippi are cruel to them all.  It is evident that the racism and oppression of the South caused those oppressed to seek out others to oppress, and the easiest way to do so was to be prejudiced against those with a darker skin tone.  Anne is right that it’s sad and confusing, but it also seems to be a natural result of such an oppressive system.  It’s like we learned from The Book of Night Women: misery begets misery.

Before she is even in middle school, Anne has her first job working for a white woman.  She sweeps her porches in exchange for milk and a quarter.  This is when she starts contributing to the family economy.  It’s interesting how Anne never expresses any resentment about needing to contribute to keeping the family going at a young age.  She does not view it as her parents’ fault.  It is just the way it is, and she’ll do what it takes to help her family.

This is the part of the book where we truly see through the eyes of “the help.”  There are families that Anne works for her treat her like an equal, have her eat dinner with them, and encourage her to go to college.  Then there is the family that is an active member of “the guild” (aka the KKK) where Anne is constantly in terror that they are going to try to frame her for a false wrong-doing.  Anne shows many signs of constant stress during this time, both in her body (headaches and losing weight) and in her mind (feeling trapped).  Being stuck working for someone who you know is going around organizing the murder of people of your own skin tone purely for their skin tone must have been horribly traumatizing.

It is in high school when the activity of the KKK in her hometown ramps up that Anne starts to develop her fighting spirit that will carry her out of white people’s homes and into the Civil Rights movement.  She is angry and fed up with the system, with white people, but with black people too.

But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites. Anyway, it was at this stage in my life that I began to look upon Negro men as cowards.  (page 136)

Anne’s passion for doing what is right in the face of terrible danger and pain is remarkable and admirable.  She would rather die fighting the system than live under the system.  She does not seem to realize it, but this is an unusual level of strength and courage.  It takes people like her to make change happen.  People like her become the leaders that get people to act in spite of their fear.  I understand her frustration, but her lack of understanding of other black people’s viewpoints can be a bit frustrating at times.

Her passion though does lead her to one of the historic black colleges, eventually, Tougaloo College.  Tougaloo was at the center of a lot of the Civil Rights movement in the south, and I found this part of the book totally fascinating.  It is here that Anne makes her first white friend, a fellow Civil Rights activist.  It is here that her famous sit-in at Woolworth’s is organized.

But something happened to me as I got more and more involved in the Movement. It no longer seemed important to prove anything. I had found something outside myself that gave meaning to my life.  (page 288)

Anne used her jobs in white people’s homes to get herself to college where she joined in the Civil Rights movement.  It is a truly inspirational tale.  One can’t help but wonder if the KKK household she worked in became aware of her significant achievements.  The woman who once washed their dishes and ironed their clothes entered into history books.  How anyone can find kitschy stories like The Help inspirational when there are real ones like Anne Moody’s is beyond me.

I was a bit surprised at the semi-dark ending, so I did a bit of googling and discovered that this book was first published in 1968, far before the drastic improvement in race relations in the United States.  Moody at the time had no idea how things were going to turn out.  It’s understandable she was feeling a bit down-trodden and wondering if anything good would ever happen.

I also learned through googling that this memoir ends before her involvement in the Black Power movement.  There are rumblings that she will join with them, though, because she starts stating that peaceful protest will get them nowhere when they are constantly met with violence.  I wish there was a follow-up memoir, but there is not, and Anne Moody has refused all media interview requests ever since the publication of this one.  I suppose I will simply have to read one of the many famous Black Power books to satisfy my curiosity.

Source: Public Library

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • How do you think poverty and racism impacted Anne’s mother’s two significant relationships with men?
  • Do you think those working in KKK households were at a greater physical risk than those working in regular white households?
  • Anne’s employer has her tutor her son in Algebra, because he is failing.  This would suggest that on some level the woman realized that black people are not inferior to white people.  Why do you think she was than so insistent on the dominance of white people and a member of the KKK?
  • What are your thoughts on the various southern whites in Anne’s life who actively helped her and protested and/or fought racism?  What do you think made them act against a system that they were raised in when others like them were defending it?
  • Anne ends the book waffling between peaceful protests and violent movement.  Which do you think ultimately would lead to a better end result?