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?