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Book Review: Like One of the Family by Alice Childress (The Real Help Reading Project)

November 12, 2011 4 comments

Black woman in a kitchen.Summary:
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.

Review:
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).

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • 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?
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