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Reading Project Wrap-up: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context

February 28, 2012 8 comments

On September 3, 2011, myself and Amy of Amy Reads announced our intention to co-host a reading project devoted to reading the list of recommended reads put out by the Association of Black Women Historians in response to the incredible popularity of Kathryn Stockett’s book (and later, movie) The Help.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve already completed reading all 10 books.  I sort of feel like I took a mini class on the history of black women’s labor in the US, and I’m so glad I did.

Although I was a US History major (and also English) in undergrad, I tended to focus more on colonization, westward expansion, and World War II.  The Civil War was not a thing of mine, nor was the Great Migration or the Civil Rights movement.  It may sound silly, but when you’ve only got 8 to 10 courses, some of which are taken up by requirements, to cover all of US history, some things just don’t get covered, especially if you don’t already have an interest in them.  So, although I knew right away that something was WRONG with The Help, it was difficult for me to elaborate exactly what.  I knew it was wrong for a white woman to be putting words in black women’s mouths about a time period that is so recent and still stings.  I knew that having the main, white character come in and rescue the black help was wrong.  And I knew that putting such a rosy color on a time period that was anything BUT rosy was revisionist and distasteful.  But I didn’t know enough about black women’s history to say much beyond that.

Well, thanks to this project, I know so much more now.  I know enough to elaborate in more detail what is offensive about The Help.  But before we talk about that, I want to talk about some of the things that I learned.

In the first read, A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight, we followed the life of a fictional biracial (but seen as black) woman living first as a slave then as a freewoman.  In this book I learned all of the negative connotations associated with working within a white household due to slavery.  We saw how Moinette was seen as sexual competition by the white women while simultaneously being raped by the white men.  This helped establish the false stereotype of black women as seductresses that must be controlled and watched within the home.  We also saw how slave women were forced to wear rags whereas white ladies wore finery.  This is a difference that racist whites later attempted to replicate by forcing uniforms upon their live-in and live-out servants.  This was also the first instance in the project where we saw that although some semblance of friendship could come up between black and white women, they could never truly be friends while living in a racist, unequal society.

The first nonfiction book–Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones–covered the largest time period of any that we read, sweeping from slavery up through the Civil Rights era.  It was, frankly, daunting and one I wish in retrospect I could have read over a longer time period to let things sink in more.  Yet, through this book we saw the parallel line of black history in the background of mainstream history taught in schools.  In this book we learned how African-American culture developed to be different from white culture but certainly no less valid.  For instance, we saw how slavery and its methods established the matriarchy and forced the stereotype of the “strong black woman” upon all black women, whether they wanted to be independent and the matriarch or not.  This book was also the first instance where we saw the incredibly brave front-line roles black women played during the Civil Rights movement from protecting voting registration workers with rifles to braving hostile whites when entering segregated areas.  This book also gave me an understanding of why black feminists and black women sometimes disagree with white feminists and white women about women’s role in the home.  For so long black families were forced apart or the black wives and mothers were forced to work out of the home that the idea of being the lady of the house is appealing as an equal right.  Although modern feminists talk about women’s right to choose what kind of life they’re going to lead, I think it’s really important to realize that for black American women for a long time they had no choice but to work outside the home–the exact opposite of white American women.

Our second fiction book–The Book of Night Women by Marlon James–is one I’m honestly a bit baffled over its inclusion on the list.  It’s set in Jamaica and is entirely about a slave rebellion on that plantation.  Although I loved the book and got a lot of emotional depth out of it, I don’t feel as if it informed me much on the topic at hand.  It did demonstrate how it can be difficult or even impossible to find a way out of a corrupt system, which is a good reminder when studying the past and wondering why so-and-so didn’t do thus-and-such.  Hindsight is 20/20, and even when in possession of it, there’s still no clear way out.  This book, then, reminded us not to judge others’ choices too harshly.

The next nonfiction read was the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody.  I’m personally partial to memoirs as a learning tool, because I think one of the best ways to learn about something is through the eyes of someone who lived it.  Anne Moody grew up in the south during Jim Crow and also became famous for a sit-in she participated in at Woolworth’s.  This read demonstrated two key things.  First, that black women were involved in the quest for civil rights without any need of poking or prodding from well-meaning white women.  Second, it demonstrated that the assertions made in the nonfiction earlier about the help were true.  Anne’s mother and herself both worked as domestic help, and Anne vividly recalls her mother working all hours of the day, even right after having a baby, bringing home the white family’s leftovers, and the way the help was trusted and simultaneously feared and distrusted by the people who employed them.  Moody’s memoir is an angry one, but she certainly had a right to be an angry woman.

Our next read was Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress, which is an assembly of a serial written by Childress in the 1950s revolving entirely around the life of a domestic servant, Mildred.  Through these vignettes Childress addresses the tough situations domestic help encountered in the 1950s and sometimes plays out fantasies the help may have had such as telling off the employer, whereas in real life they might not be able to afford to do that.  I admit that while I was reading this collection, I wasn’t sure as to the value of it, but I found myself thinking back on it again and again throughout the rest of the project.  The book basically demonstrates the absurdity of employers calling the help a member of the family when the whole situation is steeped in inequality and racism.  This book is even more valuable since it was written by an educated black woman who had to periodically work in domestic service during the 1950s.

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph was our next nonfiction read, and it narrows its focus in on relationships between black and white women in the south from right before the Civil War to right after.  This book clearly demonstrates why a simple loving friendship between the help and the children in the household she works in just would not be logically possible.  The book demonstrates with historical documents how much energy white women in the south used simply to attempt to maintain their false position as “better than” black women.  This book demonstrated the complex cultural and racial relationship between black and white women that could not simply be fixed by one well-meaning college-educated southerner.

We then read The Street by Ann Petry, which I discovered is considered a classic of black American literature.  This book demonstrates the life of a black woman who first works as a live-in but then winds up having to come home to move out with her son after discovering her husband’s affair.  She then does everything she can to avoid domestic work and keep her son safely on the straight and narrow.  Although very little of this book is set in a domestic help situation, the beginning of the book, as well, as Lutie’s ever-failing quest to care for her son demonstrates the adverse affect that a society dependent upon racially divided domestic help has on those at the bottom of the totem pole, not to mention the culture at large.  The book is not subtle, but it is an enjoyable read and clearly related to the topic.

To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter looked at the intersecting issues of racism, sexism, classism, and domestic labor by narrowing its focus in on the city of Atlanta and covering its history from all of these perspectives.  It is difficult, nay, impossible, to summarize everything I learned through this incredible book. Suffice to say, nothing we read made it clearer the nearly impossible obstacles faced by southern black women in domestic work or made Kathryn Stockett’s book so abundantly clearly ridiculous and naive.

Our final fiction read was Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely.  This was definitely the most mainstream entertaining book of the project.  It is kind of a cozy mystery in which the crime solver just so happens to be a feisty black domestic servant woman named Blanche.  Everything we learned so far about the complexities innate in the domestic help situation are abundantly clear in the story without being preachy.  I found myself wondering how this book did not become more popular when it was first released.  It is such a clever mystery novel.

Our final read was Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis,  which, as the title indicates, focused in on the differences between help that lives in the home and help that lives outside of the home, and why black women drastically prefer the latter.  This is a short read, but it clearly demonstrates the dehumanizing affect of both racism and domestic labor for those subjected to it.

So, given all of that, how would I characterize what is wrong with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help now?  I would say it drastically oversimplifies the serious, life-threatening, soul-stealing world of racism in the American south and also innate in the employer/servant dichotomy.  It places the reins of social change in the hands of a kind white woman who views the help like one of the family, when in reality it was through the courage and strength of black women that the civil rights movement had any chance at all.  And they certainly did not view themselves as a member of the family for whom they worked for disgustingly low wages.  It seeks to rewrite history in a way that will assuage white guilt (most likely foremost the white guilt of the author) and retroactively removes the very real civil rights agency demonstrated by black women in the south from them.  It is a racist book because it oversimplifies and dumbs down what is a complex and sad chapter in American history that everyone should clearly understand for what it was to prevent us from ever reliving it.

Now, I know not everyone has the time or the energy to read all of the books on this list.  So what are my recommendations?

If you want a popular-style, fun book to read instead of The Help, I recommend you pick up Blanche on the Lam.  It is also a whole series, so there’s lots of room for prolonged entertainment without the disgusting rewriting of history seen in The Help.

If you are more interested in the civil rights movement and the involvement of domestic help in it, then I suggest you pick up the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi.

If you like short stories and want to hear the voice of the real help from the 1950s, then I suggest you pick up Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life.

If you really enjoy a well-researched, well-documented piece of nonfiction in your life and want a much clearer understanding of race in the populous southern city of Atlanta, then definitely pick up To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War.

Finally, if you want a short nonfiction read that quickly covers some of the issues innate in racially based domestic help through the voices of the women who lived it, then you should pick up Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940.

I am very grateful to the Association of Black Women Historians for taking the time to assemble and post this list.  I learned so much from reading through it and am now able to eloquently defend my stance on why it’s sad and wrong that The Help became such a popular read.  I encourage you all to follow your gut and question when something is popular that just doesn’t seem quite right to you.  Read up on the real history and find the little-known gems of fiction that are brave enough to confront the real issues.  The publishing industry will only change what it puts out and pushes on the public when we change our demands.  I can say that Amy and I already saw at least two of the books on the list go from unavailable on the Kindle to available in the time that we worked on this project.  We hope that this at least in a small part had to do with a new demand for the titles due to the release of the list from the ABWH or maybe even from ourselves talking about these lesser-known books on the blogosphere.

What I ask of each of you readers in conclusion is to choose just one book from the list to read.  Challenge yourself and try something that isn’t “popular.”  You’ll be surprised at what you discover and learn.

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: Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely (Series, #1) (The Real Help Reading Project)

January 28, 2012 4 comments

Black woman standing in front of house with hand on hip.Summary:
Blanche’s employers failed to pay her on time, and now she has some bad checks.  She had no idea that bouncing a few checks would land her with a 30 day jail sentence, though, so when she gets the chance, Blanche goes on the lam.  She decides to take a temporary job she had originally decided against as a way to hide out.  She’s going to be the help for a family on a week-long vacation in the countryside.  Naturally, things can never be simple, and Blanche starts to suspect one of the family members is a murderer.

Review:
It’s hard to believe Amy and I are on our penultimate book for the project, not to mention the final fiction book on the list.  And what a book!  If I had to pick one of the fiction books we read to hand to fans of The Help to get a much more real representation of black women in domestic service, this is definitely the book I would hand them.

Somehow this tiny mystery novel (called a Kriminalroman in German, which I think sounds much better) manages to cover pretty much every aspect of black female domestic workers’ lives that we’ve discussed throughout the project.  Blanche faces: police and criminal justice prejudice, stinginess on the part of wealthy employers, rape at the hands of a white male employer, classism, employers’ racist attempts to control her body, non-traditional family structure, and much much more.  Yet facing all of those odds, Blanche remains determined and strong.  She is not someone who needs OR wants a white woman (or man) to come along and rescue her.  I think Blanche’s personality is best summed-up here:

She always returned to domestic work. For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she was really her own boss, and her clients knew it. She was the expert. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around. She told them when they had to be out of the way, when she would work, and when she wouldn’t. (page 86)

That’s one of the wonderful things about this book.  It turns the whole white woman saving the help thing from The Help on its head.  Blanche is the one who saves the white family in this book, and then she refuses to accept help from them in return, beyond clearing up her ridiculously unfair legal troubles.  Instead of taking a cushy job with them, she leaves, because she is her own woman.

Now, all of that said, I was personally a bit distracted from the race and class issues in this book due to the presence of the character Mumsfield.  Mumsfield is the cousin of the sinister family members, and he has Down’s Syndrome.  I don’t think all of my readers know this, but my niece has Down’s, so I certainly am a bit sensitive to the portrayal of it in literature.  Knowing and loving a person with Down’s removes a lot of the misperceptions of it that exist in the world.  At first, I was concerned that Neely had fallen for these things.  Mumsfield at first seems too trusting, too caring, a real simpleton.  But by the end of the book, Blanche realizes that she hadn’t really listened to what Mumsfield was actually saying earlier in the week.  If she had, she would have realized that while Mumsfield is kind and giving, he’s not stupid.  Knowing Mumsfield also helps Blanche see that her experiences as a black woman in America have made her racist against white people, when not all of them are bad.  Thus, I am pleased to report that Mumsfield is actually an accurate and positive portrayal of people with Down’s.

Now, I will say, personally I’m not generally into the typical mystery novel.  I like to get my genre reading from urban fantasy, pnr, and cozies.  I am well aware, though, that a lot of people love this kind of book, and it is definitely well-done.  It has all of the well-loved aspects of the genre, plus manages to address race, class, and even Down’s Syndrome.  It is absolutely a worthwhile read.

Source: Public Library

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • How do you feel about Blanche’s initial jail sentence and her decision to go on the lam?
  • Blanche sees Mumsfield as an exception to the rule when it comes to white people, aka it’s unusual for them to be kind.  Do you think this is an unfair assessment?
  • Blanche assesses her caring for Mumsfield as a symptom of “Darkies Disease” aka when the help start acting like the idealized Mammies.  What do you think of this assessment?

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: The Street by Ann Petry (The Real Help Reading Project)

December 10, 2011 3 comments

Black woman in red bandana in a window.Summary:
In 1944 Lutie Johnson believes that all it takes is hard work to succeed, so when she finds an apartment in Harlem that she can move into with her son, Bub, she sees it as a step up.  Get him away from her dad’s gin-drinking girlfriend and all the roomers packed in the house.  But it seems as though her hard work does nothing against the street and the walls that the white people build around the colored people brick by brick.

Discussion:
It’s hard to believe that Amy and I only have three books left after this in our project.  Although we rather arbitrarily assigned the order of the books, I’m glad this one came toward the end.  I doubt I would have understood the events in it or valued its perspective as much without the nonfiction reading we did prior.

The book is exquisite in the way it demonstrates how a racist society tears families apart.  Hearing about black men being unable to find work in our nonfiction readings felt so cold and stark; I was left unable to understand why that would cause a man to leave his family.  But through Lutie I came to understand.  At first she doesn’t understand how her husband could cheat on her and be so fine with them breaking up, but eventually she does understand.  He couldn’t find work in the city as a black man.  She finds work as a maid in a white family’s house.  She’s gone most of the time.  He feels emasculated.  Now, I know my feminist followers will object to this, but I remind you, this was not a choice on black families’ parts back then.  It was forced upon them.  Anything that is forced upon you can cause real self-esteem problems.  As Lutie says, how can one manage a family in conditions like that?

Petry also clearly demonstrates how this break up of the home then leads to a generation of lost children.  with Lutie working all day, her son, Bub, comes home to an empty, dank apartment.  He takes up with the wrong crowds, because it’s scary to be in the apartment alone.  He’s only eight.  It’s easy to understand how he makes bad judgment calls, especially when his mother is constantly worrying about money around him.  Seeing it spelled out with “real” people makes it all more understandable than the numbers and statistics found in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow.  In Lutie’s case, her family fell apart twice before she even really realized it was happening.

The other strong element in this book was the hopelessness of the capitalistic American Dream.  Not just the hopelessness of it, but the harmfulness of it.  Lutie herself realizes that she never thought of anything but keeping her family afloat until going to work for the wealthy white family in Connecticut where she “learned” that all it takes is hard work and perseverance to become wealthy.  What a false lesson.  What a horrible thing to believe at face value.  Yet, Lutie does, and it influences almost every single decision she makes for herself and Bub that leads to their ultimate downfall.  Yes, part of their downfall is absolutely brought about by racism, but part is brought about by her believing in the system and not rebelling against it.

For instance, instead of spending what little time she does have outside of work with Bub teaching him and helping him, Lutie spends it pursuing a singing career.  After being gone working in civil services all day, she leaves Bub alone at night yet again.  Similarly, she penny-pinches and yells at Bub so much that Bub starts to believe that they are desperate for money, when in fact his mother is just attempting to save up to move to a better neighborhood.  I get the value of a better neighborhood, but I think Lutie underestimates the value of her own impact on her son.  She studies angrily at night instead of making the studying a bonding thing.  She tells him he can’t stay up and read because of the cost of the electricity, which just blew my mind because you would think she would want him to read.  It all adds up until Bub is not only almost constantly alone but also worrying about money at the age of eight.  I can’t help but think if Lutie had just focused on making their home the best she could and making Bub feel happy and safe that it might have come out better.  I’m not judging Lutie.  It’s so incredibly easy to get caught up in the capitalistic belief system, especially when you’ve been scrambling your whole life and see money as a way to combat racism.  I found myself constantly wishing and hoping that Lutie would stumble across some sort of progressive society that would help her fight for justice.  Of course, in the real world, that doesn’t often happen, and Petry does an amazing job depicting real life in the real Harlem of the 1940s.

Of course, Lutie and her family are not the only ones unhappy.  Although she only works for them for a few chapters in the book, the white family from Connecticut is profoundly unhappy, and Lutie sees it.  The husband and wife ignore each other.  The husband is a raging alcoholic.  The wife is so focused on affairs that she ignores her son.  The son just wants attention and can only get it from the maid.  The brother-in-law kills himself on Christmas morning.

Why do I bother pointing this out?  Well, it’s just further evidence the constant theme throughout our reading project.  Racism and inequality hurt everyone in the society.  Some more than others, yes, but it hurts everyone.  The true values of life–love, time, companionship, laughter–they’re lost amidst the fight to maintain inequality and acquire money.  And that’s largely what slavery was all about, wasn’t it?  Establishing a plantation to become filthy rich instead of a farm where you make ends meet.  And the perceived need for a plantation leads to a desire for cheap labor which leads to slavery which leads to maintaining racism in your head to justify it.  And after Emancipation, the desire to hold onto your filthy wealth leads you to judge others as below you when they’re not.  And racism is an “easy” way to do that.

But where does that leave those caught in the system?  For Lutie, it leaves her a truly lost cause and her son yet another black boy with a record.  Revolution and change takes time, effort, bravery.  Even in the simple day to day decision to choose quality time over money.  To choose to go against the American, consumer grain and just try to make a quality life for yourself.  It’s fascinating and appalling how deeply entrenched in our culture the perception of wealth equaling quality of life is, yet it’s there.  I think, to me, that is what is most appalling in the idea of “The Help.”  Most people do not need a maid.  Unless you are in a wheelchair or missing limbs or blind or have some other physical limitation, you do not need a maid.  And yet some classes of society view it as necessary to make someone else clean up after them in their own home.  Nobody is above cleaning up the filth from themselves and their own family.  Nobody.  And in the meantime, those that they hire to clean it up must do double-duty and clean up two homes and are left without enough energy for quality time with their own family.  It honestly disgusts me.

Source: Public Library

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

Giveaway: Like One of the Family by Alice Childress

November 12, 2011 3 comments

Black woman in kitchen.I’m pleased to be offering up my first ever giveaway!  Out of appreciation to Beacon Press for their generosity in giving both myself and Amy copies of Like One of the Family (review) in support of our The Real Help Reading Project, I’d like to spread the love by passing on the copy to another lucky person!

What You’ll Win: One previously read print copy of Like One of the Family by Alice Childress.  (It did ride around in my purse on the T, so we are not talking pristine, here).

How to Enter: Leave a comment with your email address so I can contact the winner for his/her mailing address!

Rules: US ONLY.  Sorry, I can’t afford to mail anywhere else.  If you have a friend in the States willing to let you use their address, that will work too, though.  The mailing address must be in one of the 50 US states or Puerto Rico, however.  (If you’re an international address, sign up for the same book being given away on Amy’s blog internationally).

Contest Ends: November 26th!  The date of our next The Real Help post ;-)

Enter away!  Spread the word!  Show your love for black women writers and the real experiences of domestic black workers in the 1950s and 1960s!  Thanks!

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).

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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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