Sophie was raised in the rural American south by her elderly widowed mother and two crazy aunts. She was always reserved and a real lady, especially after having lost the first boy she liked in the Great War. Now the year is 1941, and her neighbor Miss Anne has taken on a Japanese-American gardener. He’s not white, but he’s not quite black either, and he and Sophie have painting in common.
I was excited to see an Asian male/white female (amwf, as it’s known online) story pop up on Netgalley. They can be hard to find, and I thought the dual extra setting of the racist rural south and WWII would make it more interesting. I still don’t doubt that these positive things are what the author was going for, but it didn’t quite come through for me in the story.
Trobaugh picked an interesting writing structure that I found worked well for the story. It’s a mix of an elderly Miss Anne relating her part of the story of what she saw occur between Sophie and Mr. Oto and an omniscient third person narration. This lets the reader see both what the town saw as well as some private moments between Sophie and Mr. Oto that we would not have otherwise seen. It also helped keep the pace flowing forward.
There were also some truly beautiful sequences in the book, such as this sentence:
Too hot. Feel like Satan sucking the breath right out of this old world. (location 1631)
I am disappointed then that I felt the story itself didn’t live up to the writing. Trobaugh falls prey to some stereotyping tropes, and I don’t believe she realized she did. I genuinely believe she meant the story to be progressive, but the two minority characters in the story are two-dimensional and essentially act out the roles assigned to them in American pop culture.
In spite of falling for a white woman, everything else about Mr. Oto is stereotype 101 for Asian-American men. He is: quiet, reserved, effeminate, painfully polite, and bows all the time. The bowing really bothered me, because Mr. Oto was born in America to first generation immigrant parents. I don’t know any first generation Americans who hold on to societal norms from their parents’ country around anyone but their family. The bowing is used as a plot device to show how Mr. Oto is “different” and makes some of the rural whites uncomfortable. I kept hoping that maybe Mr. Oto was putting on an act for the white people to keep himself safe and we would see that he was actually a strong man around Sophie in private, but no. He is precisely the emasculating stereotype of an Asian-American male that we first see.
The other minority character is “Big Sally.” She is, surprise surprise, domestic help. Anyone who was here for The Real Help Reading Project will be aware of all the stereotypes surrounding black women domestic workers. The main one being of course that they’re happy to be the help and will gladly help out white women who are kind to them with their problems. Kind of the all-knowing wise woman who just so happens to scrub your floors. I was truly saddened to see Sally show up and play this role to a T. She overcleans around the white women she doesn’t like to make them feel dirty, but she has no problem stepping right in and fixing everything up for Sophie. There is a scene that made me cringe where she sits down and has a heart-to-heart with Sophie and basically sorts out all of her life problems. I know that Trobaugh thought she was writing a positive image of a black woman, but the character is pure stereotype. She exists to help Sophie and Miss Anne. She ends up being buddy-buddy with Miss Anne and living with her. In the 1940s and 1950s rural south. Yeah. Right. I’m not saying there can’t be a black woman character who is domestic help. That was indeed reality for that historical time period. But why couldn’t there be a scene where Sally and Mr. Oto talk about being othered in the town? Where they talk about the dangers to Mr. Oto after Pearl Harbor and how they are similar to some of what Sally has faced as a black woman? That would have been a truly progressive plot element, and I’m sorry the opportunity wasn’t taken.
Overall then, Trobaugh can indeed write. The book was highly readable and contains some eloquent passages. In spite of attempting a progressive message, though, the book falls to the easier method of plugging in a couple of stereotyped, two-dimensional characters. I hope in future works Trobaugh will put more work into developing truly three-dimensional minority characters. This will strengthen her work and make it more than just a piece of chick lit repeating the same old tropes.
3 out of 5 stars
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.
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.
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
- 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?
Hello my lovely readers! Gosh, things have been hopping here this January, haven’t they? I’m not sure why my reading has reached such a nice, steady rhythm, but I’m certainly enjoying it.
A quick announcement. I’ve decided to start freelance editing. If you’re at all interested, please check out the dedicated page for more details. You all know that I’m a trustworthy, hard-working, smart gal, so I’d also appreciate it tons if you’d help spread the news. Thanks!
I was super-pleased at the extent of conversation and interaction that the first book for the Diet for a New America Reading Project saw. Thanks guys! Next month is The China Study, and I do hope as many of you as can will join in with me. This book is very much less about the US specifically and more about the best diet for human beings in general based on a ground-breaking scientific study.
Tomorrow is the discussion of the penultimate book in The Real Help Reading Project–Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely. It’s hard to believe the project is almost over! Time flies when you’re learning and growing with a friend.
On Wednesday I was home sick, and you know how sometimes when you’re sick you just don’t have the focus to read. I therefore poked around my Netflix account and was pleased to see that the final season of United States of Tara was finally up on instant. The United States of Tara is a Showtime half-hour show about a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) trying to learn to cope with her disease without creativity-numbing medications so she can be free again to pursue her art. I was very pleased with the first two seasons that showed the reality of coping with a mental disease, but that did not demonize Tara or bestow sainthood upon her family members. I thus was really disappointed to see the third season take such a nosedive, and now I’m thinking I’m going to have to remove it from my recommended list.
The thing that made US of Tara so appealing in the first two seasons was that, yes, sometimes Tara did bad things as the result of her illness, but she was fairly good at finding a balance. She made mistakes like healthy people, just for different reasons. In season three, though, Tara develops a new alter who is pure evil. We’re talking stabby, Psycho sound effects, steals babies and tears her own teenage son’s room apart evil. This alter is an abuser alter–an alter who takes on the whole personality of Tara’s abuser. Now this is a real thing in DID (source) but the show handles it all wrong. Yes, the new alter is scary and would be to all of the known alters, Tara, and her family. However, having the alter kill all of Tara’s other alters then Tara kill the abuser alter is the exact opposite of how healthy healing from DID works. Healthy healing is either learning to cope with having alters or integration. Killing your alters and then proceeding to run off to therapy after the fact shrieks of writers who didn’t get their facts straight. For a show that started off so strongly and well-supported by the Mental Illness Alliance community, I was really disappointed in this.
The other bad message in season three that really bothers me as an advocate is the change in Tara’s family and how they handle things. Tara basically becomes too much for them to handle, and they all want to ship her off and lock her up. Ok, some people do need in-patient treatment, and I definitely would have re-entered Tara into real therapy much sooner than her family does to prevent all this drama in the first place, but essentially the family comes to say that Tara isn’t worth it. Tara is too much to handle. They’re just gonna go do their thing now. They even judge Max, Tara’s husband, for refusing to not continue to stick by her. He insists repeatedly that he’s neither a stupid person nor a saint. He just loves Tara. Yet, in the end, the whole family is torn apart, leaving just Max and Tara.
While it is, unfortunately, very true that a lot of people abandon loved ones with a mental illness, one of the positive aspects of this show was that it let people with a mental illness believe that in an enlightened family unit, it doesn’t have to be that way. Season three kills all that. The only one who truly loves and advocates for Tara is Max, and everyone else feels pity for him because of it. Sad stuff. Definitely not advocate stuff.
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)
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.
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
- 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?
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.
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
Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!
Book Review: Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph (The Real Help Reading Project)
Thavolia Glymph analyzes the power relations between black and white southern women within the plantation household in the antebellum, Civil War, and immediately post-Civil War American South utilizing primarily slave narratives/interviews and the diaries and letters of white mistresses.
I am chagrined to admit that not only is this the first time I was late on the schedule of The Real Help Reading Project I am co-hosting with Amy, but I was exactly a week late! The lesson I have learned? Never schedule a timely thing for a holiday weekend. I apologize to Amy and everyone following along for making you wait, but at least it was Amy’s turn to host! Moving right along….
Whereas Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow was extraordinarily all-encompassing, here Glymph narrows her focus severely to only relationships between black and white women in traditional plantation households in the American South. She, alas, stops her analysis around the turn of the 20th century, only venturing into the unique relations within the domestic work realm depicted in The Help in the epilogue. However, this book is quite valuable in that it analyzes the relationships that led up to that odd dynamic of the 1950s and 1960s.
This book covers a lot of information, but what sticks out the most to me in retrospect was how much work and effort it took to maintain a racist, unequal society. The white mistresses had this odd, completely illogical dichotomy of viewing black women both as inferior and needing their guidance and as naturally suited to hard labor. My eyes practically bugged out of my head when reading of white women teaching black women to do chores that supposedly white women were too weak to do….and yet they were perfectly capable of doing them well enough to show the black women what they wanted done. Um….what? That is the sort of illogical situation that only someone entirely committed to a belief system, no matter how wrong, will be able to come to terms with.
Similarly, the former mistresses predicted the imminent downfall of their former house slaves only to find themselves hired by these same freedwomen to sew fine dresses for them with the money they earned by working the plantation. Yet, the former mistresses persisted in believing in the racial inferiority of the freedwomen. Perhaps the most mind-boggling to me was the story of one former mistress who wound up teaching at a freed black school, yet even though she was with these children daily, she still believed in white supremacy. Why this persistent need to believe you’re better than someone else? Personally, it seems to me that the white men were so constantly judgmental of the white women that they reacted by taking it out on those society deemed inferior to them. If black free women rose to their same status, then who would they take their frustrations out on? This logic doesn’t free the white women of the guilt that they definitely deserve, but it does help to make sense of their ability to take on completely illogical stances.
I feel that I am repeating myself a bit with this project, but the books repeatedly demonstrate how inequality on any level acts as a poison to the whole society. I hope that is something that we modern readers will bare in mind in our own daily lives.
Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!
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.
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).
- 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?
This is the story of Lilith. A mulatto with green eyes born on a plantation in Jamaica to a mama who was raped at 14 by the overseer as punishment to her brother. Raised by a whore and a crazy man, all Lilith has ever wanted was to improve her status on the plantation. And maybe to understand why her green eyes seem to freak out slave and master alike. Assigned to be a house slave, Lilith finds herself in direct contact with the most powerful slave on the plantation–Homer, who is in charge of the household. Homer brings her into a secret meeting of the night women in a cave on the grounds and attempts to bring Lilith into a rebellion plot, insisting upon the darkness innate in Lilith’s soul. But Lilith isn’t really sure what exactly will get her what she truly wants–to feel safe and be with the man she cares for.
This is the third book and second fictional work for The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy, and it totally blew me away. A reading experience like this is what makes reading projects/challenges such a pleasure to participate in. I never would have picked up this book off the shelf by myself, but having it on the list for the project had me seek it out and determined to read it within a set length of time. Reading the blurb, there’s no way I would imagine identifying with the protagonist so strongly, but I did, and that’s what made for such a powerful experience for me. The more I read literature set in a variety of times and places, the more I see what we as people have in common, instead of our differences.
There is so much subtle commentary within this book to ponder that I’m finding it difficult to unpack and lay out for you all. Part of me wants to just say, “Go read this book. Just trust me on this one,” but then I wouldn’t be doing my job as a book blogger, would I?
Depicted much more clearly here than in any of our reads so far is how detrimental a society based upon racism is for all involved. There is not a single happy story contained here. Everyone’s lives are ruined from the master all the way down to the smallest slave girl. It is a circle of misery begetting misery begetting misery.
Homer was the mistress’ personal slave and many of the evil things that happen to her was because the mistress was so miserable that she make it her mission to make everybody round her miserable as well. (page 415)
Nobody is happy. Everyone lives in misery and fear. The whites are afraid of a black revolt. The blacks are afraid of being whipped or hung. Everyone is afraid of Obeah (an evil witchcraft similar to voodoo). People start to lash out at each other in an attempt to better themselves. For instance, the Johnny-jumpers are male slaves who are pseudo-overseers given power over the other slaves to beat them. It is simply a system exploiting everyone and for what? From the book it appears to be to maintain Britain’s position of power in the world. The system is evil, and it does not simply beget misery, but despair as well. It brings out the worst in everyone.
A strong theme in this book is that of race being a construct rather than an innate true difference in people. Since Lilith is bi-racial, she has trouble simply aligning herself with one side or the other. Although at first she hates white people, she comes to deeply care for a white man. She comes to see people as individuals and not their race, but alas that thought process is far too advanced for the time she is living in, and she senses this.
She not black, she mulatto. Mulatto, mulatto, mulatto. Maybe she be family to both and to hurt white man just as bad as hurting black man…..Maybe if she start to think that she not black or white, then she won’t have to care about neither man’s affairs. Maybe if she don’t care what other people think she be and start think about what she think she be, maybe she can rise over backra and nigger business, since neither ever mean her any good. Since the blood that run through her both black and white, maybe she be her own thing. But what thing she be? (page 277-8)
It’s impossible not to have your heart break for Lilith, a woman whose whole life revolves around race when all she ever wants is to feel happy and safe, an impossible dream represented for her by a picture from a child’s book that her foster slave father let her take from him. The picture is of a sleeping princess with a prince near her, and Lilith’s obsession with this image follows her throughout her life, until she finally tells herself:
She not no fool, Lilith tell herself. She not a sleeping princess and Robert Quinn is not no king or prince. He just a man with broad shoulders and black hair who call her lovey and she like that more than her own name. She don’t want the man to deliver her, she just want to climb in the bed and feel he wrap himself around her. (page 335)
I found myself wishing I could scoop Lilith and Robert up and place them on an island where they could just be together and raise their mixed race babies and just be happy, but that’s not what happened then, and that’s the dream we must keep fighting for, isn’t it? A world where people can just love each other and be happy and not be forced into misery for economic gain of a person or a business or a nation.
I know it sounds like wishful thinking, but that’s really what I got out of this book. If we don’t want to live in a world that dark, we must embrace love in all its forms. Love begets love, but hate begets hate. Don’t like corporate greed or nationalism overtake your capacity to see the humanity in everyone–the capability for powerful good or powerful evil present in us all. Perhaps this is a bit off-topic for The Real Help Reading Project, but that is the old passion from a youthful me in undergraduate classes that this book reignited, and that is what makes me want everyone to read it.
Source: Public Library
Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!