On Black Women Domestic Workers

My presentation last week on the great intellectual and educator Anna Julia Cooper for Women’s History Month stimulated some wonderful responses. Among them was a letter from Katherine van Wormer, a sociologist who grew up in New Orleans and now teaches at the University of Northern Iowa. She reminded me of the importance of remembering those whose stories aren’t often told, such as the many black domestic workers during the period of Jim Crow.

David Walter Jackson, II, Charletta Sudduth, and Katherine van Wormer wrote a moving book: The Maid Narratives: Black Domestics and White Families in the Jim Crow South (Louisiana State University Press, 2012). This book tells a story with which many of us are familiar and one that continues to be misrepresented in so many ways, as the movie 2011 movie The Help (which I found unbearable) attests. Van Wormer and her co-authors offer a corrective to such misrepresentations.

There is a wider picture today, as we think about a world that locks women in the role of domestics and servants. Black women in particular have made great strides, as we see in the achievements of such icons as Angela Davis, Marian Wright Edelman, Michelle Obama, and even Condoleezza Rice (for the conservatives out there), to name a few. But we don’t want to collapse into the presumption that those women who worked as domestics should somehow be degraded and forgotten. Their labor, often alienated, served as the backbone for the survival and future of all of us, and many of them, by working inside, enabled other women to work outside. I don’t know any black professional who could claim to have no domestics in her or his ancestry. Their work, their sacrifice, brought shelter over our heads, food on the table, and investments in the future. Many of them worked under precarious circumstances and challenging conditions—in many cases with little distinction from the days of in-house slavery.

So, today, I simply say to our domestic ancestors, and those who continue to toil for us to have a better tomorrow, thank you. You give, as the proverbial song goes, more than you know.