Working on this sex work chapter and re-reading Cathy Cohen’s fantastic article “Deviance as Resistance.” But I can’t get Ferguson off my mind. While she provides lots of theoretical fodder for this chapter regarding how to theorize sexuality and sexual labor, I can’t help but think about representation and the theorization of Ferguson. Poverty, youth, and racialism make these young resistors in Ferguson outside of the realm of the normative white nuclear family. Yet, the black respectability brigade readily participates in shaming their response to police brutality. Taking my lead from Cohen, perhaps we should listen to these young people. And find the possibility of a new black politic and a renewed theorization of resistance that clearly has historical resonance.
Just a few thoughts from the cutting room floor.
Whenever I tell people that my research centers on domestic workers I am always asked my thoughts on (and by this I mean compelled to think and write about) the mammy figure. I’m not really interested in representation. That’s been done. Over and over. Not to mention domestic workers are real to me. They are people in my family. They live and work in my community. They are definitely not mammy.
Bu even mammy has a history. She is a cultural worker. Hattie McDaniel, award winning portrayer of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, said something to the effect that she would rather get paid a lot of money to play a domestic worker than get paid pennies to really be one. Not to mention Mammy figures are beloved in the American imagination. I’ve seen and written about Gone With the Wind. Though it was uncomfortable, McDaniel’s performance is incredible. Dare I say moving? It demonstrates the power of black performance. Even more so, because she does it amidst black protest and uncompromising racism.
Which brings me to Aunt Jemima. She, too, is more than a face on a pancake box. She is a woman on my family tree. Her name is Edith Wilson. And she was the radio voice and face of Aunt Jemima for twenty years. She is pictured here. And looks, eerily, a lot like me. So, I cannot call her a mammy. She was also a cultural worker. She was a jazz singer, actress, performer. She advocated for other performers. Langston Hughes once said that she was one of the women that he most admired. And yet, others called her mammy. They hated her for what she represented. And while I recognize the complexities, my familial connection to her makes it difficult for me to participate in an objective and nuanced analysis. This is something that happens often as I approach my research. But that’s a blog for another day.
You will notice that she looks nothing like the woman on your pancake box. That honor goes to the woman who preceded her, Anna S. Harrington. In 1937, Quaker Oats trademarked her likeness. Just in cased you missed that, they trademarked a person. As in, your face belongs to us.
And now her great-grandchildren are suing Quaker Oats (now owned by PepsiCo) for their piece of the royalties. To which I say, good for them. She is a real person. Not a cartoon character. She was an employee. More than an employee really. And she deserves this.
I could see how people would be critical of the amount of money they are asking for. But I’m not concerned about that. I understand the impetus behind the suit. The feeling of your family history being commodified and treated like fiction to everyone who walks down the breakfast aisle. I will be very interested to see what comes of this. But in the mean time, these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor.
Continuing my thinking about sex work I came across a section in Cynthia Blair’s book about the World’s Fair and its relationship to black women as commodities and their sexual labor. I was having a conversation with a friend recently about the way in which we use Saartjie Baartman, aka Hottentot Venus, as a reference point for all expressions of black female sexuality. As though everything we do it for the white gaze, and Saartjie is not, in fact, a real historical person. Blair’s chapter really demonstrates the power of narrative. We find the mythologized women of the World”s Fair in city guidebooks and police reports. They become stand-ins for all women. Even police reports become story books.
Though the relationship between vice and the Fair has been documented, its what Blair does with it that is so fascinating. This is what makes a good historian. I am inspired. Ok back to writing.
On to a new chapter. This one is about sex work as reproductive labor. Sex (and more specifically sexual assault) remains a taboo in scholarship on domestic work. Even though it was so common. For this reason I am so inspired by the women who chose to give their testimony. Danielle McGuire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street, gives a great account of black women’s anti-rape activism. She mentions that black women told of being raped by white men in court, at community meetings, and even in church. McGuire uncovers a remarkable history.
One of my favorite (which seems like an awful word to use considering the subject matter but I digress) narratives that really makes sense of the normalization of rape as a part of domestic work is Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s autobiography, From the Mississippi Delta. This book generated a lot of great discussion when I taught it in my Black Women’s History Class. My students asked a lot of great questions in spite of their visceral reactions to how raw the story is.
But the other side of this coin is sexual labor. The same circumstances that compelled black women to do domestic work also made sex work a viable option. Analyses of both forms of labor are haunted by stigma and shame. Yet, in my view, they are great places to begin critiquing capitalism and a number authors writing during the Depression made great use of the subject symbolically.
I had not intended to write an entire chapter on sex work. But a good friend said to me that you can’t deal with domestic work without grappling with the politics of sexuality. So I’m grappling. And its not easy. But writing feels better than conversation. Seems like we still haven’t figured out how to talk about it.
Currently rereading, I’ve Got to Make My Livin’, by Cynthia Blair. Its a good start.
I have a chapter featured in this fantastic book about representations of blackness in white-authored narratives. The book collection is entitled “From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Help.” Check it out below for information on how to preorder.
Today on the road to dissertation-ville I returned to Silvia Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero in search of some theoretical musings on sex work. The collection includes a 1999 essay that Federici wrote entitled Reproduction and Feminist Struggle int he New Division of Labor. In it she argues that it is useless for feminists (Marxist feminists I assume since she is one) to criticize women for hiring domestic workers. Because housework is slavery. And there is no alternative. I was told by renowned scholar of domestic labor, Mary Romero, that this kind of thing happens all the time but its the first time I have seen it in print.
Here’s the thing: where are the rights for domestic workers in your collection of thirty years of scholarship on women and housework? Her commentary renders them invisible. It renders the history of my own family invisible. Domestic workers are without rights. Which means you employ them under the worst conditions, feminist or not. If you can’t treat the women you hire as wage workers, and treat them as such, then how can you advocate for working women? This kind of entitlement continues to frustrate me.
Admittedly I am still reeling from the success of our conference Maid in the USA. During the next couple of weeks we will be posting more follow up from the conference, including a set of FAQs that was compiled by one of the CMGC policy options undergraduate students and a digest of the notes that were taken at each round table regarding potential next steps for organizing in New Jersey.
Because domestic labor is a major interest of mine, in part because of its significance to my family history and the centrality of its history to my scholarship, I am going to be maintaining the blog as a space for my own thoughts as I continue the intellectual journey that is qualifying exams and dissertation writing and musings on the contemporary state of domestic worker activism as it builds momentum across the country.
In the mean time check out this video by John Meyer, an undergraduate student in Arts, Culture, and Media, who took some footage of the conference and created something really cool.
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