RSS Feed

Moments in Black History: The Moynihan Report

Inspired by this article in the most recent issue of Dissent Magazine, I decided to share my thoughts about the Moynihan Report. The report, written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was released by the Office of Policy Planning and Research in March of 1965. It read like racial propaganda, and billed itself as an exposé on the tangle of pathology in the black community.

“The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

What a title. And the national action really meant widespread criticism. And mass incarceration. It made poverty a social problem rather than a consequence of capitalism. And the origin of this problem? Black women.

Nearly a quarter of Negro women living in cities who have ever married are divorced, separated, or are living apart from their husbands…Nearly one quarter of Negro births are now illegitimate…Almost one fourth of Negro families are headed by females.

The majority of these women worked as domestics. Even now domestic workers are often the primary wage-earners in their families. In Moynihan’s view we should be asking what these women did to run off their husbands. My only questions is always…how the hell do we expect anyone to support a family on the meager wages offered to those workers who allow all other laborers to work. Including those few unicorn-like magical nuclear families. How one can both depend on and shame a person at the same time I will never understand. But alas…white supremacy.

But what bothers me most about the Moynihan report is this idea that black women are inherently overbearing and emasculating. You know like Mammy in Gone With the Wind.

hattie mcdaniel

She is also having too many children too early and is entirely dependent on welfare. [See expression on Mammy’s face above for my commentary here.]

And like Mammy, this is all fiction. Recently, the Center for Contemporary Families completed a study that demonstrated that single-parent homes are not predictions of increase in juvenile crime or inequality. In my experience, black families are hardly ever nuclear. The simplistic configuration of mother and father and children just doesn’t compute. Not to mention, I know a significant number of black folk who were raised primarily by single mothers. No one seems to be blaming her for their poverty. Or thinking of her as anything less than superhuman in the way that she managed to feed, nurture, teach, and discipline oftentimes without rest, food, or nurturing for herself.

I teach the full Moynihan Report in my Black Women in the US class. These conversations never fail to disturb me. At a university made up largely of people of color, people who have certainly been impacted by the violence of this narrative, I was shocked the first time I facilitated this discussion. My students agreed. There was something wrong with our community and it was our job to fix it. Women do take advantage of the welfare system, they said. Women were having too many children without knowing who their fathers were. And black fathers were abandoning their families in large numbers and ending up in prison.

I took this, of course, as a teachable moment and dedicated as much time as I needed to unpack these things with my students. But it still stung. Those welfare-dependent women, those irresponsible fathers, those niggas in jail not able to take care of their families…they are related to me. They have names. And I love them deeply. And I struggled with the need to defend them, to acknowledge my own lucky life blessings, and to make my students understand that as much as they respect me I am the product of the cancers they see in our community. I’m pretty sure I told them as much. And I have told students the same thing over and over again. But I leave my sadness, my defensiveness, my anger, my frustration, my disappointment, and my desperation at the door. Only to resurrect them here, in a stream of consciousness post about the Moynihan Report, from the cutting room floor.


In Which I Speak Frankly About Sex Work

The most interesting aspect of my research, and the one detail I want to explore more, is the proximity between sexual labor and domestic work. Most analyses of this proximity are simplistic at best. The dangers of sexual assault at the hands of employers are commonly expressed in black women’s accounts of domestic work.

From a theoretical perspective, I wonder to what extent sexual labor is reproductive labor. And what role does it play in bolstering white supremacy? Like domestic work, it’s cultural impact extends beyond the kind of oppression associated with domestic labor as wage labor. But like domestic work as wage work, sexual labor gets exchanged in the kind of market that represents the fulcrum of black women’s oppression.

For example.

Think Progress recently published an investigation concerning women in Baltimore who were forced to trade sex for basic repairs at Gilmor Homes, the same housing complex where Freddie Gray lived before he was murdered. Nineteen women accused employees of the Baltimore housing authority of widespread sexual abuse.

Coverage of the affidavit (filed in September) focuses on the vulnerability of the women, the tragedy of poverty I suppose. Descriptions of the life-threatening living conditions of Gilmor Homes. Mold, lack of heat, rodent infestations, etc. Even the complaint filed exclaims, “These affronts are about power and control over the most vulnerable members of society, including the poor, the young, and the disabled.”

There is something about this language that bothers me. Let me (try and) explain. During the Depression domestic and sex workers exchanged their labor for wages in the public square. We all know about what street corners mean to sexual laborers. But domestic workers also waited on corners, called “slave markets,” for a white woman to come and offer them a days work. Both groups of women were described as being forced to the point of desperation. And even though sex workers made slightly more money, they were shamed while domestic workers were pitied. The public conversation about domestic work was more focused on the proximity of the exchange of labor for wages to prostitution, than the conditions of domestic work itself, including nonconsensual sexual harassment from employers.

So let’s go back to this Think Progress headline: “Women in Baltimore Public Housing Were Forced to Trade Sex for Basic Repairs.” Nothing about women in public housing being forced to live in inhumane conditions. We can look the other way when people are forced to live in conditions not fit for any human being. But to reduce them to “common prostitutes?” Heaven forbid! Now we care. When we can no longer look the other way.

And what of sex workers in this equation? Shamed. Criminalized. But not treated as workers or deserving of rights. Symbols of women’s degradation. Even when the work is work that they chose to do.

In all cases, questions of consent are complicated at best. It’s not a question of whether women are forced into sexual labor because of poverty or agency. Sometimes it’s both/and. Or neither. And what happened in Baltimore isn’t really about sex work at all. But these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor. And sometimes they don’t make sense. Even to me.


Bonus Post!

I’ve been doing pretty well on this weekly post thing. No excuses so far about not writing enough or being distracted. Don’t judge me for patting myself on the back three weeks into the new year. I’m proud of myself!

Anyway, I think I mentioned before that I am working on this awesome project called Newest Americans, in which some of my favorite colleagues from Rutgers meditate on our city. Newark, a city of transplants.

The newest issue is all about the history of University Heights. And my contribution comes from several conversations with my friend Greg about his Aunt Theo, who is, of course, a domestic worker. Read it here. And while you’re at it check out the rest of the issue. We’re really proud of it.

Domestic Workers in the American Imagination…and in mine.

Today I’ve been working on a literary lesson plan on black minstrel tropes. Lesson planning always has me in my feelings. Particularly when it comes to images. Grappling with what people see in their minds when they think of black women…it’s maddening. And that all starts with mammy.

But when I think of mammy, I think of this:

betye saar

This is “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” by artist Betye Saar. And it’s the shotgun that resonates with me the most. Every time I see mammy’s apron, I imagine she has one hidden underneath.

The reality is something much more mundane. Like women waiting on a Bronx street corner for a white employer to come along and offer them a day’s work.

slave market

Or a black maid adding the finishing touches to a cake.

dw icing a cake

But this is not the image America comes up with in her mind. She thinks of someone like Mammy Jane, who never had kids of her own but gave her life to the white children in her care.

mammy jane

“My old black mammy.” Who never had a name. But she was mine.

my old black mammy

She remembers Aunt Jemima…sans shotgun. And she remembers her fondly.

aunt jemima advert

I wish she would forget. I wish she would replace her old mammy with the dignified faces of the women who occupy my imagination. The ones who stash money in coffee cans to see their children’s smiling faces on Christmas morning. The women who wash and iron until their hands are tired to make sure that their families eat. The ones who are heavy handed with the pepper to keep the Mrs. out of the kitchen. The women who carry shotguns hidden in their aprons. This is all wishful thinking of course…I mentioned that I was in my feelings right? Ah well. I suppose my fantasies of revolution will remain on the cutting room floor…for now anyway.



Profiles in Black History: Georgia Gilmore

“The maids, the cooks, they were the ones that really and truly kept the bus running…And after the maids and the cooks stopped riding the bus, well, the bus didn’t have any need to run”

-Georgia Gilmore, on the Montgomery Bus Boycott

The best part of black history for me is learning about ordinary women who did extraordinary things. Georgia Gilmore was one such woman.

Georgia Gilmore

At the time of the boycott she was the mother of six, and worked as a maid, a cook, and a nurse. When the boycott started she founded what was known as The Club from Nowhere, a group of domestic workers who made and sold sandwiches, cakes, and pies to raise money for the movement. They donated more money to the Montgomery Improvement Association week after week than anyone else. And only Ms. Gilmore knew the masterminds behind the collective’s success.

The name of the collective was meant to shield members from scrutiny from employers. But it couldn’t save Ms. Gilmore. She was eventually fired for her involvement in the movement.

So she turned her kitchen into a restaurant and meeting place. Because…black women.

I spend a lot of time thinking about mundane spaces like kitchen tables and their pivotal role in movement building. Places like barber shops, and front porches, public transportation, and beauty salons. These were the only places where domestic workers could congregate. Otherwise they worked in isolation.

My own politics were developed from these kinds of spaces. In my grandmother’s living room, as she crocheted. Over meals at bars with those who have lived much longer than me. At the breakfast bar in my parent’s house, which allowed me to be close but not in the way. Here I learned about my own black identity from women with far less formal education than I have, but more wisdom than I could ever imagine.

A local pastor in Montgomery remembered Ms. Gilmore as a woman who had no formal education but she had something he called mother wit. Mother wit can design a movement that will change history. They would never teach black children that in school. If they did the world would look different.

People in Montgomery still remember Ms. Gilmore. Most of all, they remember her cooking. I suppose that’s the thing that made her exceptional among black women. Her steadfastness, her strength, her refusal to take oppression sitting down, that was par for the course. It’s the one thing every woman in my family has in common. Perhaps that’s how it ended up on history’s cutting room floor.

Allow Me to (Re)Introduce Myself

Posted on

On paper I am Shana A. Russell. I’m an academic. Well, I like to think that I’m more than an academic. The kind of academic that is full of both facts and feelings. The facts are all in the dissertation. The feelings are buried somewhere here on this blog. I think.

In theory, I have been writing since I was twelve. It started with poems and short stories. I wanted to write in a way that words made me feel. I don’t know that I cared what was being written about. But how it was being written. Rather it was Shakespeare or Hurston, I studied the order the words were in. What they meant. Their multiple meanings. Sentence structure. Punctuation. It was art to me.

In college I learned that there was an art to writing about things that have already been written. Discovering words in dusty books in basement libraries. I learned there was a whole world of things I knew nothing about. And somewhere in my mind I thought that everyone would want to know too.

I treated my college papers like great masterpieces that had yet to be written. My mother thought as much. My professors thought they were ambitious at best. Overdone at their worst. So they rightly sent me to grad school.

Now that this whole PhD thing is over, no one is making me write anymore. But I do anyway. Here. Because I want to remind myself that I’m not just an academic. I don’t want to write theory. I want to write the kind of words that made me feel the way I felt when I first started reading.

But this time it matters what I write about. This time I realize that I’m pretty good at telling stories. And the best stories are about ordinary people.

In actuality my love of stories started with Josephine Emma-Bell Weldon. She was my maternal great-grandmother. Everyone called her nanny. She was a preacher’s wife. She took care of just about everyone in my family. And she was a domestic worker.

I never met her. But my mother said once that Nanny would have known how to love me better than she did sometimes.

As a break from researching I spent hours on the phone with my mother asking her questions about Nanny. What she did. What her work was like. Who she worked for. What she did for fun. It’s a bedtime story that isn’t quite finished yet. One that I hope never ends.

When people ask me about my research I should tell them that I study literature and women and blackness and class. Sometimes I give them this cocktail speech. But most of the time I tell them about Nanny. And other women like her. Aunts and grandmothers of friends or strangers I met at bars. The everyday women of the  Montgomery Bus Boycott who were interviewed in newspapers. All black women who worked as domestic workers and whose names no one knows.

I tell their stories. And people smile. And laugh. They are surprised and intrigued. Occasionally relieved. Relieved to know that the women they revere, the ones that make them who they are, were not passive victims of history.

I wondered if I could write those feelings down. Facts reserved for scholarly writing. Feelings here. Both things that make me who I am as an academic and a writer. So, allow me to (re)introduce myself: I am Shana A. Russell and these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor.


2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

It’s been quite a year for me. I finished a PhD. I learned a lot of new things about the history of domestic work in my family. I traveled to three countries. I read for pleasure. I published 15 blogs on this site. And, more importantly, my musings about domestic workers became a part of an amazing media collaboratory, a project we call The Newest Americans.

But even more than that I witnessed domestic worker activists make history over and over again. I am awed by their hard work, dedication, steadfastness, and most importantly the pride and dignity with which they do this hard but important work for women, workers, and migrant families all over the world.

I witnessed a dynamic conversation surrounding Ai Jen Poo’s new book, The Age of Dignity. It’s a short book that tells a big story about the central role played by elder caregivers in the health and wellness of our society.

I share in the celebration as Oregon and Connecticut became the next two states to pass legislation guaranteeing labor rights for domestic workers.

This year, over a hundred domestic workers marched one hundred miles to bring attention to the need of immigration policies that support women and families. Side note: they are advocating for “common sense immigration policies.” Brilliant.

These historic moments are being created and facilitated by working women of color. The everyday women in families like mine whose names we may never know, but whose work we all benefit from.

I am always honored to be asked to participate in this important discourse about domestic work in any small way. The experience is always transformative and I am consistently reminded that their story is my story. Its our story. Because these are the women that make all other work possible. They  make us who we are. Literally. When they win, we win.

Inspired by their relentless journey to justice, and by several conversations I’ve had this year with those wiser than me, in 2016, I pledge to write more. Not for academic credentials. Or for visibility. But for the women in my family who have taken this lifelong journey and are unafraid to share their stories with me. For the scholars I revere, people like Mary Romero and Premila Nadasen, who have spent their entire careers researching and writing about domestic workers and lending their support to the movement in any way they can.

But most importantly for me. Because I need to write in order to understand. So here’s to a new year of blogging. (Once a week…I promise…really…I put it in my google calendar.) And to remaking these thoughts into something more powerful than the cutting room floor.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 654 other followers