900 Square Feet of Hidden Hope: A Photography Series by Xyza Cruz Bacani

[Insert excuses for irregular blogging here]

There is an idea floating around among people who study domestic work that *we* are uncovering the reality of a hidden form of labor. As a historian, that’s a little difficult for me. You see, in New York City during the Depression there was this little thing known as the Bronx Slave Market. At the market, on the corner of 167th and Jerome, black women, in their uniforms with bag lunches in tow, would congregate, and wait for white women (and occasionally white men) to come and offer them a pittance of a wage for a days work.

While the actual work happened in private homes, the marketplace for this labor happened in public. The economic (and racial…and gendered) exploitation of these women was readily on display. It was unmistakeable. Which leads me to believe that sometimes we call the things we refuse to see “hidden” as a way of protecting ourselves.

Today, the exploitative and oppressive conditions of domestic work around the world are much easier to keep secret, thanks, in part, to underground networks of forced migration and the internet…a different kind of marketplace that allows for more efficient exchange of bodies for capital.

And out of this kind of invisibility, there emerges a community of folks (investigative journalists, academics, non-profits, politicians, etc.) who seek to lift the veil on the “secret underground world of domestic labor” and the abuse against the women who do it. This is not meant to dismiss the harsh reality and the heinous violence that domestic laborers endure. It is, however, meant to demean those who are determined to speak for household laborers (or any worker really), as opposed to speaking to (or even through as artists sometimes do), the women who actually do the work. And, as I hope this blog has demonstrated, women who are more than capable (and much better at) speaking for themselves.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog: the visual series 900 Square Feet of Hidden Hope, a project by photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani documenting the women of the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Shelter in Hong Kong, a refuge for domestic workers, particularly victims of abuse from employers. The shelter provides housing, meals, counseling, legal guidance, and, most importantly, community.

What matter to me is that Bacani is also a domestic worker. The commentary she provides for each photograph uses language that reiterates the fact that she is helping us to visualize a community of which she is a part. Her photos are both a representation of the subjects of each picture, but also a sort of self-fashioning of her own identity as a worker and an activist.

Many of the subjects of Bacani’s photographs are Filipina and Indonesian women. I have talked about these migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong in a previous post. In many ways this series is the counter-discourse to that analysis of the representation of domestic work in Hong Kong. But Bacani brings so much more to the narrative than I could ever capture in words through pictures.

I first came across the series in an article I stumbled upon on twitter. The author of this article (and others like it) was interested in one woman in particular, Shirley, who suffered third degree burns to much of her body after her employer burned her with a boiling pot of soup. The article posited the series as documenting “modern slavery” and abuse of domestic workers in Hong Kong, and talks extensively about Shirley’s case.

Why is it so hard for us to simultaneously affirm the impact of oppression and the multitude of ways that we cope and resist? This is something that Bacani does beautifully. The moments she captures create such a robust narrative.

One photograph depicts a Muslim woman praying on a makeshift prayer mat. The underlying text explains that Bethune is an interfaith community. Another subject, Vanjo, is lesbian. Her photograph is an opportunity for Bacani to address the inclusivity of Bethune House as it relates to sexuality and sexual identity.

Other photographs in the series show the women cooking together, sharing meals, giving each other comfort during what is called a “sharing session,” singing Christmas songs, taking care of children, and even participating in a labor day protest.

I don’t know…maybe I’m being naive or idealistic. But when I think of the women in my family, representing four generations of domestic workers, I don’t want the exploitation of their labor or an image of them as victims to stand alone.


Though there are several photographs of Shirley depicting the burns on her body, this one is my favorite. It’s a photo of Shirley as she prepares for the case against her employer. There’s something so compelling about it. And for me, it illustrates that the Hidden Hope that Bacani describes in the title of her series is not an abstract hope. It is one that the women of Bethune House create for themselves and work towards daily.

Images of domestic workers have fascinated me for some time now. Maybe one day I will write more about it. In the mean time (and I say this with so much gratitude to Bacani for the work that she does and with the knowledge that I will come back to it soon), it remains here…on the cutting room floor.

Good Reads: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Recently a friend of mine got his hands on a copy of Toni Morrison’s newest novel, God Help the Child. On the second page, he came across the following quote, which compelled him to pass the novel along to me:

My mother was housekeeper for a rich white couple. They ate every meal she cooked and insisted she scrub their backs while they sat in the tub and God knows what other intimate things they made her do, but no touching of the same Bible.

I promise not to spoil the novel, but I found Morrison’s subtle use of domestic work in a novel about colorism really fascinating. At the center of the narrative is the protagonist, Bride, a stunning and successful dark-skinned woman with a complicated relationship to her light-skinned mother, who is, frankly, repulsed by her daughter’s dark complexion. Bride is the founder of YOU, GIRL: Cosmetics for Your Personal Millennium, which adds so much dimension to Morrison’s framework for talking about melanin.

The passage quoted above concerns Bride’s grandmother. There is something so interesting about what domestic work does for the way we understand the social dynamics of history. The intimacy required to do care work exposes the absurdity of American racism and the flimsiness of these social boundaries. A few pages later we learn that Bride employs a domestic worker, but she is (we are?) so disconnected from that history.

As different as I am from the novel’s protagonist, I found myself identifying with her in a lot of ways. I suppose I am a young professional (though not crazy about the label). I am single, childless, and I live alone. It is really tough to make time to take care of myself and my house. Based on this set of circumstances, it wouldn’t be out of the question for me to elicit the services of a housecleaner.

But the idea makes me so uncomfortable because of the history of domestic workers in my family. I know that domestic work is real work and nothing to be ashamed of. I know from my experience with organizers that what matters is that I am paying a fair wage, allowing ample time for breaks and days off, ensuring that my home is a safe environment to work in, respecting the work as skilled work, and making arrangements for insurance or workman’s comp if necessary. (Yes I have thought about this.)

At the same time, I would be lying if I said that I would not be absolutely unsettled by the idea of another woman (who would more than likely be a woman of color), cleaning up after me or cooking for me. One the one hand, based on everything I know, this seems silly.

But putting things into perspective, learning to do these things (cooking, cleaning, etc.) and taking pride in them is a huge part of intergenerational bonding among women in my family. It is almost sacred. For instance, my mother visited recently and taught me some recipes of hers. We were together in the kitchen, drinking wine while she regaled me with stories about learning the ways of the world (and the kitchen) from her grandmother.

I ardently reject the idea that women should feel compelled to take on the burden of keeping house (recognizing that this, in and of itself, is a reflection of a heteropatriarchal family model that is a reality for some but not for me). But whenever I step into the kitchen, begrudgingly or otherwise, I honor this legacy and my relationship to the women in my family. So their care work is simultaneously that which they did for white families, but also for me. And I can’t imagine giving the duty of keeping my own house to someone else, even if it would save me loads of time and headaches.

The difference between Bride and me, then, is that she does not have this intimate and emotional connection to her mother. Like I said, her mother was repulsed by her dark skin, and Bride, in turn, eventually becomes repulsed by the sight of the woman she employs. She fires the woman, explaining:

I could no longer stand the sight of her–fat, with cantaloupe breasts and watermelon behind.

Morrison places this internal dialogue in the narrative in passing and without commentary. But understanding the context of colorism that underlies the novel, I imagine this is what her mother sees in Bride’s future when she lays eyes on her first born for the first time. Thus her disgust could be her hatred of self. And all of this is accomplished by these varying (and very subtle) images of domestic workers.

Its been a long time since I have been able to read something for pleasure. I was not expecting for this to cause such an introspective reading experience. But Toni Morrison does it again. Maybe one day I will write about her and the way she thinks about care work in her novels. It has been a consistent part of her clever and well researched verisimilitude. But for now my thoughts about God Help the Child  will remain here…on the cutting room floor.

Congratulations Connecticut!

Connecticut has taken the first step in guaranteeing rights for domestic workers. This week the Connecticut Domestic Worker Bill was passed by the House of Representatives and is on its way to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law. Connecticut will now join New York, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii in providing labor protections to domestic workers across the state.

What is particularly interesting about this bill is that in addition to basic labor protections the bill includes provisions for addressing sexual assault and discrimination.

I am continuously humbled by the work of domestic worker activists, who are working state by state to guarantee rights for this important workforce. Their stamina is ridiculous. I know that they will not stop until domestic workers all over the country are protected. And I will stand with them until this happens.


Eat at Mammy’s Kitchen…in 2015

It’s been a while. My dissertation has been keeping me from blogging. Or blogging has been keeping me from my dissertation. Not sure. Either way. Here I am.

A few weeks ago some friends of mine were on a road trip to Myrtle Beach when they came upon Mammy’s Kitchen. Today it looks like this.


But when it was founded in 1953, a visit to Mammy’s would have looked something like this:


I hope you realize by now that I cannot possibly make any of this up. I can also not make up the fact that Mammy’s Kitchen is wildly popular.

The restaurant’s website explains that the original image was of Aunt Jemima, but this was, of course, a violation of copyright laws so they were forced to change it. Side note: I will never get used to the idea that you can copyright a person. An actual person. Without having to pay her anything.

But, as usual, I digress. I cannot imagine calling up my friend and saying, “Hey girl! Are you hungry? Let’s go over to Mammy’s and get something to eat.” In 2015.

This is supposed to be some kind of historical relic. The kind historians like me collect. Like this one:

me and the jolly bankThis is an original Jolly Nigger Bank. Made in the 19th century. The kind that they stopped making in the 1950s, about the same time that Mammy’s was opened. Notice how curiously I am looking at it. It is something to be remembered, placed in its proper historical context, and studied.

No one should be eating at a place called Mammy’s Kitchen in 2015. Well no one should eat at a place called Mammy’s ever…but now it sticks out like some clever metaphor for illustrating absurdity that I am not witty enough to know.

Unsurprisingly the restaurant’s web designer or public relations person or underpaid intern seems unfazed by the restaurant’s bizarre and overtly racist history and present. They even boast that couples have met and married at Mammy’s Kitchen. Um…what?

What baffles me is that there is no conceivable reason why this restaurant should be called Mammy’s Kitchen. It is an unremarkable menu of run of the mill southern staples. It’s almost as though the idea of mammy preparing the food automatically makes it taste better. I will never be as good a cook as my mother but maybe a headscarf and blackface could change all that.

But seriously, what lies behind this ridiculous restaurant is the assumed natural servitude of black women. Many restaurants market themselves as a replacement for home cooking, exemplified by both the menu and the ambiance. Think Cracker Barrel. A place that has managed to capitalize on kitschy Americana without the blatant racism. (At least in their imagery. Not so much as far as their politics are concerned.)

At mammy’s kitchen, however, “just like home” means a happy darky making those soul food specialties for white consumption. I can assure you, I have read hundreds of interviews with domestic workers, and talked to dozens more in person, and not a single one has ever expressed joy when describing the laborious process of cooking for a family that is not their own. In fact, most of their descriptions were far more…colorful.

If my dissertation were a more creative piece of ambitious prose I would dare to say that there is nothing more American than mammy. She is the center of Americana, right alongside racism, capitalism, baseball, and apple pie. But I promised myself that mammy would never grace the pages of my academic writing. That space is reserved for the real women who labored in America’s kitchens; women like my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. So mammy (and her kitchen) remain here, on the cutting room floor.

Note: One half of the aforementioned road trip that brought Mammy’s Kitchen to my attention is a long time friend from college who also blogs over at evolvingfatshionista.com. If you like comic books, or beauty, or fashion, or witty writing about the woes of retail and happen to be the size of of a human being instead of an American Apparel model, check her out!

Ruining National Pancake Day

ihopToday marks the tenth anniversary of IHOP’s National Pancake Day. Head to just about any IHOP today and enjoy free buttermilk pancakes as the company solicits donations for the Children’s Miracle Network! Did I mention free pancakes?

While this is a noble undertaking, historical context does have a way of ruining our joy now doesn’t it? Even free pancakes.

During the first half of the twentieth century, there was a National Pancake Festival that was sponsored by Quaker Oats, the owners of the Aunt Jemima franchise. Similar concept but with even more fan fair. Representatives from the company would go to places like children’s hospitals and Kiwanis clubs to make pancakes for everyone and raise money for charity. There was even a Pancake Princess! And races at Disneyland! It was a nationwide celebration of deliciousness for a good cause!

Have I ruined it yet?…No?

Well, it seems I left out one important detail. The center of these celebrations was Aunt Jemima herself, who made appearances all over the country.

Wilson at KiwanisHere is Aunt Jemima (real name: Edith Wilson) at the Kiwanis Club where she, I am sure, gleefully served pancakes and sang songs with the Pancake Princess, who, in every photo that I’ve seen, is always a blonde white woman.

Looking at archival photos, I cannot put into words how incredibly unsettling it is seeing the happy, doting Aunt Jemima, the only black person among a sea of white faces. Even on a day of giving and service, an apron and a handkerchief manage to cement in our imaginations this belief that black women are born and bred to serve.

And in case that is not disturbing enough for you, those races at Disneyland I mentioned? Yeah. People raced while dressed as Aunt Jemima.

pancake races

Your eyes are not deceiving you. The above image is, in fact, a group of white housewives dressed as Aunt Jemima running through the streets of the happiest place on earth.


I hope that you can still enjoy your free pancakes. I mean that sincerely despite my usual tone of sarcasm. Just remember the labor it takes to make this happen. Some overworked and underpaid cook at IHOP will make thousands of pancakes today. And your server has, no doubt, been standing on her feet for hours without so much as a break between tables.

So, give to charity if you feel so inclined. But, more importantly, remember to tip well and recognize that free pancakes happen at someone’s expense. Rather its Aunt Jemima or your local IHOP employee.

And now that it has been sufficiently ruined, I leave National Pancake Day here on the cutting room floor. At least until next year.

A Scholar of Domestic Workers Walks Into a Bar

Last night, as a writing break, I headed to my favorite watering hole for a beer. While there, an old friend came in and introduced me to his significant other. The usual first meeting conversation ensued. Proud friend tells boyfriend that I am working on a PhD. Boyfriend asks what its about. Cue cocktail party dissertation description.

A middle-aged man nearby overhears the conversation and seems interested. He begins asking me lots of questions about my work. He seems weirdly confrontational. Asking questions like “Where are you going with this?” and “What is your argument about exploitation exactly?”

I kept asking for clarification. Because domestic workers not having the labor rights afforded to all other workers seems pretty self explanatory to me as it relates to exploitation.

I should also say that this was a black man. He asked what I thought about domestic workers since they look like him and me. I said that was the motivation behind the dissertation to begin with. This is my history as a black woman.

Then the unimaginable happened.

He pulls out a debit card for a business. His business. A home healthcare business.

It was a dramatic move on his part. He seemed disappointed that I was unfazed. But this elicited more questions than answers. I asked him if most of his employees were women? To which he responded, “I am the one asking the questions here! I am just an ignorant black man.”

At this point I started feeling angry and patronized. I hate feeling patronized. I was being put in a position to justify my work, in a sense to justify domestic worker activism in general. In academic spaces this is to  be expected. It is the responsibility of a scholar. But in this situation I couldn’t help but think: no sir, you should be the one on the defensive here.

I asked whether or not he paid his workers minimum wage. (Which, as a reminder, he is NOT required to do by law). He said they were happy with whatever he paid them. Took that as a no.

I couldn’t help but notice the gendered dynamic of the conversation. His sarcasm as he exclaimed that he was just an ignorant black man. The lack of recognition of my scholarly credibility all while refusing to accept accountability as one who employs domestic workers.

I left feeling frustrated, angry, and defeated in a way. I think this is a byproduct of the emotions of writing a dissertation that one feels so passionately about. You become really attached to the subject matter. You might even write a blog about it even though you spend countless hours a day writing anyway.

At the same time the ideas can be ambiguous. I’m writing about history. Its over. The subjects of every chapter, except for the incomparable Esther Cooper Jackson, are dead. Its all interpretation. Until these vague ideas about misogyny and class oppression take corporeal form. And then smack you in the face with their indifference to their own role in the exploitation of women workers.

This morning I woke up and realized that I had no idea how much stamina and strength is required to advocate for domestic worker rights. Everyday the women who work in this movement face this kind of somehow justified refusal of basic labor rights and a violent indifference by employers and legislators. I do not know how they do it. But I’m glad they do.

Since it is probably uncouth to include the expletives I want to use to describe this situation in my dissertation I am happily leaving this right here on the cutting room floor.

Obligatory Black History Month Post

I have always felt somewhat indifferent about Black History Month. As a child, raised by black parents who were politically radical, I learned about black history everyday. So the cliche black history facts were never new for me.

As an adult I attended a black college and am now a scholar of black history. Not to mention I am writing a dissertation. Black history is my job. Every minute of everyday. (At least until the dissertation is done.)

I really don’t want to disparage BHM though. It has a long and important history (more on that in a second.) It’s important for young people. For instance, a friend of mine is a physics teacher at a diverse Florida charter school. As one of a disappointing few black teachers, his students asked him to incorporate black history into the month’s lessons. Yes its a problematic situation. But if children are asking to learn about things (asking…as in not complaining) and it takes a token month out of the year to inspire them to inquire about black history…well, what can you do. Gotta take what we can get.

But, what you might not know is that the founder of BHM (formerly Negro History Week), Carter G. Woodson, once wrote a powerful essay about domestic workers, entitled “The Negro Washerwoman,” where he celebrated them as the cornerstones of the black community.

I first came across the essay a couple of years ago. It was sent to me by a good friend, who I now owe my life. I have returned to the essay so many times. It is a shining light in a history that so often forgets the domestic worker and doesn’t understand her significance.

Woodson describes my purpose in writing this dissertation so eloquently:

And why should the Negro washerwoman be thus considered? Because she gave her life as a sacrifice for others. Whether as a slave or a free woman of color of the antebellum period or as a worker in the ranks of an emancipated people, her life without exception was on of unrelenting toil for those whom she loved. In the history of no people has her example been paralleled, in no other figure in the Negro group can be found a type of measuring up to the level of this philanthropic spirit in unselfish service.

What he said.

“The Negro Washerwoman” was published in 1930 in The Journal of Negro History. Woodson, as the father of the study of black history, placed domestic workers at the center of our communal American lineage. Here I am, 85 years later, attempting to do the same. It can be a daunting task. But it is so worth it.

So this year, as a way to observe BHM, I am remembering its founder and his commitment to giving the story of black women’s labor the reverence it deserves. For me, the washerwoman will never be left on the cutting room floor.