Welp. It finally happened. What was once the dissertation in progress is now the completed dissertation written by me: Dr. Shana A. Russell. Here I am during my dissertation defense giving my best impression of a serious scholar while getting positively grilled by my committee.
Dissertation defenses are weirdly formal exercises. One has to condense three and a half years of research and writing into a twenty-five-minute presentation that manages to summarize a set of obscure archival discoveries and display a certain intellectual rigor and ensure that one’s work is making the necessary scholarly interventions.
This leaves no time for what lies on the cutting room floor. In this case, an entire section of my research notebook that annotates five years worth of conversations with my mother about domestic workers in my family.
While I am tremendously relieved (I mean proud) that this doctorate thing is done and of the work that I did, these conversations with my mother are more powerful than multi-syllable words on a formatted page. I may write and research a whole host of things in my career. But these conversations with my mother gave our relationship new life, and my life new meaning. They were a gift to me.
One question still remains: How does a century long genealogy of domestic workers produce a doctor? While some see a black woman getting a PhD as an exceptional feat, the women in my family did more extraordinary things in everyday spaces. I can explain the implications of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, but my mother’s mother raised nine children alone.
There is something so beautiful and artistic about these conversations. When my sister got married I sat at my mother’s feet while she ironed and listened to stories about Josephine Emma Bell Weldon, my great-grandmother, whom everyone called Nanny.
Nanny was married to Reverend Alfred Cordell Weldon. She didn’t have to work. She could have just been a first lady of the the AME Church. But the women in my family depend on no one. And Nanny always said that a woman should always have a taste of change. So she worked as a domestic for a Jewish woman who lived in her building.
As Mom ironed, she explained that Nanny could make even the most modest home regal and everyone in it feel loved and cared for. Her employer had only the finest things. But Nanny treated the things in her own home exactly the same. For her taste of change she cleaned, polished silver, ironed, dusted, and set up for bridge parties. For her own family, Nanny did these things because she loved them.
As I listened to my mother, I watched her iron every piece of clothing we were going to wear for my sister’s big day. She sang. She told stories. We laughed as she remembered Nanny. I wondered if Nanny, who I never had the chance to meet, had done the same for her.
Then there was Izetta Bogess Crenshaw Weldon, Nanny’s mother-in-law. Everyone called her Gran Gran. My mother told me about her during one of our long phone conversations, after a conversation with her mother, my grandmother Vivian, inspired a new set of memories. Gran Gran lived in Horton, Kansas and worked as a domestic for the town’s only doctor. When Gran Gran returned from work each day, her husband, Crenshaw, would have her pipe waiting for her filled with her favorite flavored tobacco. Then he would wash and massage her feet in a tub.
I don’t know what Gran Gran looks like. In the depths of my mind, however, I imagine this dignified black woman, tired from a long day, smoking a pipe and looking lovingly at her husband as he nurtures her body and honors her labor as that which sustains him. I have watched other men in my family love and honor the labor of their wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters in the same way.
Then there are the stories my mother told me about herself. Mom went and worked with Nanny on the weekends at 13 or 14. Her taste of change was used to buy satin hair ribbons, socks, shoe strings, soap, candy, and soda-fountain milkshakes. While these things may seem small, I am sure they were a relief to my grandmother who took care of my mother and her siblings with barely any help.
Mom remembered that her work as a domestic was her first glimpse at another side of the city where they had beautiful things. The things she saw were the same things that she used to make a home for my father, sister, and me. But the love, pride, and dedication that shaped our home came from Nanny’s example.
My dissertation opened the door to these conversations with my mother. I realize that there is something sacred about housework in my family. My dissertation is a meditation on what domestic work was and is. These exchanges with my mother, sitting on the stool at the kitchen counter watching her cook, or at her feel while she irons, or imagining her pacing the floor of my childhood home, cleaning, and telling me stories about Nanny and Gran Gran, taught me what it means.
Most importantly, somewhere in the scattered notes of my dissertation cutting room floor is the reason that this legacy of black women, Gran Gran, Nanny, and my mother, were able to turn their love and labor into Shana A. Russell, Ph.D.