Who Tells Our Stories?

While there are many cringe-worthy moments in The Help (and I do mean many), the one that bothers me the most is when central character Aibileen says to her fellow domestic worker and friend Minny: “We ain’t… we ain’t doing civil rights here. We just telling stories like they really happen.” There is no such thing as “just telling stories” for black women. Storytelling is always a political act.

I started thinking about this a couple weeks ago while speaking on a panel in conjunction with the Jacob Lawrence exhibit that recently closed at MOMA. The event, which was sponsored by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, brought together scholars and domestic worker activists to talk about the contemporary domestic worker rights movement as a continuation of an intergenerational  legacy of domestic worker organizing.

The event began with a guided tour of the One Way Ticket exhibit, a celebration of Jacob Lawrence’s series of 60 paintings documenting the Great Migration, which he completed in 1941. Like most histories of the migration, the series focused on black men leaving their families and heading north in search of work. Women, in this story told by a black man who never traveled south, were those left behind.

And so, I thought, who tells our stories?

In Jacobwasherwoman Lawrence’s narrative, “The female workers were the last to arrive North.” This is the caption to #57 in the series. The only panel that shows a black woman in the absence of family. It is no accident that she is a domestic worker.

In reality, young, single, black women took the storied migration in large numbers. Enough to warrant what Hazel Carby calls a “moral panic.” Entire institutions, organizations, and government committees were created to protect these naive, unmarried women from the influence of vice and the pull of the urban underground.

But again, it depends on who you ask. Like I said, “Who tells our stories?”

Did I mention that the docent giving us our private tour was a white woman? Which I guess shouldn’t matter. Until she started telling her version of the Scottsboro boys incident in a way that made it sound a lot like an unfortunate accident. My version would have sounded something like, “Those white women managed to sentence black boys to death with their lies.” But I guess that’s why I don’t work at MOMA.

Which just goes to show, “Who tells our stories?”

In her defense, our tour guide did a wonderful job keeping cool in the face of my incessant questioning. My apologies to any museum tour guide who has ever been tasked with giving a guided tour to a historian.

After the tour we headed back to a fancy meeting room for the panel, which included myself, Premilla Nadasen, a history professor at Barnard (whose amazing book, Household Workers Unite! is one that you should definitely read…no seriously), Allison Thompson Julien, from NDWA, and Ligia Guallpa, from the Workers Justice Project. And, as always, an engaged and vocal audience of domestic workers and activists.

Early on in the conversation, Allison mentioned this idea of taking the conversations that happen among domestic workers in places like parks, “beyond the park bench.” These stories, she argued, paved the way for legislation. They help domestic workers build community.

I watched, during the question and answer portion, as worker after worker started telling her own story. As they called each other sister and began building right where we were. In this room on the basement floor of MOMA. With corporate chairs and a table in the back with art projects for those who brought children with them.

One woman, who worked in the field for over two decades, wanted to know what kind of wage she should ask for in light of this new legislation. Another wanted to know how domestic workers could organize as well as employers do. “How can we be as creative in our organizing as they are in their oppression of workers?” Another worker used the space to express pride in her profession and the importance of dignity and pride to domestic worker organizing.

As the panel completed, many women came up to me and thanked me for my small contribution, before sharing even more of these stories with me one on one. In these spaces with scholars and activists, I take pleasure in moving out of the way and watching the collective narrative take place.

But Premilla and I are a part of this story too. I introduced myself, as I always do, as the daughter of four generations of domestic workers. And she similarly shared the history of domestic work in her family. We did this not to add some sort of legitimacy to our work. But to express that this story is our story too. And if we really think about the impact that domestic workers have on every aspect of American life, it’s everyone’s story. And yet, depending on the storyteller, it somehow ends up on the cutting room floor.

Yet on this particular day, it didn’t. And it was something truly powerful and beautiful and right.

Domestic Worker, Domestic Worker, Domestic Worker, Domestic Worker, Doctor: Conversations with my Mother From the Cutting Room Floor

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 Defense pic2committee.

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.

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.