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 Jacob 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.