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When We Analyze Representation in the Absence of Reality

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Oh snap look at me back to posting once a week. *sips tea*

So Franchesca Ramsey has her own segment on MTV News called Decoded. The premise is essentially y’all people don’t read, stop being racist, let me break it down for you. It’s actually pretty good and necessary. The kind of thing young MTV viewers need to watch. (Insert joke about young white kids and music festivals.)

But the most recent episode engages in a conversation about representations of black women that has always bothered me.

It bothers me because I have trouble analyzing these painful stereotypes without talking about labor. Both the cultural labor done by the black women who play these characters and the real labor done by sex workers and domestic workers that these moments of pop culture claim to represent.

Ramsey starts with the Jezebel trope, which she refers to in the video’s opening as the “sexy prostitute.” She continues by (rightly) outlining the history of sexuality and rape as it relates to the context of imperialism in Africa and slavery in the United States. She continues by making reference to music videos and reality television as examples of the sexualization of black women in popular culture.

It’s not that I disagree with her. The idea of black women’s bodies being exploited for sexual pleasure is unsettling. But I worry about the sexual labor (and the women who perform said labor) getting erased in this conversation. Even in Ramsey’s video, we never hear from the women she references even though their voices are well represented in oral histories and interviews.

In this respect I am really grateful for the work of Mireille Miller-Young who teaches feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara. Miller-Young calls the work of video vixens a part of the illicit erotic economy. She so brilliantly incorporates the voices of sex workers and their analyses into a complex discourse on sexual agency and exploitation. It’s a difficult thing to do. I don’t always do it well. But I try. And it is something missing from this episode of Decoded that I noticed and couldn’t disregard.

Then, of course, Ramsey gets to the mammy figure.

She referred to the mammy as fat, old, and dark-skinned. At this point I began to itch. She related mammy’s aesthetic to her asexuality. Yes, mammy is supposed to be asexual. This is related to the history of sexual assault that domestic workers were often subject to. Sexuality is an important dimension of black women’s oppression as workers. But this doesn’t exactly come across in the whole “fat, old, and dark-skinned” description. It almost suggests that size, age, and skin color automatically mean undesirability. Not that I think this is what Ramsey intended. It’s just a sticky situation to unpack.

The video then delves into the “domestic work as the only work for black women” discourse. Again, it is true that black women were once restricted to domestic work. But it doesn’t mean that the work itself is degrading. Ramsey tackles the spectrum of black actresses from Hattie McDaniel to Octavia Spencer. They appear to be passive victims of representational oppression. But the work they do is cultural work. Both McDaniel and Spencer pay homage to the women who do the labor they represent on screen. Although they are certainly meant to be a part of the scope of media that limits black women, they represented those women workers with as much dignity and respect as they could creatively muster.

There is one thing that Ramsey says that I absolutely agree with. She argues that media plays a part in how we view the world around us. Yes. Yes. Yes. But what we don’t realize is the way that our conversations about representation get in the way of the important and urgent discourses about labor. It’s one of the biggest battles that domestic worker organizers must deal with.

Yes it’s complicated. Yes it’s difficult. But black women workers deserve as much complexity as we can give them when we are dealing with these issues. This isn’t Ramsey’s responsibility. The sharp-tongued and quick-witted nature that characterizes her critique is important for her audience. At the same time we have a responsibility to dig deeper. We can’t leave these complicated and sometimes contradictory discourses on the cutting room floor.

 

 

“White People Have So Much Dirty Laundry”: Mother’s Day Edition

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For those of you who don’t know, when I am not postdoc-ing I spend my time with a lot of poets, musicians, and artists. They are my family. I think we underestimate the important political work that these folks do. Novelists, playwrights, poets, and musicians have given me quite the education. Sometimes more than historians.

As a labor scholar, it’s important to me to recognize these folks as workers too. Author Pearl Cleague says:

You have to do it. You have to get up, think about it, go to your desk, write things down. I think you have to work in the same way that you would work at anything else. My friend Toni Cade Bambara, who was a wonderful author who has passed away now, said that she didn’t like to call herself an artist because then it made you start acting precious like you were so above everybody else, that she thought that we should call ourselves cultural workers because we were no better than people who worked in factories, no better than people who taught school, no better than people who were nurses and doctors and all of that. We were cultural workers. And I thought that was wonderful because that actually is part of what you have to do is to resign yourself to, if you don’t automatically like it, the fact of the hard work that is required to do creative work.

Today’s blog is dedicated to the stories we tell about our mothers, inspired by my new favorite indie poet Paul Tran. But before I start fan-girling I want to honor Paul Tran’s cultural work. There is rarely compensation for this kind of intellectual and creative labor. And that is an injustice.

That being said let’s get on to it. A good friend of mine couldn’t wait to share Paul Tran’s work with me upon her return from competing in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSIs) this year. Knowing how important the labor of women of color is to my work, she came to my house, sat me down, and made me watch this poem.

 

 

There are over two hundred pages in my dissertation. But Paul Tran managed to articulate trauma, violence, white supremacy, imperialism, migration, labor, and gender in under three minutes. I listened to this poem and hung on to Paul Tran’s every last word.

White people have so much dirty laundry. 

That’s exactly what being a black historian feels like. Black as in black history. Black as in me.

White people have so much dirty laundry. 

And the women of color who I write about. The women in my family. And Paul Tran’s family I imagine. These women refuse to be made invisible.

White people have so much dirty laundry.
But the women who wash their clothes and clean the dirty faces of their children aren’t it.
Paul Tran’s poem demonstrates through something as seemingly mundane as dry cleaning that sometimes women workers of color are living breathing embodiments of American imperialism’s dirty laundry. Sometimes I feel like Paul Tran and I are hanging that dirty laundry out to dry.
As I listened for the first time I realized that I know very little about Vietnamese history from this perspective. What if the grandfather of that army man who brings his uniform to your dry cleaners every week was the same man who dropped napalm on your Vietnamese community? What does it feel like to seek refuge in the country run by the same people who invented something as destructive as napalm?
At the Maid in the USA conference that inspired this blog, my friend K. shared with me that the women in her family experienced excruciating pain everyday from bending over the hands and feet of their clients at the nail salon. (By the way Paul Tran’s “#1 Beauty Nail Salon” captures this brilliantly.) I never knew this history of Vietnamese women. Thank goodness for Paul Tran and K. for sharing their mothers’ stories.
There is so much richness in the stories of everyday women. Women like Paul Tran’s mother. And mine. I wish I could tell my mother’s story with as much power and brilliance as Paul Tran does. But I admire Paul Tran as a fellow queer kid who still manages to find inspiration from the stories my mother tells me.
People might not remember the dissertation or academic book I will publish about domestic worker organizing. But I will remember Paul Tran’s words. And I will watch this poem again and again and hear something new. That, my friends, is the power of storytelling.
“This war isn’t over because she’s still gonna make you pay.”
The conclusion of Paul Tran’s poem imagines a world where the story isn’t over yet. And the quiet hero, his mother, the woman who washes white peoples dirty laundry, will get her revenge. It sort of reminds me of the work of Amira Baraka. And it’s something that cultural work can do that traditional scholars can’t. Scholarship tells you the world as it is. Art shows you the world as it could be. A world in which the Vietnamese woman who works at the dry cleaners can exact her revenge on those who decimated her community and murdered her family. A world where history gets recuperated, rewritten, and reimagined to honor the strength of the everyday women in our lives.
Here’s to Paul Tran for recovering the stories of our mothers from the cutting room floor of history, and hanging white supremacy’s dirty laundry on the line for all to see.

Queer Folks are Caregivers Too

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There is an implicit assumption that domestic work is intimately connected to marriage, monogamy, and heterosexuality. But I know a number of queer folks that also work in the field. And sometimes they do so for other queer people who are raising children. Yet, this dynamic does not change the racialized, gendered, and classed dimensions of domestic labor. As usual, I have thoughts.

Nearly half of the staff at the National Domestic Workers Alliance identify as LGBTQ. They created a caucus. And a zine. Because this movement for domestic worker rights often cuts across dimensions of difference. And as I have said before: domestic worker activists are incredible organizers.

What’s amazing about the zine is the way that a community is created for queer domestic workers around the love that other women have for their children who also identify as lgbtq. Part of the organizing that domestic workers do involves being able to tell their own stories. The whole story. And connect with each other as whole people. Organizing takes stamina. It is this kind of honest and open community that allows folks to lift each other up and support each other through what is a long and difficult journey.

While some immigrant rights groups and migrant labor activists have done a great job advocating for their queer and trans brothers and sisters, the question of LGBTQ employers is still one that troubles me. Lesbian and gay couples who employ LGBTQ care workers often replicate the language of like one of the family or appropriate the queer vernacular chosen family when they make choices regarding who to employ to care for their children.

There is something I think should be cleared up here. Your mother takes care of your children because she loves them. You friends babysit for a night because they love you. No one agrees to take care of your children five days a week, 8+ hours a day simply because they love you or your kids. Yes they may care for you and develop a close relationship with your children. But they also need to be paid fairly. And adequate time off. And some sort of plan for workplace injury and accessible healthcare.

Just because your home is an affirming place for a queer person does not make it an affirming space for that person to work.

I say all of this to say that domestic work does not always affirm our archaic idea about what families look like. All kinds of families employ care workers. They do not always bolster heterosexual family models. But the denial of basic labor rights to domestic laborers does bolster capitalism. So friends…help me leave this one on the cutting room floor by using our resources to be better employers and even better allies to domestic workers. (Hint: the right hand menu of this blog is a good start. *wink wink*)

Domestic Worker Wage Theft? There’s an App for That.

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Domestic worker activists are some of the most innovative organizers on the planet. So I was very excited to learn about a new app designed by immigrant rights activists in Jackson Heights for day laborers. The app allows users to record hours and wages, document working conditions, and identify abusive employers with a history of things like withholding compensation.

What is most important about the app is that it allows workers to do all of this anonymously. In addition to the isolation of the work, the risk associated with visibility is another barrier to domestic worker organizing. Because a number of domestic workers are undocumented, confidentiality is of the utmost importance.

And the hard work has already started. Just this week The Workers Justice Project in Brooklyn demonstrated against a woman named Jacklyn Wahba for refusing to pay her domestic worker…in front of her house. To which I say: good for them. Black women domestic worker organizers did something similar in the thirties.

The refusal to give domestic workers basic labor protections is an affront to their human rights. Even more than that, it gives employers the right to abuse those who work for them without every having to be held accountable. I support these workers in taking accountability into their own hands with this new app. And my hope is that we can leave abusive employers on the cutting room floor.

Black Women’s Work Songs

 

The other day I came across a song from 1928 by Hattie Burleson called “Sadie’s Servant Room Blues.” In it the singer laments about the low pay, long hours, and lack of privacy associated with being a domestic worker.

 

 

I have been absolutely obsessed with music since I was a kid. Music has a way of explaining things better than multisyllabic academic words. So I thought I would share some of my favorite songs about black women working.

 

1. Bill Withers, Grandma’s Hands

 

There is something deceptively simple about this song. I love it because my mother used to sing it to me. It was how I first learned about her grandmother, Josephine, who worked as a domestic worker. There is something beautiful about the fact that the same hands that ached from scrubbing also nurtured.

 

2. Oscar Brown, Jr., Brown Baby

 

Funny story: My first year of college I read Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power and she mentioned this song somewhere in the narrative completely at random. I heard the song in my head, but not in a man’s voice. I heard it in my mother’s voice. So I called her and asked her if she knew the song. And she told me she used to sing it to me as a newborn as she rocked me to sleep. It was really eerie. But sort of speaks to the significance of music to my life and my mother’s.

Although it’s not really a work song per se, I finally watched the Black Panther PBS Documentary (more on this in a later blog). I noticed those passing moments when women casually mentioned that they were working while *very* pregnant or with very young children. One woman actually said she was in labor while serving breakfast. So this song speaks to the centrality of motherhood to the revolutionary work that black women do. Imagine working for wages that you will never see. They will be paid to your children. That’s how I think about this.

 

3. Nina Simone, Pirate Jenny

 

So this song was originally written for Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Essentially, Jenny is a maid in a lowly German hotel who plots her revenge for the horrible treatment she receives by killing everyone. Ms. Simone transports Jenny to South Carolina. And suddenly it’s a completely different story. I imagine *this* Jenny as a combination between Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner. Not to mention Nina Simone’s haunting voice transforms this into Greek epic levels of triumph snd tragedy.

 

4. Lucille Bogan, They Ain’t Walkin’

 

Although the vast majority of this blog is about domestic work, I am equally compelled by the history of black women and sexual labor. There are dozens of blues songs from the early twentieth century about the oldest profession. The key to understanding this song is to know that in 1930 tricks were what we call Johns now. So the basic premise is that it’s the Depression and ain’t nobody got no money to be spending on ladies of the evening. This woman has a corner store and a meat market, but she also has mouths to feed and bills to pay. But that supplemental income she makes from streetwalking sure ain’t what it used to be. You could read a hundred books about the Depression (believe me I have). None of them will explain the feeling of poverty the way this song does. Yet, it makes sex work so matter of fact. That’s my favorite part.

 

5. Phoebe Snow, Easy Street

 

I love this song for the way it starts:

I was feeling lost and kind of ill. So I wrote to God on my last dollar bill.

There is a certain mythology about black women as superhuman. This song isn’t that. I feel like we all have moments when we wish we could just be on “Easy Street.” I imagine that the historical figures that I revere so much all have these moments. I listen to Phoebe Snow as a reminder.

 

6. Bessie Smith, Washerwoman’s Blues

 

Released the same year as Sadie’s Servant Room Blues, this song is more of a cultural commentary on domestic work. The reference to Gold Dust Twins, a brand of washing powder is particularly telling.

 

Gold-Dust-Twins-Do-It-All

 

You want me to clean up after you and then you wanna mock me in the process? If that ain’t the blues I don’t know what is.

Well there you have it folks. A soundtrack, if you will, to accompany what goes on the cutting room floor.

On Teachable Moments

I feel like I hear the term “teachable moment” more often than I’d like to lately. And it makes me cringe. But I suppose it shouldn’t since I am a teacher and “teachable moments” are my bread and butter.

But I’m also a black teacher. Who teaches about black things. And a woman. Who teaches about women’s things. So I find myself in these awkward moments where someone says something ridiculous or offensive or annoying or misguided and everyone simply waits in silence and looks at me in anticipation of a teachable moment.

In the classroom I love these moments. I love that one student who isn’t afraid to put it out there. The one who says the things that makes everyone uncomfortable yet curious. This is often a starting point to a great conversation. It hinges upon the classroom as a community and the engagement of everyone involved rather they are talking, listening, nodding, or asking questions. It’s a moment that I feel empowered to participate in and facilitate. And most importantly, I get to see it through until the end. I can make that one moment last a whole semester if I want to.

HOWEVER, there are, of course, those other moments. Those moments when you are expected to teach people who did not come to learn. These are the moments I hate. For instance:

  1. The white coworker who makes you her go to person for talking about all things black. You know the type. The one who empathized with the Civil Rights Movement™ while growing up in a town that was not in the South. The one who will more than likely vote for Bernie Sanders. This person will ask you how you feel about Cornell West, or Beyonce, or “on fleek” at the water cooler. You will complain to your other token black working friends. One of them will inevitably say that this is a teachable moment. And you will want to stomp your feet and scream: “I DO NOT WANT TO TALK TO HER ABOUT ANYTHING! I AM NOT HER BLACK FRIEND!” Just me? Oh. Okay. The point is there is no right way to tell this person that you are black and that it is uncomfortable and unnecessary for them to corner you with their curiosities about black politics or pop culture. This is because they never said I am asking you this because you are black, even though you know this to be true because you are the only black person in the office and not coincidentally the only person they talk to about anything not related to work.* And these momentary conversations always have to do with the latest trending topic on black twitter. And if I choose to make this a teachable moment I run the risk of being subject to white guilt, white tears, or accusations of being racially sensitive. Ain’t nobody got time! I have actual work to do that somebody pays me for.
  2. The black friend of a friend who says anti-black things. I often call my doctorate the people’s phd because my chosen family took this journey with me and they all know that a black history fact check is only a phone call away. But inevitably (and by that I mean more often than I would like) we end up kicking it at someone’s house or at the bar or over a meal and somebody blacks starts in on the new black talking points. What about black on black crime…race doesn’t exist…I’m not black I’m human…protesters are angry/too radical/annoying/pointless, etc. And then everyone looks at me. First for my eye roll, which I embrace, followed by awkward silence. Later, I get the interrogation. “I thought you were gonna school her.” or “How are we gonna get free if we don’t educate our people.” Something something conscious. Something something woke. It’s a teachable moment. NO FRIEND IT ISN’T. That person didn’t come to learn. They say those things because they read too many Facebook posts and not enough books.  Like me they came to eat/drink/kiki. Let me do those things in peace. And if they think these things about people in the black community for having a politic then the teachable moment will reveal how they really feel about me. Let’s not ruin anyone’s good time.
  3. The person who wants to learn, but doesn’t want to read. This person thinks of me as some sort of black history spiritual guru. They want me to tell them everything I know. Because I sound more like Drunk History on a good day than their dry and uninteresting professor. “I like talking to you, Shana, because you make history fun and interesting.” Sometimes I worry that people in my life think I was born with some sort of black power genetic mutation which implanted all this information in my head to share with them. I am also not sure how to explain how much work it takes to make me appear that way. Eleven years of higher ed. A lifetime worth of reading. Talking to my elders. Listening to my elders. An endless curiosity and a determination to find answers to every question. I realize that not everyone has the time or the privilege of putting their life on hold to go to school. And not everyone wants to be the next superstar scholar of black thought. But I cannot tell you how many times I have offered people books, from my own bookshelf, and they tell me that reading is boring. Or ask me to just tell them what it says. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that these same folks express a desire to be activists and world changers. However, if I take this as a teachable moment, then I have to break it to them that all of their (s)heroes read. Malcolm X read like five newspapers every morning. When my mother couldn’t afford books as a young person she read discarded newspapers and magazines on public transportation. Then I run the risk of being accused of some sort of ism or ruining everyone’s good time. So I’d rather not.

I say all of this as a PSA: please stop telling folks like me that everything needs to turn into a teachable moment. It doesn’t. For my students and other young folks I never get tired of teaching. It’s both my job and my passion. For that I am lucky. But grown folks? Grown folks gotta put some work in. If you want me to teach tell your people to want to learn. And sometimes I want to be a human being and just be mad and throw shade like everyone else. And with that I will leave this lengthy rant on the cutting room floor.

 

*I wish I could make this up friends. As I was writing this said coworker turned a conversation about Philip Roth into one about Amiri Baraka, her participation in a white Black Panther Party support group, and then suggested that we should all wear hijabs (which she called gojabs) in solidarity with Muslim women. All in the time it took her k-cup to finish brewing. I cannot make this up people.

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.