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.