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Category Archives: Good Reads

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.



Bonus Post!

I’ve been doing pretty well on this weekly post thing. No excuses so far about not writing enough or being distracted. Don’t judge me for patting myself on the back three weeks into the new year. I’m proud of myself!

Anyway, I think I mentioned before that I am working on this awesome project called Newest Americans, in which some of my favorite colleagues from Rutgers meditate on our city. Newark, a city of transplants.

The newest issue is all about the history of University Heights. And my contribution comes from several conversations with my friend Greg about his Aunt Theo, who is, of course, a domestic worker. Read it here. And while you’re at it check out the rest of the issue. We’re really proud of it.

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.

Obligatory Black History Month Post

I have always felt somewhat indifferent about Black History Month. As a child, raised by black parents who were politically radical, I learned about black history everyday. So the cliche black history facts were never new for me.

As an adult I attended a black college and am now a scholar of black history. Not to mention I am writing a dissertation. Black history is my job. Every minute of everyday. (At least until the dissertation is done.)

I really don’t want to disparage BHM though. It has a long and important history (more on that in a second.) It’s important for young people. For instance, a friend of mine is a physics teacher at a diverse Florida charter school. As one of a disappointing few black teachers, his students asked him to incorporate black history into the month’s lessons. Yes its a problematic situation. But if children are asking to learn about things (asking…as in not complaining) and it takes a token month out of the year to inspire them to inquire about black history…well, what can you do. Gotta take what we can get.

But, what you might not know is that the founder of BHM (formerly Negro History Week), Carter G. Woodson, once wrote a powerful essay about domestic workers, entitled “The Negro Washerwoman,” where he celebrated them as the cornerstones of the black community.

I first came across the essay a couple of years ago. It was sent to me by a good friend, who I now owe my life. I have returned to the essay so many times. It is a shining light in a history that so often forgets the domestic worker and doesn’t understand her significance.

Woodson describes my purpose in writing this dissertation so eloquently:

And why should the Negro washerwoman be thus considered? Because she gave her life as a sacrifice for others. Whether as a slave or a free woman of color of the antebellum period or as a worker in the ranks of an emancipated people, her life without exception was on of unrelenting toil for those whom she loved. In the history of no people has her example been paralleled, in no other figure in the Negro group can be found a type of measuring up to the level of this philanthropic spirit in unselfish service.

What he said.

“The Negro Washerwoman” was published in 1930 in The Journal of Negro History. Woodson, as the father of the study of black history, placed domestic workers at the center of our communal American lineage. Here I am, 85 years later, attempting to do the same. It can be a daunting task. But it is so worth it.

So this year, as a way to observe BHM, I am remembering its founder and his commitment to giving the story of black women’s labor the reverence it deserves. For me, the washerwoman will never be left on the cutting room floor.

Cathy Cohen, Deviance, and Mike Brown

Working on this sex work chapter and re-reading Cathy Cohen’s fantastic article “Deviance as Resistance.” But I can’t get Ferguson off my mind. While she provides lots of theoretical fodder for this chapter regarding how to theorize sexuality and sexual labor, I can’t help but think about representation and the theorization of Ferguson. Poverty, youth, and racialism make these young resistors in Ferguson outside of the realm of the normative white nuclear family. Yet, the black respectability brigade readily participates in shaming their response to police brutality. Taking my lead from Cohen, perhaps we should listen to these young people. And find the possibility of a new black politic and a renewed theorization of resistance that clearly has historical resonance. 

Just a few thoughts from the cutting room floor. 

Sex Work Redux

Continuing my thinking about sex work I came across a section in Cynthia Blair’s book about the World’s Fair and its relationship to black women as commodities and their sexual labor. I was having a conversation with a friend recently about the way in which we use Saartjie Baartman, aka Hottentot Venus, as a reference point for all expressions of black female sexuality. As though everything we do it for the white gaze, and Saartjie is not, in fact, a real historical person. Blair’s chapter really demonstrates the power of narrative. We find the mythologized women of the World”s Fair in city guidebooks and police reports. They become stand-ins for all women. Even police reports become story books. 

Though the relationship between vice and the Fair has been documented, its what Blair does with it that is so fascinating. This is what makes a good historian. I am inspired. Ok back to writing.

Sexual Labor and Sexual Assault

On to a new chapter. This one is about sex work as reproductive labor. Sex (and more specifically sexual assault) remains a taboo in scholarship on domestic work. Even though it was so common. For this reason I am so inspired by the women who chose to give their testimony. Danielle McGuire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street, gives a great account of black women’s anti-rape activism. She mentions that black women told of being raped by white men in court, at community meetings, and even in church. McGuire uncovers a remarkable history. 

One of my favorite (which seems like an awful word to use considering the subject matter but I digress) narratives that really makes sense of the normalization of rape as a part of domestic work is Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s autobiography, From the Mississippi Delta. This book generated a lot of great discussion when I taught it in my Black Women’s History Class. My students asked a lot of great questions in spite of their visceral reactions to how raw the story is. 

But the other side of this coin is sexual labor. The same circumstances that compelled black women to do domestic work also made sex work a viable option. Analyses of both forms of labor are haunted by stigma and shame. Yet, in my view, they are great places to begin critiquing capitalism and a number authors writing during the Depression made great use of the subject symbolically. 

I had not intended to write an entire chapter on sex work. But a good friend said to me that you can’t deal with domestic work without grappling with the politics of sexuality. So I’m grappling. And its not easy. But writing feels better than conversation. Seems like we still haven’t figured out how to talk about it. 

Currently rereading, I’ve Got to Make My Livin’, by Cynthia Blair. Its a good start.