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Category Archives: My Story

Workers of the World Unite: From Domestic Workers to Santa’s Elves

This year was a quiet Christmas at my childhood home in Virginia with just my parents and me. Inevitably, we began reminiscing about young Shana and her hilarious ideas about Santa. I realized that when you are honest with your children about labor, wages, and money, Santa is somehow less magical. My innocent questions (and my parents’ answers) about Father Christmas reveal a lot about my current fixation with labor and workers’ resistance movements.
Like any black working class kid, my first mission was to make sense of the disconnect between common narratives of Santa Claus and my own reality. We didn’t have a chimney and my parents were pretty serious about making sure that no one came into our house uninvited, so my first question was, of course, how did Santa gain entry? Their answer: Every year we loan him a spare key to the back door. Thus, he came in via the garage, a place that I associated with my mother’s arrival from work everyday.
I’m pretty sure Santa gave me my first lesson in capitalist consumption because my second question was: How did Santa afford presents for children all over the world? I was not interested in how they got made. Or how he knew what to make for whom. I did not leave any room for Santa to wave a magic wand or sprinkle jingle dust and make toys appear. Somebody was paying for these toys and I wanted to know who.
Adult, marxist scholar Shana has even more questions. For starters, how do the elves make all these toys and never get tired? I idolized my parents as wonderful and nurturing super humans. But when I met my mother at the garage door everyday, she was ALWAYS tired.
At worst they were enslaved. At best, their status was similar to the domestic workers I’ve been studying for the last several years. Do they work in exchange for living expenses, like pre-Depression era live-in domestic laborers? Or do they live in North Pole tenements where they return to their families after working long hours for inadequate wages?

My parents’ answer? It was simple. Every year we (and all mommies and daddies) write Santa a check. He uses that money to acquire the gifts that end up under the tree. Somehow, they knew that would be a sufficient answer for me. It was THEIR labor and THEIR wages that made Christmas magical for me every year. Santa was simply a liaison.

To this day, I believe that I am entitled to love, respect, and care. That, too, comes from Paula and Charles Russell. Good behavior isn’t enough to deserve material things. Those things always come from someone’s hard work. And that work must always be compensated.
Hence my shock when I discovered in 2012 that domestic workers were not entitled to basic labor protections. A living wage is a human right, even for Santa.

With love and respect to all workers this holiday season,

Shana A. Russell (writing from the cutting room floor)

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The Prodigal Daughter Returns…Again

It was a busy summer. Busy but good. I decided about halfway through that I wouldn’t get back to blogging until September. And this post has been sitting in my draft folder since then. For the first time I couldn’t pull the trigger.

Let me back up a bit. Sometime in the middle of the summer, about the time I declared my blogging sabbatical, my father received a random email from a white woman in upstate New York via an ancestry.com account that he had long forgotten and was no longer actively using. This woman was the granddaughter of his grandmother’s employer. Yes, my great-grandma Mattie, a woman I had never heard of before, was a domestic worker.

But this time, I wasn’t the one telling the story. And that bothered me more than I knew. Hence, the whole post in the draft folder thing.

You see, my father wasn’t close to his father’s family. His familial world  began and ended with his mother, an Italian immigrant, and his father, a black GI. And so, my paternal side of the family is small. Two aunts and an uncle. Four cousins who come in boy-girl pairs. And a whole host of people whose names I don’t know and assumed I would never meet.

Mom’s side is different. She has eight siblings. And they have kids. And they’re kids have kids. And the elders…boy do they have stories. Every last reminiscent blog post or essay or talk I have given about my family comes from a combination of archival research, historical knowledge, and these first- or secondhand stories from mom. It’s a joy to make them my own.

But Mattie. This didn’t feel like a story passed down. These weren’t fond memories of extended family members. It was Mattie through a stranger’s eyes. Pictures of her holding children who weren’t her own. Her Lemon Pie recipe that had been annotated and altered by her employer. Faces of children and friends I don’t recognize.

And there isn’t a single person in my family I can call to make sense of it. To ask if they knew what Mattie liked to do outside of work. Who her friends were. Where she went to church.

But I do have an email belonging to a woman in upstate New York who I have never met.

It’s funny because even now most folks never think about domestic workers’ families. So, I find it an incredible act of humanity that this woman, sifting through her late grandmother’s scrapbooks and memoirs, thought that perhaps Mattie had a family somewhere who might not know this about her life. Who might not know that she was famous for her Lemon Pie. And she was right.

But I don’t know how to ask a stranger for stories about my family. It’s not a Saturday morning phone call with my mother. Even in archives, thanks to the magic of headphones and music, I can transform a library table into my mother’s kitchen table and sift through old photos like they are my own personal family album.

I’ve never had to ask permission. And so, another piece of writing in the draft folder. It begins:

My name is Shana. I am Charles Russell’s daughter. My father mentioned that it was okay for me to reach out to you regarding my great-grandmother Mattie. I was wondering…

I haven’t been able to finish it. But putting my feelings down here somehow feels like a step forward. Soon I will pull the trigger on that one. Once I can continue to recover from being stuck in the emotional mud. In the mean time, this marks the end of my blogging sabbatical. Gotta get back to making stories my own, rescued from 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.

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.

Allow Me to (Re)Introduce Myself

On paper I am Shana A. Russell. I’m an academic. Well, I like to think that I’m more than an academic. The kind of academic that is full of both facts and feelings. The facts are all in the dissertation. The feelings are buried somewhere here on this blog. I think.

In theory, I have been writing since I was twelve. It started with poems and short stories. I wanted to write in a way that words made me feel. I don’t know that I cared what was being written about. But how it was being written. Rather it was Shakespeare or Hurston, I studied the order the words were in. What they meant. Their multiple meanings. Sentence structure. Punctuation. It was art to me.

In college I learned that there was an art to writing about things that have already been written. Discovering words in dusty books in basement libraries. I learned there was a whole world of things I knew nothing about. And somewhere in my mind I thought that everyone would want to know too.

I treated my college papers like great masterpieces that had yet to be written. My mother thought as much. My professors thought they were ambitious at best. Overdone at their worst. So they rightly sent me to grad school.

Now that this whole PhD thing is over, no one is making me write anymore. But I do anyway. Here. Because I want to remind myself that I’m not just an academic. I don’t want to write theory. I want to write the kind of words that made me feel the way I felt when I first started reading.

But this time it matters what I write about. This time I realize that I’m pretty good at telling stories. And the best stories are about ordinary people.

In actuality my love of stories started with Josephine Emma-Bell Weldon. She was my maternal great-grandmother. Everyone called her nanny. She was a preacher’s wife. She took care of just about everyone in my family. And she was a domestic worker.

I never met her. But my mother said once that Nanny would have known how to love me better than she did sometimes.

As a break from researching I spent hours on the phone with my mother asking her questions about Nanny. What she did. What her work was like. Who she worked for. What she did for fun. It’s a bedtime story that isn’t quite finished yet. One that I hope never ends.

When people ask me about my research I should tell them that I study literature and women and blackness and class. Sometimes I give them this cocktail speech. But most of the time I tell them about Nanny. And other women like her. Aunts and grandmothers of friends or strangers I met at bars. The everyday women of the  Montgomery Bus Boycott who were interviewed in newspapers. All black women who worked as domestic workers and whose names no one knows.

I tell their stories. And people smile. And laugh. They are surprised and intrigued. Occasionally relieved. Relieved to know that the women they revere, the ones that make them who they are, were not passive victims of history.

I wondered if I could write those feelings down. Facts reserved for scholarly writing. Feelings here. Both things that make me who I am as an academic and a writer. So, allow me to (re)introduce myself: I am Shana A. Russell and these are my thoughts from the cutting room floor.

 

2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

It’s been quite a year for me. I finished a PhD. I learned a lot of new things about the history of domestic work in my family. I traveled to three countries. I read for pleasure. I published 15 blogs on this site. And, more importantly, my musings about domestic workers became a part of an amazing media collaboratory, a project we call The Newest Americans.

But even more than that I witnessed domestic worker activists make history over and over again. I am awed by their hard work, dedication, steadfastness, and most importantly the pride and dignity with which they do this hard but important work for women, workers, and migrant families all over the world.

I witnessed a dynamic conversation surrounding Ai Jen Poo’s new book, The Age of Dignity. It’s a short book that tells a big story about the central role played by elder caregivers in the health and wellness of our society.

I share in the celebration as Oregon and Connecticut became the next two states to pass legislation guaranteeing labor rights for domestic workers.

This year, over a hundred domestic workers marched one hundred miles to bring attention to the need of immigration policies that support women and families. Side note: they are advocating for “common sense immigration policies.” Brilliant.

These historic moments are being created and facilitated by working women of color. The everyday women in families like mine whose names we may never know, but whose work we all benefit from.

I am always honored to be asked to participate in this important discourse about domestic work in any small way. The experience is always transformative and I am consistently reminded that their story is my story. Its our story. Because these are the women that make all other work possible. They  make us who we are. Literally. When they win, we win.

Inspired by their relentless journey to justice, and by several conversations I’ve had this year with those wiser than me, in 2016, I pledge to write more. Not for academic credentials. Or for visibility. But for the women in my family who have taken this lifelong journey and are unafraid to share their stories with me. For the scholars I revere, people like Mary Romero and Premila Nadasen, who have spent their entire careers researching and writing about domestic workers and lending their support to the movement in any way they can.

But most importantly for me. Because I need to write in order to understand. So here’s to a new year of blogging. (Once a week…I promise…really…I put it in my google calendar.) And to remaking these thoughts into something more powerful than the cutting room floor.