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Category Archives: Popular Culture

When We Analyze Representation in the Absence of Reality

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.

 

 

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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.

Domestic Workers in the American Imagination…and in mine.

Today I’ve been working on a literary lesson plan on black minstrel tropes. Lesson planning always has me in my feelings. Particularly when it comes to images. Grappling with what people see in their minds when they think of black women…it’s maddening. And that all starts with mammy.

But when I think of mammy, I think of this:

betye saar

This is “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” by artist Betye Saar. And it’s the shotgun that resonates with me the most. Every time I see mammy’s apron, I imagine she has one hidden underneath.

The reality is something much more mundane. Like women waiting on a Bronx street corner for a white employer to come along and offer them a day’s work.

slave market

Or a black maid adding the finishing touches to a cake.

dw icing a cake

But this is not the image America comes up with in her mind. She thinks of someone like Mammy Jane, who never had kids of her own but gave her life to the white children in her care.

mammy jane

“My old black mammy.” Who never had a name. But she was mine.

my old black mammy

She remembers Aunt Jemima…sans shotgun. And she remembers her fondly.

aunt jemima advert

I wish she would forget. I wish she would replace her old mammy with the dignified faces of the women who occupy my imagination. The ones who stash money in coffee cans to see their children’s smiling faces on Christmas morning. The women who wash and iron until their hands are tired to make sure that their families eat. The ones who are heavy handed with the pepper to keep the Mrs. out of the kitchen. The women who carry shotguns hidden in their aprons. This is all wishful thinking of course…I mentioned that I was in my feelings right? Ah well. I suppose my fantasies of revolution will remain on the cutting room floor…for now anyway.

 

 

900 Square Feet of Hidden Hope: A Photography Series by Xyza Cruz Bacani

[Insert excuses for irregular blogging here]

There is an idea floating around among people who study domestic work that *we* are uncovering the reality of a hidden form of labor. As a historian, that’s a little difficult for me. You see, in New York City during the Depression there was this little thing known as the Bronx Slave Market. At the market, on the corner of 167th and Jerome, black women, in their uniforms with bag lunches in tow, would congregate, and wait for white women (and occasionally white men) to come and offer them a pittance of a wage for a days work.

While the actual work happened in private homes, the marketplace for this labor happened in public. The economic (and racial…and gendered) exploitation of these women was readily on display. It was unmistakeable. Which leads me to believe that sometimes we call the things we refuse to see “hidden” as a way of protecting ourselves.

Today, the exploitative and oppressive conditions of domestic work around the world are much easier to keep secret, thanks, in part, to underground networks of forced migration and the internet…a different kind of marketplace that allows for more efficient exchange of bodies for capital.

And out of this kind of invisibility, there emerges a community of folks (investigative journalists, academics, non-profits, politicians, etc.) who seek to lift the veil on the “secret underground world of domestic labor” and the abuse against the women who do it. This is not meant to dismiss the harsh reality and the heinous violence that domestic laborers endure. It is, however, meant to demean those who are determined to speak for household laborers (or any worker really), as opposed to speaking to (or even through as artists sometimes do), the women who actually do the work. And, as I hope this blog has demonstrated, women who are more than capable (and much better at) speaking for themselves.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog: the visual series 900 Square Feet of Hidden Hope, a project by photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani documenting the women of the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Shelter in Hong Kong, a refuge for domestic workers, particularly victims of abuse from employers. The shelter provides housing, meals, counseling, legal guidance, and, most importantly, community.

What matter to me is that Bacani is also a domestic worker. The commentary she provides for each photograph uses language that reiterates the fact that she is helping us to visualize a community of which she is a part. Her photos are both a representation of the subjects of each picture, but also a sort of self-fashioning of her own identity as a worker and an activist.

Many of the subjects of Bacani’s photographs are Filipina and Indonesian women. I have talked about these migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong in a previous post. In many ways this series is the counter-discourse to that analysis of the representation of domestic work in Hong Kong. But Bacani brings so much more to the narrative than I could ever capture in words through pictures.

I first came across the series in an article I stumbled upon on twitter. The author of this article (and others like it) was interested in one woman in particular, Shirley, who suffered third degree burns to much of her body after her employer burned her with a boiling pot of soup. The article posited the series as documenting “modern slavery” and abuse of domestic workers in Hong Kong, and talks extensively about Shirley’s case.

Why is it so hard for us to simultaneously affirm the impact of oppression and the multitude of ways that we cope and resist? This is something that Bacani does beautifully. The moments she captures create such a robust narrative.

One photograph depicts a Muslim woman praying on a makeshift prayer mat. The underlying text explains that Bethune is an interfaith community. Another subject, Vanjo, is lesbian. Her photograph is an opportunity for Bacani to address the inclusivity of Bethune House as it relates to sexuality and sexual identity.

Other photographs in the series show the women cooking together, sharing meals, giving each other comfort during what is called a “sharing session,” singing Christmas songs, taking care of children, and even participating in a labor day protest.

I don’t know…maybe I’m being naive or idealistic. But when I think of the women in my family, representing four generations of domestic workers, I don’t want the exploitation of their labor or an image of them as victims to stand alone.

Shirley

Though there are several photographs of Shirley depicting the burns on her body, this one is my favorite. It’s a photo of Shirley as she prepares for the case against her employer. There’s something so compelling about it. And for me, it illustrates that the Hidden Hope that Bacani describes in the title of her series is not an abstract hope. It is one that the women of Bethune House create for themselves and work towards daily.

Images of domestic workers have fascinated me for some time now. Maybe one day I will write more about it. In the mean time (and I say this with so much gratitude to Bacani for the work that she does and with the knowledge that I will come back to it soon), it remains here…on the cutting room floor.

Ruining National Pancake Day

ihopToday marks the tenth anniversary of IHOP’s National Pancake Day. Head to just about any IHOP today and enjoy free buttermilk pancakes as the company solicits donations for the Children’s Miracle Network! Did I mention free pancakes?

While this is a noble undertaking, historical context does have a way of ruining our joy now doesn’t it? Even free pancakes.

During the first half of the twentieth century, there was a National Pancake Festival that was sponsored by Quaker Oats, the owners of the Aunt Jemima franchise. Similar concept but with even more fan fair. Representatives from the company would go to places like children’s hospitals and Kiwanis clubs to make pancakes for everyone and raise money for charity. There was even a Pancake Princess! And races at Disneyland! It was a nationwide celebration of deliciousness for a good cause!

Have I ruined it yet?…No?

Well, it seems I left out one important detail. The center of these celebrations was Aunt Jemima herself, who made appearances all over the country.

Wilson at KiwanisHere is Aunt Jemima (real name: Edith Wilson) at the Kiwanis Club where she, I am sure, gleefully served pancakes and sang songs with the Pancake Princess, who, in every photo that I’ve seen, is always a blonde white woman.

Looking at archival photos, I cannot put into words how incredibly unsettling it is seeing the happy, doting Aunt Jemima, the only black person among a sea of white faces. Even on a day of giving and service, an apron and a handkerchief manage to cement in our imaginations this belief that black women are born and bred to serve.

And in case that is not disturbing enough for you, those races at Disneyland I mentioned? Yeah. People raced while dressed as Aunt Jemima.

pancake races

Your eyes are not deceiving you. The above image is, in fact, a group of white housewives dressed as Aunt Jemima running through the streets of the happiest place on earth.

Sigh.

I hope that you can still enjoy your free pancakes. I mean that sincerely despite my usual tone of sarcasm. Just remember the labor it takes to make this happen. Some overworked and underpaid cook at IHOP will make thousands of pancakes today. And your server has, no doubt, been standing on her feet for hours without so much as a break between tables.

So, give to charity if you feel so inclined. But, more importantly, remember to tip well and recognize that free pancakes happen at someone’s expense. Rather its Aunt Jemima or your local IHOP employee.

And now that it has been sufficiently ruined, I leave National Pancake Day here on the cutting room floor. At least until next year.

Domestic Workers: The Mysterious Women of History

Gordon Parks domestic workerEarlier this month, The New York times asked it readers to help the publication uncover the mystery of this Gordon Parks photo. Not much is known about the picture. It shows two women, in the Atlanta airport. One white. The other, black, presumably her domestic worker, holds a white child. It was taken in the Spring of 1956. Other than that, it’s a mystery.

The description above was mine. The Times chose something a little more…sensational.

The image is striking: A stone-faced African-American woman in a spotless maid’s uniform cradles a white toddler while a stylishly dressed white woman sits nearby.

Now I don’t know how much history they know over at the Times. (Which is weird since they documented most of it.) But if you understand how Jim Crow works, you know that airport waiting rooms were segregated spaces. That flying was still a luxury for the wealthy during the 1950s. And that the only way two women, one black, the other white, would be sitting next to each other at a Southern airport is if the black women was the white woman’s employee.

Oh but they are not done.

We don’t know, the author laments, what their relationship is beyond employer/employee. This is true. But the look on the black woman’s face in the picture, if I may join in the conjecture, suggests to me that the answer is…there isn’t one. Why does there have to be a relationship beyond that?

These are not the kinds of questions we would ask of any other form of labor. Why do we expect domestic workers and their employers to be any more than that. Its a fiction we have been perpetuating through pop culture for decades. And it couldn’t be further from the truth. Just because domestic workers don’t clock in at a factory…just because their work happens in the home…doesn’t mean that its anything more than work. There is an intimacy about taking care of children, and I have found that domestic workers do forge strong bonds with the children they care for (at times), but this almost never translates to a relationship with their employers beyond that which is dictated by work and wages.

But wait my friends…there’s more.

We do know it is an unusual, intimate photo of race relations and economic inequality, subjects as freighted today as they were 60 years ago when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum.

Um…what?

Unusual? Nope nothing unusual here. By 1956, nearly half of black women were still working as domestic workers. Racism…about as American as apple pie. Par for the course. Economic inequality…sort of a byproduct of capitalism. And some would argue more stark now than it was in 1956.

There is nothing extraordinary about the circumstances of the photo. The photo itself is striking from an artistic point of view. Gordon Parks was an amazing photographer. But his interest was in the everyday. There is nothing unusual about this photo. Its everyday life under the auspices of Jim Crow.

Here is what Parks’ notes say about the photo according to the article:

This image shows the continuous matter of servitude which extends into the terminal around 2 a.m. Here, a white baby is held by a Negro maid while the baby’s mother checks on reservations, etc. Although the Negro woman serves as nurse-maid for the white woman’s baby, the two would not be allowed to sit and eat a meal together in any Atlanta restaurant.

Notice how different his description is than the retrospective observations of the New York Times. It is clear to him that the black woman is a nurse maid. And it was the circumstances of her labor that intrigued him. The fact that she could so intimately care for this woman and her family, but that they could not (and probably would not) eat a meal together. The photo exposes Jim Crow as unusual. But in 1956 Atlanta, segregation was mundane.

The article ends with some observations by scholars and art critics. Then they implore readers to help them discover the story behind the photo. A story that they have already invested in. The story of employer and employee, white woman and black woman, symbols of race and class in America.

But symbolism isn’t history. I, too, am curious. I also wonder what that black woman’s name is. Where she lived. If she has a family. But if there is anything I have learned throughout the process of writing history is that stories like these inspire more questions than answers. The story between them, the one the Times is looking for, this extraordinary story of Jim Crow and class differences is a fiction. Everything we think we know about domestic labor in the popular imagination is fiction.

If I weren’t 6 weeks away from finishing this dissertation, I’d take up the Times on their challenge. After all I am curious and I do have a pension for finding the unfindable. But for now my scattered musings will remain here. On the cutting room floor.

The Unwelcome Return of Mammy

I had a pretty bad day yesterday. Like mercury in retrograde bad. So my good friend came to the rescue with a two piece and a biscuit and her hulu plus password so we could watch Empire.

Don’t judge me.

If you haven’t heard yet (or you aren’t keeping track of black twitter) Empire is a new show directed by Lee Daniels (of Precious and The Butler fame) starring Tariji P. Henson and Terrence Howard chronicling the drama that is Empire Records, a hip hop dynasty.

For you soap opera fans, its sort of like the black version of Passions. For other pop culture fanatics its like Glee meets Fame (the tv series not the movie) meets Superfly.

Again, don’t judge me.

I wasn’t planning on watching it. I’m not much of a Lee Daniels fan. Plus I don’t have cable. Or TV. Or time.

But I enjoyed it in that way that we unapologetically enjoy over the top terrible pop culture trash. At least until this happened.

In the middle of episode 2 the family sits around their lavish dining room table, in their lavish mansion, for some lavish reason. Just your average black family. (sarcasm)

Empire

Anyway, sometime during this scene a maid walks in and serves Terrence Howard something. We never see her face, only her ample back side. She is on screen for all of 5 seconds.

I immediately turn to my friend and ask: Why is Hattie McDaniel in Empire?

hattie mcdaniel

She has no business in this scene whatsoever. She does nothing to move the plot. Or even create a necessary pause in the dialogue. She says nothing. She is ambiance. Essentially she is just a symbol of how rich they are. An ornament of new money.

She is a painfully familiar trope. I found it strange that she was wearing the traditional uniform. Like the one domestic workers were once required to wear. A mark of their labor and a justification for their presence in certain segregated spaces. Contemporary domestic workers look nothing like this. At all. In fact, at one time household laborers protested the uniform requirement. It was sort of like capitalism’s version of the scarlet letter.

In my diligence as a researcher I scoured the internet and did figure out her name. But she has no other acting credits. I really wanted to know who she was. This dissertation research and work with activists and advocates has me wanting to put a name and a story to all domestic workers (real or fictional).

I used to relish in the examination of symbolism as an undergraduate english major. Now it has become a  major pain in my ass. The symbol or idea of the domestic worker is probably one of the most powerful images in the American imagination. I think its this that continues to render domestic work invisible.

For those of us who live in urban centers, like New York, we see domestic workers all the time on public transportation or in parks, etc. But we don’t *see* them. There is this image of these women fixed in our brains that comes with 200+ years of shit. It feels like a brick wall that I have to bang my head against just to talk about something as mundane as the actual labor process that domestic workers encounter. Its so frustrating.

So when the ghost of Hattie McDaniel appeared on my screen I just wanted to scream: GO AWAY! And not to Hattie. I love Hattie. But to mammy. And on a black show no less! Ugh!

I wasn’t going to write about this but when I woke up this morning still thinking about it I decided it belonged here on the cutting room floor.